I wonder if there are other major cities in the world with the unofficial slogan “you can’t beat it on a good day.” Because Wellington is not alone in being beautiful when the weather is nice, just think of northern rival Auckland along Tamaki Drive with the sparkles of the harbour and the peaks of Rangitoto Island and North Head. Then there’s New York on a good day, San Francisco on a good day, Singapore on a good day, Sydney on a good day, Paris on a good day, Venice on a good day, Vancouver on a good day, Capetown on a good day etc etc.
All stunning cities and yes indeed, all attractive on a good day. And yet from what I can gather, Wellington seems to have sole ownership of being unbeatable on a good day. Which when push comes to shove means what we all know it to mean: not inconsiderable implications there aren’t that many good days.
But it also has to mean something else altogether: Wellington’s harbour, its tree-blanketed hills and its compact (and architecturally impressive) CBD really do make it uniquely splendid when the weather is right.
Touching down at Wellington’s international airport a couple of weeks ago on the last day of Spring, it was blessedly one of those “unbeatable” days: clear skies, warm temperatures and for what is said to be the windiest capital city on the planet, barely a breeze.
Checking into a 5-star boutique premises on Oriental Parade at what is now acclaimed as Wellington’s premier small hotel – The Ohtel – and my balcony view confirmed the great Wellington cliche. You know it’s hackneyed but the first thing that springs to mind when overlooking the gorgeously laid out CBD is, “Wow, you really can’t beat Wellington on a good day!”
If it is one of those unbeatable days, a walk along Oriental Parade reveals arguably the best urban beach in the country. Certainly the combination of high-rise apartments you actually want to live in + established trees + white sand is not equalled on any other New Zealand city beach.
My best weather day (out of three) in Wellington saw me snap some jealous-making Oriental Parade shots before getting in the car and driving to the Brooklyn Wind Turbine. The sort of place you may still need to wrap up warm in the height of summer, this late November day had me comfortably in shorts and T-shirt against the giant turbines that non-Wellingtonians would recognise from the Jeremy Wells / Meridian Energy TV commercials. At nearly 300m above sea level, the views to the city and harbour were great and there was almost a Hollywood Hills feel to the the dry, short-vegetationed landscape.
From the hills it was next to the valley – Happy Valley to be precise. Reportedly not that happy a valley as far as socio-economics go, but home to one of the more wonderfully unusual mini-golf courses in the country. Carlucciland is evidently a one man labour of love for a chap named Carl who’s created a fantasyland for scrap-metal enthusiasts. Thoroughly eccentric, the place operates on an honesty-box system and is dotted with rusty steel sculptures and golf holes that recall the mad scientist breakfast-delivery contraptions of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Back To The Future.
You can pay to play the golf or a lesser fee just to stroll amidst the holes and sculptures of steel elephants and dinosaurs and abandoned machines like tractors. I dropped my money in the box but also grabbed a golf ball (minus the club) to see it roll down the various planks and spiraling tubes without actually having to play a full round. Whether golfing or not, I can’t think of a more fun mini golf course in New Zealand.
Seizing the (unbeatable) day I then drove to Owhiro Bay to see a very Scottish-looking scene of dramatic rocky mountains sloping almost all the way down to the sea. Then it was back inland, but this time to see a side of Wellington most visitors miss and probably don’t connect with the city: lush, urban rainforest.
Like the Percy Scenic Reserve in Lower Hutt I’d visit the next day, Otari-Wilton’s Bush (105 hectares, in the suburb of Wilton) reveals an almost subtropical aspect of a city that isn’t traditionally associated with that word. But here I was, in a highly urbanised city and dwarfed by oversized ferns and some of New Zealand’s oldest native trees. Definitely recommended if you’re like me and enjoy the incongruity of dense tracts of bush within city limits.
On days two and three the weather turned, but so too did the activities from the outdoor to the indoor. I made a beeline for the Beehive and watched Parliament from the public gallery for half an hour or so and felt oddly patriotic about the whole thing.
|The unexpected lushness of the Percy Scenic Reserve, Lower Hutt.
Not because neck hairs stood up over inspiring speeches (they weren’t close to being threatened), but more for the fact New Zealand is a country where the public are freely allowed to sit-in on the political process. Not every citizen of the world gets to waltz into their parliament and hear their representatives bicker first hand. And then there’s the beauty of the buildings – they really are appropriately reverential for what we’d hope our politicians to be. Totally worth it, even if 30 minutes was ample.
Leaving Parliament, next on the itinerary was what used to be the National Museum before Te Papa officially opened in 1998. For years relegated for use as a university classrooms, the grand buildings of the Dominion Museum now house what’s called The Great War Exhibition. Marking 100 years since the horrors of World War One where New Zealand lost more than 18,000 troops, the Peter Jackson-created displays (including life-size horses, airplanes, wax-works and miniature trench-warfare recreations) are extraordinary.
Zooming in on my camera, the expansive miniatures evoked the diabolical reality of war in bloody detail. Incredible craftsmanship, incredibly sobering. Over at Te Papa the next morning and miniatures were again used, though the main focus of this Gallipoli / WW1 exhibit is undoubtedly at the other end of the size spectrum with eight quite staggering giant wax works. Created by Weta Workshop over the course of 24,000 hours, these are wax human figurines unlike anything the world has previously seen. As in, the giants (at a scale of 2.4 times human size) are precise recreations of actual people who experienced World War One. They are so lifelike, so exactly in proportion and so detailed you can not only see emotional anguish but even pores in the skin.
|One of the miniatures showing trench warfare.
The concept of gigantic human wax-works is so simple but so devastating in impact. Crowds of people just stop, beholden by the figures of soldiers, nurses and the dying. And 100 years on have we really learned the right lessons?
On my final Wellington hour before cabbing it to the airport I walked the streets of the CBD, admired beautiful buildings both old and new and hatched plans to find a billionaire to help me convert the Hotel St George from a backpackers into something a little more 5-star. It is central city, is architecturally imposing (1930s Art-Deco), has private balconies, possesses pop-royalty history (the Beatles stayed here in 1964 and famously waved to the crowds below from their balcony) and we’re wasting it on students and Euro kids on gap years!
Speaking of 5-star, my address for two nights – The Ohtel – really is worth raving about. Just 10 rooms (each different), the less than a decade-old Ohtel is decked out entirely in mid-20th century furnishings and was set-up by a Kiwi who’d found inspiration visiting a friend in New York. Wanting to establish a bit of Big Apple chic in his hometown, manager Alan Blundell found an old villa on Oriental Parade right across the road from Te Papa.
The villa was trucked north to Masterton and Blundell set about designing and building his dream boutique hotel. He didn’t want a generic big hotel feel, nor even generic hotel furniture. Two years of self-confessed “lurking” around secondhand shops saw Blundell gather enough genuine artworks and pieces of furniture to get the feel he wanted. Turns out those 50s and 60s couches and chairs Granny had would one day come around to being very cool again.
The Ohtel also has a strong eco ethos (solar hot water, double glazing, extensive recycling etc) and as far as its location goes, well given this is Wellington lets just say it’s hard to beat. You are close to everything you’d need in a CBD bursting with atmospheric restaurants, cafes, theatres and museums while also being right on the doorstep of Oriental Parade’s beach. For more please visit www.ohtel.com and have fun if you ever do stay there. Feel free to mention me too. No discount or anything, but hey! Enjoy the photos of my action-packed, incredibly fun three days in Wellington – these are my top 50: