People generally come to Aotearoa NZ for the landscape, not the urban experience. However, there is one city that should not be missed on anyone’s tiki tour of the country, my home in Pōneke Wellington. This little capital on the craggy shores of Te Whanganui a Tara is the gem of the NZ urban experience!
In 2011 Lonely Planet named Pōneke Wellington as the “coolest little capital in the world” and the city has grown even more ‘cool’ since then. This compact little city is loaded with galleries, theaters, bars, and cafes and surrounded by Victorian charm, fault formed hilltops populated by dense bush and rare birds, and wild rocky shorelines interrupted by intimate sandy beaches. It deservedly has a reputation for being the creative, foodie, and coffee mecca of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is also known for the scenic beauty that encircles the city center, which is so stunning that there is a saying, “you can’t beat Wellington on a fine day.” The only problem is that the city has a reputation for having not too many of these ‘fine’ weather days. Although, I find the reputation undeserving. Winters can be doom and gloom but there aren’t many places around Aotearoa NZ that aren’t. The wind can also be so relentless at times it can wear you out both physically and mentally. The sign says it all, we are blowing away here! But that wind is what connects soul to place and everywhere you look the landscape reflects its impact. I personally find the expression of wind endearing.
So what exactly makes Pōneke Wellington so special? There is just way too much cool to cover, so I am narrowing it down to a few of my favorites in no particular order.
Wild and Scenic Coastline
Welly offers access to so much scenic coastline with ever changing character to explore. Whether you prefer to drive a paved road between sleepy bays of the Miramar Peninsula, walk or bike the 4WD drive tracks along crashing waves of the Raukawa Cook Strait south coast, or climb the windswept hills above the steep escarpment of the Tasman west coast, you will find a stunning coastline packed with wildlife.
The drive along the coast, from Evans to Owhiro Bays passes craggy shorelines with distinctive rock promontories, sandy beaches, surf breaks, and marine protected areas. The landscape shifts from steep undeveloped vegetated escarpments to small cottage settled bays to highly developed communities near the airport and back again. This is a popular cycling and walking route where people frequently stop at a cafe for bite and a cuppa to refuel, or the beach for a quick cool off. Some of my favorite locations on this route are shown below.
For a less developed experience leave the road behind, continuing past Owhiro Bay to Pariwhero Red Rocks. The red and green pillow rocks formed from underwater lava extrusion are a stark contrast to the uniform greywackle and argillitie rocks common to Welly.
Continue further to the seal colony at Te Rimurapa Sinclair Head or scurry up one of the many tracks for a bird’s eye view of the coastline below. This 7km round trip walk is a quick drive from the city center. While you won’t see development beyond a handful of baches, the walk is highly trafficked on fine weekend days.
If you prefer less people and want to enjoy an evening sunset then head west along the winding road to the small rural community of Markara on the Tasman Sea. Walk along the coast before climbing to the wind farms for views of the some of the steepest, most remote coastline in Welly.
For the most ‘wild’ coastal experience, travel to the rugged and windy south coast on the east side of Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington Harbour) near Eastborne. Here you will find lighthouses on Pencarrow and Baring Head, freshwater lakes, Kohangapiripiri (a nest clinging very strongly) and Kohangatera (a nest basking in the sun), windswept muehlenbeckia hillsides, the 1881 SS Paiaka shipwreck, and the Turakirae Head Scientific Reserve’s notable earthquake raised beaches and seal colony. This journey is lengthy and best covered by bicycle, but as you can see from the pictures below that it is well worth the trip.
Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington Harbor
Te Whanganui a Tara Wellington Harbor is loaded with marine life and adventure. Swim among the thriving kelp forests that line the edge of the Miramar Peninsula or explore the echinoderms of the Taputeranga Marine Reserve. You may even have a fur seal or dolphin pod join you for a swim or a paddleboard (in our case).
At the city center, the harbor is continuously buzzing with boat traffic. Large boats ferry people between the north and south islands running 24 hours/7 days a week. There is a small commuter ferry, the East by West, that travels between the city center and the suburbs of Seatoun and Eastborne. Sailboats join the mix on weekends as do rowers and kayaks on calm days.
In the center of the harbor you can take a break from the sea with a visit to Matu Somes Island. This island has some interesting history, having served as a military defense post, an internment camp, and both a human and animal quarantine station. Today, the island is a predator-free scientific reserve. The old quarantine buildings remain and are surrounded by reestablishing bush and a grazing sheep for fire suppression around the buildings. Spend an afternoon walking the tracks looking for red-crowned parakeets or an evening camping watching the city skyline light up across the bay.
The central business district of Welly is adjacent to the harbor, providing a bustling urban waterfront experience. Walk along a series of boardwalks, concrete cutouts, parklets, past sculptures and poetry to various shops, restaurants, museums, and recreational outlets. The waterfront is packed with people, popup shops, musicians, and food trucks providing endless entertainment.
By far my favorite part of the urban waterfront are the options available to leap into the sea. For calmer waters try the high dive cut out or walk the plank into the sea. I love finishing a lunchtime run with a cool off dip before returning to work.
