5 Days, 4 Nights In Wellington

I like Wellington, I think it’s the waterfront that grabs me the most. Whenever I’m in there I always make a point of having at least one wander along and around the harbour area. You see, I always find myself feeling a little bit jealous that Dunedin hasn’t made the most of its own harbour area. They say you can’t beat Wellington on a good day, and this certainly is true. When the weather is fine, and the wind is calm it’s one of my favourite places to amble. There’s always a pop-up store or two to enjoy, various markets and a wide variety of funky art installations to capture the imagination. Of all the art installations, my personal favorite is Max Patte’s statute ‘Solace In The Wind’.

Only in Wellington could you get away with a sculpture of a naked man leaning over the water. A statue such as this would never work in Auckland for example because everyone would forget it was there, it wouldn’t get earthquake rebuilding approval in Christchurch, there aren’t enough people in Invercargill to see it and Dunedinites would either complain about it, blame it on Mayor Aaron Hawkins or constantly use it to hang orange road cones on. Yes, if there’s an ideal city in New Zealand to put a statute of a naked man leaning into the wind, it’s Wellington.

This sudden interest in Wellington had come about when I had found myself with a few days to spare and decided to fill the time by visiting my daughter who was now living with her boyfriend in the capital city. At the time of her move, I’d suggested that the Bay of Islands might be a nice location for her to settle down however she quickly pointed out to me that the purpose was to move closer to her boyfriend, and my personal preference for having a nice holiday destination wasn’t a deciding factor in her decision. 

Once in Wellington, I was going to have a number of days to fill. Having been to the Capital before I was interested in what attractions and delights could be discovered that I wasn’t aware of. With this in mind, I decided to find out what the internet tells non-Wellingtonians like myself about the city. With a mind for adventure, I opened up Google, typed in the word Wellington and hit search. After several minutes I found my scrolling through endless Cable Car images and a number of lists stating top things to see and do. The first few sites gave me an extensive list of places to eat and drink, one site listed Lord Of The Rings attractions while a third told me to visit Picton. 

Unless I’m wrong, it seemed like I was being told to watch Lord Of The Rings, get pissed and leave the city!

My journey to Wellington began in earnest at Dunedin Airport. As far as airports go, Dunedin’s is truly unique in that it must surely be one of the only airports in the world to own its own dairy farm. This means that visitors are greeted with the ever-intoxicating aroma of cow-dung while struggling with their luggage in the car park. It is truly an international airport with a beautiful mix of urban and rural life.

Upon arrival at the airport and after a surprisingly easy check-in, I explored the airport for a bit. I spent some time enjoying an exhibition by Dunedin Artist Sam Foley and a pop up Art Poster shop before wandering around the small book shop. After navigating my way through Airport it wasn’t long before I found myself sitting in seat 15A on Air New Zealand flight NZ682 to Wellington while sending a text that read “Wellington I come!”

* * * *

It all started with a noise that didn’t sound quite right. Clearly this is not something you want to be thinking having just taken off on an A320 Airbus heading to 30,000 feet. The next thing that happen was the captain and cabin crew informed us that there was a problem with the landing gear and our flight to Wellington would be making an unscheduled stop in Christchurch. As I sat there watching the coast and listening to a plane that seemed to be rattling more than a car I once owned, two thoughts crossed my mind. Firstly, it was moments like this that you wish Harrison Ford or Bruce Willis are on the plane. Secondly, having watched Mayday, I was confident I knew what to do.

The chaos all started with a series of announcements right on midday. All of them simple enough but when strung together created bedlam for a good hour at the Air New Zealand domestic check-in desk. The first announcement came as the plane parked outside the terminal in Christchurch. Hoping it would be a short stop I was relatively pleased to hear that we would be transferred to a waiting plane, our luggage transferred and all we would have to do is wait for a boarding call. Clearly this meant I would have a few minutes to spare, so like a few other passengers I went in search of coffee. Clutching my beverage, I spent the time in Relay’s Bookstore looking over the Top 50 reads. The No 1 ranked book was The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck however oddly it was also ranked as No 14. Another book titled Everything Is F*cked also had a double ranking of both 2 and 16. Similar titles were also placed at 3 and 5, 6 and 15, 9 and 20 while most of the numbers from 30 to 50 were empty. I wasn’t quite sure if these placings reflected the quality of the books or an employee’s incompetence when suddenly the next announcement was made.

