If Melbourne and Boston had a small, windy love child, it might look a bit like Wellington.
Politicians, artists, musicians and university students make up a large percentage of the population of what Lonely Planet refers to as "the coolest little capital in the world." Perhaps this is the reason progressive thinking seems to be the norm here. A horseshoe-shaped downtown area with the fine scent of espresso wafting from what seems like every corner wraps around the sparkling Lambton Harbour, filled with sailboats, kayaks and pedal boats. Oriental Parade on the waterfront is where fit Kiwis stay that way—it's bustling with joggers, walkers and cyclists even on rainy days. Mount Victoria is at the southern end of the CBD (central business district) and there are several forested walking tracks to its summit offering expansive views over the city and Oriental Bay.
Mountain biking trails in the hinterland, the beautiful beaches of the Kapiti Coast, and the boutique vineyards of Martinborough are all within an hour from Wellington. There are plenty of locavore-friendly Wellington restaurants serving Martinborough wines and Kapiti cheeses. Wellington may sometimes be climactically-challenged, but somehow that's part of its charm.
Spend a weekend getting lost in the convoluted mishmash of one-way streets downtown, get caught in a rain shower that forces you to grab an afternoon beer, and enjoy this intelligent, hip, quirky capital. Coolest? You be the judge.
Check into your room at The Bolton Hotel on the corner of (you guessed it) Bolton Street and Mowbray Street. A Qualmark Enviro-Gold Award winner (one of the first in the country) as well as a Qualmark five-star boutique hotel, the Bolton has an admirable "Be Green Policy" including ethical purchasing practices (fair trade, free-range and organic whenever possible), recycling stations throughout the hotel’s departments and within guest rooms, energy efficient light bulbs throughout the property, and dual flush toilets. Guest participation is encouraged both by the recycling program and gentle suggestions like reusing towels and linens. The hotel is just around the corner from the iconic "Beehive" (the epicenter of New Zealand political power) and other parliamentary buildings, as well as a short walk via Featherston Street to the Intercity bus and train stations.
With more restaurants per capita than New York, you won't be at a loss for dinner choices. Fulfilling requirements on freshness, flavor, vegetarian options and locally grown, responsibly-sourced ingredients narrows the spectrum some, and La Boca Loca on Park Road earns every mark with style.
Choose the Memela con Hongos as a starter, a lightly crisped corn cake topped with savory black beans, sauteed mushrooms, chili, and coriander cream and the roasted pumpkin and goat cheese enfrijoladas with lime aioli as a veggie main. For omnivores, the crispy pork shoulder in the carnitas with habanero and salsa verde is free-range and all the fish on the menu is line-caught and sustainable. If you have room for dessert the Flan de Coco with toasted coconut and hibiscus coulis is exceptional. Courtenay Place is the nightlife center of Wellington; head to The Library for an après dinner libation if you still have some energy.
A sunny day (hopefully) beckons but your bed is also persuasive so you decide to compromise by ordering breakfast in bed from Artisan, the Bolton's farm-to-table restaurant from the iPad with a room service app in your room. Fueled by a free-range eggs benedict and espresso you pick up a bike at On Yer Bike on Vivian near Cuba Street or Fergs on the waterfront and hit the Hutt River Trail, which stretches 40km from Kaitoke in the Tararua Ranges all the way to Wellington Harbour at Hikoikoi Reserve in Petone.
Spend the morning enjoying a relaxed pedal that follows the river (on predominantly flat terrain) stopping by the Saturday morning market in the Hutt River car park for some fresh fruit or a fresh-baked treat. From the top of the ridgeline in Belmont Regional Park between Hutt Valley and Porirua, if the sky is cooperating, you can look straight out at the Marlborough Sounds on the South Island. If you're more into paddling than peddling, renting a kayak at Queens Wharf and paddling the calm harbour to Days Bay makes a lovely morning and affords a different view of the colorful harbour front from a floating perspective.
For lunch grab a quick but deliciously nourishing falafel from Phoenician Falafel on Kent Terrace. Then hop on the Wellington Cable Car on Lambton Quay up past Kelburn and its glass-fronted mansions clinging precipitously to the hillside to Wellington's botanic gardens. The gardens themselves are pretty but nothing spectacular, but the cable car is a cool experience in its own right and the views over the city and Lambton Harbour are striking.
There is also a free shuttle from the top of the cable car to the Zealandia Wildlife Sanctuary in Karori, a 225 hectare preserve with over 30km of walking tracks protected by a predator-proof fence. The unique exhibition here does a fascinating job of explaining how this impressive conservation project began and came to its fruition. You can see some of the country's rarest reptiles, birds, and insects in their natural habitat here, from hihi (stitchbird) and saddleback to weta (endemic flightless insect) and kiwi.
