This is part 5 in a series about my November 2016 trip to New Zealand, booked off a $215 mistake fare.
Wellington bills itself as “the coolest little capital in the world.” Although the urban area has a population of 400,000, it feels a lot smaller. The feel to me was like a smaller San Francisco or Vancouver. The whole downtown is very walkable, and it is extremely safe. Consistently ranked one of the world’s most livable cities, it’s easy to see why. I had gotten different advice on how much of my time to spend in Wellington, but I knew the first day wouldn’t be very full, so I decided on 3 days, which was a good amount, though I could have done longer if I ventured farther outside the city.
I resisted the urge to go right to sleep upon checking into my hotel. The Intercontinental is right on the waterfront, and it was a beautiful day – sunny in the mid-60s — so I wandered in that direction. One thing that I loved that afternoon was seeing so many people out on what seemed to be lunch or afternoon breaks, sitting on the many plazas and reading or chatting or taking a coffee. The weather in Wellington stayed beautiful my whole time there, so I was really fortunate.
Right across from the Intercontinental is Queen’s Wharf, an interesting waterfront development that failed as a retail hub, but still has a bunch of restaurants and slips for various tourist watersports, as well as an arena. I grabbed lunch at the Crab Shack, a casual seafood place, where I had a “Welly Burger” – i.e., my first of what seemed like 100 meals in New Zealand with chips, and some fried/battered fish. It also came with creamed corn, which was weird, but it was a nice place to sit and watch people running by and start to orient myself.
After lunch, I headed to the Wellington Museum (formally the Museum of Wellington City and Sea), right on the Wharf, which had been recommended to me due to a new steam punk exhibit they had. Unfortunately, the “time machine,” the interactive part of that exhibit, wasn’t working, so it was a relatively short visit. The building itself is actually pretty interesting, as it is the former Maritime Museum, and before that, home to the Harbour Board. There is a good overview of the history of Wellington, and its 150 years as capital of New Zealand. The museum is supposed to be more fully developed over the next few years, so it’s worth stopping by, considering the free entry.
There is a walkway along the waterfront that continues southward towards Te Papa, the national museum, and I meandered in that direction to the Civic Square, an open plaza bounded by Town Hall, the City Gallery, the Library, and the Michael Fowler Centre, a concert hall/convention centre. The walk was just relaxing and it was great to see so many people out and about in the various well-designed public gathering spaces. From there, it was back to the hotel for a nap.
Given the weather was still lovely, I went for a run before dinner, exploring some more of the CBD around the hotel, making my way to the Parliament compound – with its 1960s “Beehive” building holding the executive branch, alongside the neoclassical 1920s Parliament House. As I headed back towards the Intercontinental around 6pm, I realized just how sleepy that part of the CBD becomes at night – a huge change from the hustle and bustle I had seen earlier in the day with shops, banks, offices, etc. Given how safe Wellington is, and the mild weather, it wasn’t a big deal – but something to take note of.
So rather than go to one of the expensive, mostly steakhouse restaurants near the Intercontinental, I headed to Cuba Street, the center of Wellington’s nightlife. It reminded me a bit of the tackier parts of the West Village in New York mixed with the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica. The upper part of the street is a pedestrian-only mall, with low-market food and retail. As you get further south, it has some nicer cafés, bars, and restaurants, including the two gay-ish nightlife establishments in town.Cuba Street also features the infamous “Bucket fountain,” which looks like a nursery school toy – a bunch of primary colored buckets dumping water into each other – and on the surrounding pavement – – day in and out.
Just off Cuba Street was KK, a Malaysian restaurant that had been recommended to me. Wellington has a lot of Malaysian food, and this was a pretty cheap place with a bustling take-out practice, similar to many Chinese places in the States. The small restaurant was packed, and I was seated at the last empty table, a four-top. Shortly after I was seated, the hostess asked if I minded sharing the table with another solo diner, which was fine. It turned out to be one of the most awkward meals of my life, though. I had brought a magazine to read, but since our orders were taken at the same time and we were being treated as a single party, it was like I was on a date. He was certainly age-appropriate and we probably didn’t look weird, but I still hadn’t imagined my first night in New Zealand being spent on a dinner non-date with a straight Air New Zealand pilot from Christchurch on an overnight in Wellington. I did have more to talk to him about, though, than some actual dates I’ve been on. I had a cheap and fine chicken rendang, under $10 for the meal, but my guess is it’s better to go in a group and order a larger sampling from the menu.
Day 2 started out pretty grey, so instead of a morning run, I went to the gym at the Intercontinental. From there I stopped for breakfast and a coffee at Starbucks, where I picked up a gift mug, and then headed to Te Papa, the national museum and one of the biggest sights in Wellington, getting there about 10 minutes before it opened at 10am.
Almost everyone I talked to New Zealand about told me to go to Te Papa, and I definitely recommend it. It basically is a natural history museum, ethnographic museum, and modern history museum in one, with four floors of different exhibits about New Zealand, and two levels of art above. I started on the fourth floor and worked my way down, which mostly allowed me to beat the crowds that were working their way upwards. It was a smart strategy for me because the 4th floor was my favorite, with exhibits on immigration and 20th century New Zealand, including an interesting movie. There were lots of interactive children’s areas, as well as an outdoor “bush walk.” I ended up spending about 90 minutes, though you could spend a lot longer. I didn’t do the bush walk or the art galleries on the top 2 floors, and rushed through the Galipoli exhibit on the main floor because it was too crowded for my taste. It did have, though, some somewhat frightening larger than life sculptures of Kiwi soldiers in battle.