Over the loud speaker all the other passengers and myself were told that our flight to Wellington had now been cancelled and we would all have to collect our luggage and rebook. This started a stampede of passengers that is rarely seen. In an instant arms and legs went flying as people headed for the check-in desk. Carry on baggage was flung over shoulders, battle plans were made as families split up to collect luggage, while others blocked the escalator looking for loved ones. Having made it to the bottom of the stairs I was pleased to find myself near the front of the pack. I collected my luggage in record time and headed for the appointed counter at the far end of the terminal. Now I don’t want to brag but upon arrival I joined a queue of people that only had two people in front of me. Feeling chuffed with my bronze medal effort I happily waited secure in the knowledge that I would soon be back in the air and off once more to Wellington.

Then, the third announcement came. We were now told to head over to the domestic check-in desk. I turned and looked in horror as my third place in the queue had now slipped to somewhere in the 50’s!  Annoyed, I joined the line. The fourth announcement informed me that those travellers who had the Air NZ App would be automatically rebooked and now didn’t have to queue at all! Still feeling somewhat annoyed, I left the line and waited for my update. I waited and waited and waited. Half an hour later, no update had come through.

I head back to the Air NZ counter, making my way past all manner of travelers to inquire about my automatic rebooking. I approached an Air NZ staff member and proceeded to tell my story to which she informed me that I’d have to re-join the line. It was somewhere between the words ‘re-join and line’ that my expression changed. This line that I was once third in, snaked off into the distance down the terminal. Feeling sorry for me, she took my details and after much typing printed out a boarding pass. My hopes of being back in the air quickly had well and truly disappeared. I was now going to spend the next 8 hours watching people board flights to Wellington as my new flight was scheduled to board 19:50. I was left feeling somewhat dumb stuck while trying hard to look like I didn’t give a f*ck, I headed for a bar, which was closed!

Maybe the book is right, I thought to myself, everything is indeed f*cked!

And, I still hadn’t reached Wellington.

I awoke in the morning feeling refreshed and very well rested. The previous day I’d spent 90 minutes flying and 480 minutes at Christchurch Airport so now I was more than ready for a walk and something to eat.

I ate breakfast at a very retro place called Midnight Espresso. After ordering, I sat in the window watching rain fall and Cuba Street slowly come to life, passing the time marveling at how maple syrup instantly improves bacon and banana pancakes. When finally my stomach was full, and my plate empty, I set off into the sleepy Wellington streets.

I hadn’t walked more than a few blocks when it instantly struck me the number of places there are to eat. It’s as if residents have taken on a city wide challenge to fill every space possible with an eating establishment. There is little wonder that Wellington rivals New York for bar and restaurants per person.

I made my way from Cuba Street and along Lambton Quay. Suddenly everything was much busier. Feeling very underdressed without a shirt and tie on, it occurred to me a one point that I seemed to be one the only person to not have a lanyard around my neck. As I walked, I pondered if these lanyards had a practical use or if they were part of some fashion movement I’d missed like wearing trousers that are too short. It crossed my mind at one point to stop buy one as a way of blend in, however I began to feel dizzy under the pressure of such an important fashion decision. Besides, I had arrived at my destination, the Beehive.

The Beehive as a government building opened on the 27th February, 1977 however it’s origins date back to 1964. The birth of the Beehive came about during a dinner between then Prime Minister Keith Holyoake and British architect Sir Basil Spence who apparently used a pencil to sketch what would become known as the Beehive on the back of a napkin of all things.

