Wellington is still country’s ‘coolest harbour metropolis’
One-time Wellingtonian and now Napier resident revisits the capital for a whirlwind circuit of some of its newer restaurants and tourist hotspots.
‘Windy Wellington’ wasn’t windy. Surprisingly we’d flown from a wet Napier to a calm, dry capital.
That was the first myth debunked as I stepped on to the tarmac for a 48-hour whistle stop tour of some of Wellington’s urbane new eateries and not so new attractions.
One of the less vaunted tourist stops in Wellington, if you’re flying, is in fact the airport.
There’s little doubt this is the best we have. I’d been in Auckland the week prior and suffice to say there’s an awkward contrast.
Compare Auckland’s draughty gates and bottle-necked pedestrian corridors to the way Wellington Airport flows and breathes.
Its emphasis on art and culture elevates it to something much more than just a busy gateway.
Within 30 seconds’ taxi drive we passed a hand-written billboard: “Welcome to nuclear free Wellington”. I wondered which of this country’s cities were nuclear?
Either way, we were in the country’s political hotbed.
After checking in to the Grand Mercure hotel in residential Te Aro, we addressed our hunger at the suburb’s Egmont St Eatery.
The joint was a former carpark rendered an industrial bunker-like premises, a notch below-ground but with a great vista of scores of pedestrians.
Service was a highlight, with a front of house personality that talked up the kitchen’s rustic fare from neighbouring Wairarapa, where much of its wine and raw product is sourced.
Still, my sliced ribeye with sprouted broccoli and fried egg was mildly disappointing — the diavola butter was on the bitter side of the spice-scale and fleeced the beef of its sweetness.
However, the made-on-site salted caramel doughnuts put paid to that.
A few pounds heavier we trudged to Te Papa for a guided tour with a tall chap called Norrie.
It dawned on me that I’d never been to the national museum without children. This was a new frontier because, as any parent will attest, the highlight of a Te Papa visit with kids is leaving.
Norrie knew the kaupapa, so much so that as a New Zealand native one left feeling previously ignorant of facts about our nation one should have known anyway.
For instance, did you know New Zealand is strictly a continent?
This chap was a smart and theatrical guide, well able to pick and articulate the best bits from our collective collectibles.
Keeping with the Kiwi tradition we popped in to Ghuznee St’s craft brewery Husk. A cloudy and balanced IPA aptly dubbed City on the Wind went down easily.
This enticing block boasts a raft of hops pundits and a brewery on almost every corner. After a brief siesta at our hotel we headed to the informal eatery Shepherd, on Hannahs Laneway.
The trick was to find it. This bricked lane is a labyrinth of alleys and hidden eateries. Luckily, being a Friday night the after work-revellers in nearby bars were happy to point us in the right direction.
Shepherd was great. While the next courses of eel and octopus were outstanding, you simply don’t get any better than a raw oyster in its shell. A culinary lesson therein, methinks.
The more we became accustomed to the wider Cuba Quarter and character of the hidden gems like the Laneway and Egmont and Eva Sts adjacent to Courtenay Place, the more we liked it.
This place and its niche businesses are Wellington’s latest understated bolters.
The Laneway is aptly dubbed “Little Portland” for its culinary confluence of bakers, roasters, grinders, brewers, chocolatiers, pizza slingers and soda makers who shape a destination for what was a former industrial quarter.
Public art, murals and plantings have made it a territory in its own right.
Highlights included peanut butter legends Fix & Fogg who peddle their spread from “the world’s only peanut butter window”.
I wasn’t expecting to spend my days off scoffing peanut butter from a jar, but this was a nostalgic exercise because with peanut butter coating every surface of my mouth I felt five again.
Their coffee and maple flavour was bliss.
A tour of the nearby Wellington Chocolate Factory was a nicely told story of the company’s “bean to bar” philosophy, and how chocolate is perfect in its natural simplicity.
Flavour profiles were uncovered, with words I’d never associated with chocolate like “crack, winnow, conch and temper”.
The chocolatier’s Craft Beer Bar was noteworthy because within the nearby precinct there are craft brewers making beer with chocolate notes, peanut butter makers incorporating coffee into their product and said chocolate maker producing chocolate with beer flavours.
It summed up the synergy between them. Staff at each place we ventured into suggested visiting other joints in the area. It was a lovely village-like collegiality.
A quick stop at Taranaki St’s Mr Go’s hawker-themed pork bao buns added a welcome fragrance to balance the choc, peanut butter and coffee-heavy morning.
About midday it started to rain — and didn’t stop — ahead of our two-hour twilight walk through Zealandia eco-attraction in Karori.
I’m not sure why it was staged at twilight. Possibly because the late window captures an evening chorus.
Physically the sanctuary resembles Jurassic Park with huge predator- proof fences, rare animals and misty, verdant foliage.
The guided trek included botany as well as birds, and culminated in the sighting of tuatara and a little spotted kiwi.
Our guide said for most of us it was probably the first time we’d seen a kiwi “in the wild”. But was it in the wild if it’s a gated sanctuary with feed-stations?
Either way, our guide was full of facts on all things flora and fauna.
We were late to our 8.30pm dinner reservation at Rita. And, cue the weekend’s highlight.
This historic Aro Valley cottage boasts a quaint single room that diners share elbow to elbow. Guests on your table’s east and west flanks become part of the conversation — but we acclimatised quickly.
I’m not sure how to describe the simple but elegant food (in that sense it echoed the premises).
Broadbean pods in light tempura with saffron aoili, thin pork-belly slices atop fennel, ravioli encased runny egg (how do they do that?) and, by far and away my best meal of the weekend, crispskin snapper cooked as Tangaroa intended in a leafy-green broth.
Outstandingly good. I adore meals that require a chew and slurp.
We were greeted at the door — and farewelled at the door hours later. This was first-class hosting. We felt as if we’d visited a friend for tea. The total experience was a triumph of tone.
Our final stop the next day was Weta Studio in Miramar.
The film industry motif is a appreciable thread that runs through the capital so it was only fitting we stopped at the attraction.
I was surprised at the size of the crowd. The guide said the studio tours attracted “twice as many visitors as Wellington Zoo”.
The highlight was a brief address by legendary effects wizard Warren Beaton. He said the business wasn’t just about technological advances in creativity, but about old-fashioned manual techniques.
In his words, Weta had facilitated a resurgence of the craft and had become “a haven for the lost art of sculpture”.
In many ways, Beaton was Weta’s “Doc” Brown of Back to the Future fame — passionate in the extreme and a perfect frontman for the industry.
Anyway, au revoir Wellington. You seem to shift from strength to strength at each visit and mix your antique charm with contemporary boutique. You’re still the coolest harbour metropolis in the country.
Notorious poet and drunk Denis Glover is one of many writers published on Wellington Harbour.
Wellington Chocolate Factory’s tours are educational and moreish.Rita restaurant (right) in Aro Valley is a foodie must-visit, writes Mark Story.
Fix & Fogg is an artisan peanut butter maker selling from a small window in downtown Wellington.