If you’re a fan of surprises, you’ll love IgoUgo Editor Michelle Doucette’s new favorite city. She found a (very) southern spot where the fanciest food is the simplest, the most futuristic museum celebrates history, and urbanity is synonymous with abundant wildlife.
Windy Wellington: the nickname makes New Zealand’s capital—the only one in the world located within the blustery Roaring Forties lines of latitude—sound like a tough town to love. And the building that dominates its postcards, Parliament’s 1980s-era Beehive, seems to further the notion that this city, like its weather and bureaucrats, may very well sting.
Happily, the real Wellington is nothing like the bleak imagery of these symbols, and it took all of two seconds for the North Island’s windy city to knock me over (figuratively, despite the gusts). Because love is blind, I was promptly convinced that the wind was merely there to whip up some surf for my harbor photographs and gently propel me as I cut a mad path across the city. With only 2 days for my visit, it would be (appropriately enough) a whirlwind romance, so I had to hit the ground running. And in a place that prides itself on having more restaurants, bars, and cafés per capita than New York City, what better way to dive into local culture than with a full-contact foray into food?
My fellow travelers and I kicked off our Zest Food Tour with lunch at top Wellington restaurant Logan Brown on bustling Cuba St. There, our charming guide, Catherine, led us through a three-course meal with wine pairings and a chat with chef-owner-TV star Alister Brown. The paua (abalone) ravioli with kumara (sweet potato), harissa-crusted lamb, and lemon panna cotta made it obvious why Wellingtonians are crazy for Logan Brown—but the feast was just a starter on this afternoon.
Zest’s founders say they began designing food and wine tours “because the best way to discover any place is through its food.” This is, coincidentally, my own philosophy, and Zest reminded me why as we ate and drank our way though foodie havens Moore Wilson Fresh, Mojo Coffee Cartel, and Meat on Tory. Catherine pointed out city landmarks along the way and introduced us to the owners of each specialty store, and at the end, our group of newly minted gourmands toasted the tour with cups of just-melted hot chocolate—and a blind taste test—at philosophic sweet shop Schoc.
Hot chocolate isn’t the only way to wash down New Zealand’s insanely fresh cuisine. While there’s an international buzz surrounding New Zealand’s wine industry, the country is also home to a burgeoning boutique beer scene. So we signed up for a Wild About Wellington beer-tasting tour, doing the after-dark version of drinking and eating our way around town. Wild’s beer commentator, Neil, is a passionate guide, lacking only—like everything else in the city—pretension. He ably led us through three top after-work spots and many more glasses of top-notch craft beer.
As much as Wellington’s urban array of dining choices thrilled me after the few days I’d spent in the countryside, its stature as New Zealand’s hub of arts and culture was even more satisfying. Chief among my less culinary delights was the capital’s modern-classic national museum, Te Papa Tongarewa. The striking waterfront building is home to six floors—and hundreds of years—of social and natural history, art exhibits, and interactive exploration. The museum is free to enter and encompasses the widest range of topics I’ve seen under one roof—and does each one well.
Besides a thriving café culture and famous gallery scene, another thing Wellington boasts more of than New York is penguins. And tuis (the birds, not the beer), wetas (the world’s heaviest insects), and tuataras (lizards that predate the dinosaurs). Kiwi birds too, although not having actually encountered any of the nocturnal little guys while I was there, I’m beginning to question how well they’ve staved off extinction. In any case, a trip to Wellington would be incomplete without having a look at the wildlife that distinguishes isolated New Zealand from the rest of the world, as its capital boasts some of the country’s finest conservation work.
Before my trip to New Zealand, any ornithological knowledge I had began and ended with Jazz and Patty, my beloved childhood parakeets. Actually, I doubt I was even head over heels for them: more minimal than my knowledge of birds was my interest in birds. But Matt at the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary had a way of talking about—and chatting with—birds that quickly changed that. The sanctuary, just minutes from Wellington’s city center in the university neighborhood Kelburn, is a unique predator-free zone that’s being populated exclusively with flora and fauna native to New Zealand; when it’s done (which is expected to take 500 years, give or take), the sanctuary will reflect New Zealand’s original, natural state. For example, mammals are completely absent from the sanctuary’s 556 acres because none are indigenous to New Zealand.
Five centuries before deadline, I can report that the sanctuary is flourishing. We enjoyed close calls with some of the birdlife when Matt beckoned different species right to him and when we came upon one of the conservationists banding a newborn chick. Karori’s forest is a magical place to explore pre-human New Zealand blocks away from the bustle of humanity.
Wellington is, in fact, ringed with escapes, and it was in these spots, rather than the world-class shops of Lambton Quay or the pubs of Courtenay Place, that I felt the heart of the city. From Wellington’s waterfront, we headed east on Oriental Parade and continued on through Evans Bay, Scorching Bay, Seatoun, and Breaker Bay. Lined on one side by houses with cotton-candy stained-glass windows, artists’ studios, and one-off businesses like the Chocolate Fish Café (favored by the Lord of the Rings cast and crew; no way was I going to get through a Wellington postcard without a Peter Jackson reference) and on the other by sea, surfers, and penguin crossings, the route is one of the most gorgeous I’ve ever taken—urban or remote.
A quotation from the late Kiwi poet Lauris Edmond on Wellington Harbour’s Writers Walk reads:
It’s true you can’t live here by chance,
You have to do and be, not simply watch
Or even describe. This is the city of action,
The world headquarters of the verb.
You can’t help but notice Wellington’s enchanting ability to make good things happen. Maybe it’s the cinematic beauty—the place inspired an entire Wellywood film industry, after all—but something about the city creates a perfect storm of culture and nature, with people embracing and acting on both. All this doing makes for a dynamic destination where you won’t mind at all that even the wind can’t stand still.