Having promised my wife I wouldn’t message Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to see if she felt like a beer, I left the pencil sketched building behind. I crossed several streets and jumped in a few puddles before arriving at the waterfront. After a few further stops I arrived at the Wellington Museum. 10 days earlier, it had been 53 Years since the passenger ferry ‘The Wahine’ had struck Barret’s Reef and sunk in a violent storm. Since I was in Wellington, I was keen to see what collection of artifacts and exhibits were on display for public viewing from such a cultural and historically significant event. The museum itself is housed in a lovely old building dating back to 1892 and while the museum is splendid, The Wahine display was sadly disappointing. All I found from a disaster that killed 53 people, and is widely known as a key moment in New Zealand’s history was a timeline, a model, a few life jackets and a looping video.

Sometime later, I exited the museum to find the rain still falling and my stomach starting to once more want food. With over 400 eating establishments to choose from, I headed off through the puddles with my stomach rumbling.

Matiu/Somes Island’s claim to fame is wide and varied. Lying in Wellington Harbour it’s history dates back to the early Polynesian Explorer Kupe, and since then it has been a Maori Pa site, a quarantine station, an internment camp, a military defensive position and is now a wildlife reserve and sanctuary looked after by the Department of Conservation. 

My plan for the day was to ferry across the harbour to Days Bay and an area called Eastbourne. I had purchased my ticket from a young lady who was without a doubt one of the most friendly, helpful and polite receptionist I’ve ever met. Upon my inquiry for a return ticket across the harbour she politely informed me that the next ferry was actually stopping at Matiu/Somes Island which apparently wasn’t very big ‘but definitely worth a visit’. ‘Well, why not I said’. So, after a short but enjoyable board ride I found myself standing on an island in the middle of Wellington Harbour.

My time on Matiu/Somes Island was completely majestic. I wander along tracks and paths surrounded by bush. Past decommissioned army barracks and other disused buildings that had been constructed on the island over the years. I walked through a bush filled with bird life and took in the sweeping views of Wellington Harbour and the city around me. It was on my return to the ferry that it occurred to me what makes Matiu/Somes Island so peaceful. Firstly, there’s no litter or rubbish bins. Secondly there’s no powerless graffiti and thirdly, a lack of human noise. For two hours I was free of all human sounds that now backdrop our lives. Of course, it couldn’t last and when the sight and sound of the ferry came chugging around the far point of Island, I found my ticket and boarded the ferry for Days Bay and in search of lunch. 

I ate a delightful lunch at a charming place called Chocolate Dayz Cafe before  I headed off on foot along the Pencarrow Coast. I didn’t really have a plan but to walk as far as I could. I spent the afternoon strolling along the coastal streets through Eastbourne and along the beaches stopping to look at nothing in particular before heading back for my ferry. 

Being a few minutes early I ventured across to an ice cream parlour to buy a drink where a young man was in the process of failing to balance two scoops of ice cream on a cone. This task he failed at twice more before the customer equally failed at using his debit card to pay for the items. All of this was completed moments before I could insist on making and paying for the bloody things myself to avoid dying of old age. 

A short time later, clutching my well deserved drink and seated on the ferry the vessel set off once more across the harbour. 

It’s interesting in Aotearoa that so much of our national history seems to start with European Explorers. For example, Able Tasman is credited with the discovery of New Zealand in 1642. The story goes that the good Mr Tasman, having sailed for nearly 140 days, and upon sighting the West Coast of the South Island, he decided he couldn’t really be bothered stopping and kept sailing. Our history books then jump to Captain Cook’s navigation of New Zealand in 1769. From there, we’re told about European encounters with Māori until the lead-up to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. 

Until more recent times, it appears that everyone forgot that Polynesian migration and settlement in Aotearoa occurred between 1250 – 1300. A good 350 years before Able Tasman decided he was feeling adventurous and set sail and around 450 years before Captain Cook landed in Poverty Bay. Having spent the previous day wandering around Matiu Island, I decided some further personal education of Māori settlement was in order.

A few days prior I’d spent some time wandering around various museums as is my nature. Being on the lookout for information about pre european settlement, I started my quest for knowledge with a second visit to the Wellington Museum. Further from there I visited several other locations, none of which did anything to extend my current knowledge. I then decided to finish my search for pre european history by calling in to Te Aro Pa. 