I wanted a good lunch, and had a recommendation for fish and chips at the Wellington Sea Market on the far end of Cuba Street. It was a bit disappointing, as it was basically a fish monger with a greasy spoon diner-type place attached. Fish and chips. Meh. I then walked back to the Intercontinental where I failed at napping.
Wellington has a “cable car” (in quotes because I’d call it a funicular) that rises right from the CBD up a hill above the city, where there is a great lookout over the city, and a walkway through the Botanical Garden that winds its way downhill. I bought a return ticket on the cable car, but actually ended up only using one way, as in the beautiful weather I walked my way down. The flowers weren’t all in bloom yet, given it was early spring, but it was still a nice walk down to the Rose Garden, about halfway down to the main city. There’s a café there, but I just took a few moments to sit and read and enjoy the beautiful day.
From the Rose Garden back to the city, the path goes through the historic and quite pretty Bolton Street Cemetery – itself divided by a freeway. Is it weird to call a cemetery pretty? Oh well. I also stumbled upon some of the city’s oldest Jewish graves, adding some Judaica to my trip. The path let out at the rear of Parliament, where I got some better shots than on my run, then continued back to the Intercontinental.
On my second evening, I headed back towards Cuba Street, where I encountered a large crowd salsa dancing on the street. Random, but fun.
I didn’t have a reservation, but snagged a table at Olive, a fancyish restaurant that was good and probably my best meal in Wellington, but nothing extraordinary. I had a well-cooked piece of fish.
After dinner, I went to Wellington’s one gay bar (or “alternative” bar), S&M’s – Scotty and Mal’s. It was a Friday night, and the crowd was….interesting. I was definitely one of the youngest people there, and there were quite a few characters and it made for good people-watching, but New York, San Francisco, or Sydney it is not. From talking to folks, I gathered that younger gays tend to hit more mixed establishments, and that the only real gay nightlife in New Zealand is in Auckland, which I ended up not exploring as I’ll explain in a few posts. S&M’s did have one of the best wine lists I’ve ever seen at a gay bar, though, which was unsurprising, and also good since I’m not drinking hard alcohol these days. A lot of their drinks were huge fruity fancy cocktails and such. People were perfectly pleasant, though, and I chatted with an Australian and an Indian guy who was living in San Francisco, before walking back to my hotel by midnight.
Saturday was really my last day in Wellington. I thought about going to Martinborough, a town in the Wairarapa wine region with tastings, cafes, and galleries, but the train schedule meant it would have to be a full day trip, which I knew would be too long for me. So instead I decided to go to Days Bay and Eastbourne, a residential area across the harbor and stopped at Matiu/Somes Island, a nature reserve and historic site that lots of people got out at and looked pretty interesting. The ferry ride from Queens Wharf was about 30 minutes, including the stop. The ride was pretty, although I was stuck on it with a large group of American tourists on a cruise excursion, which made it less so. Once in Days Bay, I walked to the town of Eastbourne which was quaint, but even smaller and deader than anticipated. The coolest part was just seeing all the waterfront homes, which reminded me of what I imagined a British coastal village would look like. The restaurant I wanted to go to, Chocolate Dayz Café, an all-day breakfast joint with outdoor seating had no tables every time I walked by, so I ended up at one of the other restaurants in Days Bay, Cobar, which had super-slow service and a mediocre burger. Somehow I got insanely sunburned eating my burger outside – as in peeling for days. So Days Bay/Eastbourne is not a must-see, though it was a perfectly pleasant afternoon.
Unfortunately, the concierge wasn’t able to get me a reservation at Ortega Fish Shack, which was my top choice for my last night – so make your reservation early for a Saturday night. At his suggestion, I went to Matterhorn instead, which was not impressive. Perhaps I ordered poorly, but the appetizer of kale, egg, and polenta tasted burnt and otherwise noncohesive, and I hadn’t realized the rabbit I ordered would be a deep-fried pate, which was gross. Also, they had Coke, but no Diet Coke or Coke Zero, which is unacceptable!!
One reason it apparently was hard to get a reservation was because it was Guy Fawkes’ Day, and there were fireworks over the Harbor at 9. After dinner, I walked back to my hotel since my room had a great view of them, though they were a bit disappointing and only lasted 10 minutes.
I went back to S&M’s where I met up with the Australian, as well as some Canadians. Saturday night was definitely more crowded, but the crowd was just as motley. Later in the evening, a downstairs area opened up which filled up with what seemed like early 20s guys and girls, dancing awkwardly to 80s and 90s music. Not my scene. The group of us then made our way to Ivy Bar and Cabaret, which seemed to be a hipper place, but that was mostly just the décor – not the crowd (though it was a higher gay percentage and younger than the upstairs at S&Ms) or their dancing. I didn’t last that long since I was sober, and potentially had an early flight the next morning (explained in the next post). I did get approached by a drug dealer though. Still got it?
In all, I highly recommend spending a few days in Wellington on a trip to New Zealand. It’s just really pleasant and low-key, with some interesting things to see, and a good place to rest for a few days before going on a driving adventure. Next time, though, I hope to find better food! Unfortunately, literally the day after I left New Zealand, an earthquake centered in the northern part of the South Island struck, and several buildings and streets in Wellington were destroyed and/or remain unsafe and need to be rebuilt. Aftershocks continue, and there will be a significant rebuilding effort once things stabilize. Several buildings remain closed as of today, so if you’re planning on visiting Wellington, prepare. (The damage was worse in parts of the South Island I didn’t visit, though Christchurch felt it as well.) Thankfully, the loss of life was fairly minimal compared to previous quakes of this magnitude.