After a shower and some down time back at The Bolton, head to the waterfront for a pint and some entertaining people-watching at Karaka Cafe in Queens Wharf. Grab a beanbag chair in a sunny spot on the grass and take in the view of the Whairepo Lagoon, Te Waka Pou Bridge and cute university students vying for one another's attention. When the weather is good the cafe gets packed, so take advantage of the long summer evenings and your prime vantage point and consider lingering over an appetizer. The Maori-styled interior is worth checking out as well.
For dinner treat yourself to the five-course degustation menu at highly touted Logan Brown on Cuba Street for compelling flavors undisguised by fussy presentation—the current menu includes a paua (abalone) ravioli appetizer with a basil lime beurre blanc. Metro Magazine described the cuisine by saying "excellence not snobbery gives Logan Brown its class," and that class extends to the conscientious sustainability policy the restaurant employs. Logan Brown's commitment to composting, fair-trade, free-range, recycling, and vegan options earned them an Enviro Gold certification from Qualmark. The restaurant also sources line-caught local fish and supports The Last Ocean, a project to create a marine reserve in the Ross Sea in Antarctica.
You open your eyes to torrential rain lashing at your window pane, giving the cityscape a dreamy, watercolor quality. Not to despair, as precipitation is not uncommon in this town, and the locals know just how to pass a rainy Sunday. Satisfy your rumbling belly with one of the poached egg specialties at excellent organic cafe The Flight Coffee Hangar at 171 Willis. The vegetarian option comes with harissa and avocado smashed on organic whole grain sourdough, feta, and a drizzle of Manuka honey or answer an omega-3 craving with a seared salmon filet, beet hummus and lemon-infused olive oil. Feeling energetic? Head to Fergs in Queens Wharf and try out the awesome routes in their indoor climbing gym or work on some bouldering problems. The mood is convivial and it's a fun place to meet like-minded outdoorsy types and break a sweat while you socialize.
Regretting your third glass of Martinborough pinot noir last night? Maybe more of a relaxed activity is in order. Open an umbrella and do a whistle stop tour of Wellington's three Sunday markets—Harbourside Market on Wakefield, the Farmers Market at the corner of Victoria and Vivian, and the food truck-populated City Market at 1 Herd Street. Just up the road from the Harbourside Market, the museum Te Papa Tongarewa (meaning “treasure box” and usually just referred to as “Te Papa”) has six stories of interesting Kiwiana to peruse. With free entry 365 days a year, it's a fun place to spend a few hours wandering the sometimes high tech, often interactive exhibitions. An interpretation of a Maori marae (gathering place) is a highlight.
When lunchtime rolls around head to Ti Kouka Cafe on Willis Street. Owners (and brothers) Jesse and Shep share a passion for local, sustainable, organic food that shines in their fresh, healthy, tasty cuisine. Their eggs, pork and chicken are all free-range and organic, and they offer some wonderful vegan options as well like the hearty roasted spring vegetable salad with lentils, barley, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, almonds and mixed organic greens. If some carbs sound appealing, the potato and olive gnocchi with oyster mushrooms, hazelnuts, and arugula pesto is as good as it sounds. Finish your meal (and your weekend) with Jesse's perfectly executed flat whites and daydream schemes to return to this fun, forward-thinking capital.
Ins and Outs
Wellington is located at the very bottom of New Zealand's North Island about 650km south of Auckland. The drive is just under eight hours or a great option is a scenic train ride with Rail New Zealand (11-12 hours, easily broken up into a few segments). Summer here is December through February with warm (long!) sunny days and cool nights. Winter can be a great time to visit as well, with lots of fun food, beer, and festivals like Matariki celebrating the Maori new year in June and Beervana celebrating, well, beer, in August. Toast Martinborough in November (spring) is an excellent time to be in the surrounding vineyards.
Julia Reynolds is a travel writer, adventure enthusiast, and serial nomad living (mostly) in the Hawaiian islands. She is currently on a one-year trip around the world, avoiding air travel when possible and traveling slowly over land and sea. Some of her best travel experiences to date have been kayaking the Napali Coast of Kaua'i, diving the isolated atolls of Belize, and rock climbing in the Krabi region of Thailand. Her worst travel experiences have been getting robbed in Guatemala, breaking her back in Thailand, and breaking multiple bones in a mountain bike accident in Alaska. She still loves the places where the worst experiences occurred.