Te Aro Pa was a collection of homes, with a population of about 800 when the settlers first arrived. The first Wellingtonians were not settlers who arrived on wooden ships from England, they were Ngati Ruanui and Taranaki iwi. 

In 2005, Te Aro Pa archaeology was unearthed during the demolition of a building. The discovery of this archaeological site, showed very real remains of ponga-built buildings of Te Aro, that could be 200 years old. Fortunately common sense has been used and the site has been preserved, complete with information panels. This is all there is left to see of Te Aro Pa. Unfortunately, it’s currently closed due to Covid 19 restrictions. 

My last stop for the day was a tour of Weta Workshops that is based in the Wellington suburb of Miramar. One of the beautiful aspects of visiting Weta is that it embraces everything that is good and wholesome about the New Zealand No 8 wire mentality. No large gates, high walls, or imposing fences. On the corner of Camperdown and Weka Street, in a simple building that looks much like a state house, I found the home of the world famous digital effects company. For the rest of the afternoon I found myself lost in the amazing world of special effects and film making. Sometime later, having been taken back to my childhood with the Thunderbirds, I wondered if my wife would be as keen as I was to watch Lord of The Rings. I pondered this thought as I headed for a bar on Courtney Place.

I’d spent the previous night enjoying the sights and sounds of Courtney Place. Earlier in the day I had enjoyed a delicious and wonderful lunch at Mr Go’s. Having been to Mr Go’s on previous trips, and with less than 24 hours left in the city, I simply had to enjoy the Asian Fusion Restaurant before I left. My taste buds had drawn me to the mouth wateringly good Pork Belly Bao Bun and Pork Dumplings. Now, many hours later I found myself sitting in a bar called the Welsh Dragon with my stomach hungry for food. Approaching the Welsh Dragon, I had initially thought it was a deserted building in the middle of a median strip. But, it turned out to be an old historic public toilet that has been converted into possibly the most laid back and down to earth pub in the whole CBD. There were no fancy flashing lights, drums hanging from the ceiling or large neon lights that were accompanied with extremely loud music. It was a friendly, hospitable pub, no more than that. I felt at home instantly.

It wasn’t long before three pints had disappeared and knowing my lack of tolerance for alcohol wasn’t high, I set off for food. Having walked several blocks I settled on the South East Asian cuisine offered at Monsoon Poon. My last night in Wellington finished with my mouth dancing with spice and flavour as my stomach was set to burst. 

The next morning, after rising early I found myself sitting at Wellington airport marveling at the way Airport announcements are made in such a friendly, welcoming and helpful tone. That’s assuming people hear them of course.

A lady standing near me seemed to be totally oblivious to the airport happenings around her as she tapped away on her sparkling white Macbook. Suddenly she moved like a bolt of lightning. Realising that the last remaining passenger being summoned was in actual fact her, she sprung into action. In what was a very impressive display of coordination, she slowly reached out to her half eaten muffin with her left hand. Then, in one sweeping motion that took a matter of seconds she somehow managed to finish her muffin and coffee, close her laptop, put her rubbish in the bin, put her laptop away and her face mask on before dashing off like Usain Bolt having produced a boarding pass from thin air. I wanted to stand and applaud however by the time I had thought of it she had already disappeared down the airbridge. Clearly this was something she had done before and I dear say would repeat many more times in the future. I am sorry to say that when my own boarding call came my actions weren’t quite as impressive. I slowly reached out to my coffee with my left hand. Then, in one sweeping motion I managed to drip coffee on the floor, drop my phone, lose my page in my book, and trip over my bag. 

A while later, as the plane took off, my last sight of Wellington City was accompanied with the careful and wise dialogue of the 3 year old child sitting behind me. My favourite of which was as we headed into the clouds ‘wow mum, the whole world has disappeared’ I reflected on my time in Wellington. In the last 12 hours I had seen how the Lord Of The Rings was made, enjoyed a few pints and now I was leaving the city!

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