Lastly, there is an urban beach at Oriental Parade. This beach is jammed with city dwellers on any fine day, especially after 5pm when people head for a post work swim.
Food and Drink
Downtown Welly is loaded with restaurants, bars, and coffee houses, you will never go hungry in this capital city. Head to Cuba Street, home to trendy restaurants, cool bars, and hidden gems.
While Welly is best known for being a coffee destination, the diversity of delicious cuisine is just as notable. Name any country in the world and chances of finding traditional food from it are high. Some of my favorite restaurants include Rasa (Malaysian), Olive (tapas), Left Bank (street food from everywhere), Ortega Fish Shack (things from the sea), Fidel’s (vegan nachos/burgers), and Dragons (dim sum).
If you are simply thirsty for an adult beverage you can’t go wrong with cocktails at the Hawthorne Lounge, a dark boosey bar that will take you back to the 1920’s with their classic cocktails and decor. The Library and Hummingbird bartenders also mix a good cocktail and the candlelit environment makes a winter’s night sipping even more tasty.
If it is beer that you fancy, you are in luck as Wellingtonians love craft beer and no city in Aotearoa NZ does it better. I don’t know if it is because of the beer selection or the homage to dive bars in the US, but Goldings Free Dive is my very favorite place to grab a pint. If you are lucky you can score an outdoor seat on the Leeds Street laneway patio or duck inside to enjoy the collection of star wars paraphernalia. Goldings has a wide selection of NZ craft beers and a few from overseas as well. If you would rather visit a brewer, we are staunchly loyal to Garage Project…they are the best! While their beer is tasty, I appreciate their creativity and experimentation equally as much. Each can or bottle label is artistically designed to respond to the name and flavor of the brew and they are constantly coming out with new quirky combinations of flavors while still maintaining their beloved staples. When there is a special event near and dear to the Garage’s Project’s heart like the Star Wars movie opening or Cuba Dupa (a local festival), they are coming out with a new beer to celebrate it.
Greenbelts, Hilltops & Ridgelines
Welly created a town belt long before most cities had even heard of the concept. Established in 1839, the Town Belt consists of 425 hectares of reserve that surrounds the city center running along ridgelines and over notable hilltops. The green skyline backdrop is busy with walking and biking commuters and lunchtime walkers and runners. You can be immersed in the concrete jungle and within only ten minutes find yourself on a bush trail high above. Probably the most famous hilltop in the city is Tangi Te Keo Mount Victoria. The hilltop rises 196 meters, exposing a panoramic view from an overlook platform. I personally prefer the more natural settings of Point Dorest at Oruaiti pā and Mount Kaukau. While the point at Oruaiti can hardly be considered a hilltop, it climbs above an iconic rock formation and reef in Breaker Bay overlooking the harbor entrance and the Pencarrow Lighthouse. Mount Kaukau is the most prominent hilltop in the city, marked by a large transmission tower. Run along the skyline track through several paddocks enjoying views of both the city center in one direction and the wind turbines and Te Wai Pounamu South Island in the other as you climb to the top. The endless trails through undeveloped landscapes offers the best views throughout Wellington, while providing valuable habitat and wildlife value.
It seems like there is a festival nearly every weekend in Welly, especially in the summer. While some are tiny consisting mainly of some food stands and a parade, others are too good to be missed. My favorites include the New Zealand Festival, Cuba Dupa, Wellington on a Plate, WOW, and LUX Light Festival, all of which showcase the highly creative culture of the city. The New Zealand Festival is a biannual event packed with talented performance and visual artists. Last season’s interactive art pieces that allowed audiences to participate throughout the city using headphones were big hits. Cuba Dupa is a street celebration of food, music, and costume. The drum beats and parade-like style is similar to mardi gras with less drinking and no nudity. Cuba Dupa is definitely our favorite, leaving us feeling energized and inspired. If you are looking for something to appeal to your taste buds, Wellington on a Plate will deliver. A month of creative menu planning by local restaurants brings unique dishes, cocktails, and popup food stalls all over the city. WOW, which stands for the World of Wearable Art is a bit more exclusive, requiring some cash money to score seats good enough to see the avant garde fashion. Think circ du soleil without the acrobatics…that is WOW. If you aren’t able to spring for the ticket costs you most certainly will spot some of the creations randomly parading around the waterfront. Even some of the residents get a little crazy with their cloths at this time. Lastly, there is the LUX light festival that fills the city with light installations just in time to combat the darkness of the time change. This festival gets mixed reviews, but I can’t see how anyone can complain about being able to walk the city streets among these quirky installations.
Character and Charm
I don’t have a lot of photos to support this category, but it is certainly worth noting. The Victorian homes that dot the hillsides and cable car climbing from the city center to the botanic gardens is charming as. If you are a fan of walking the steep streets of San Fransisco you will love Welly, which exudes a similar type of charm with a New Zealand twist. Check out the Mount Victoria and Thorndon neighborhoods for the ultimate historic and charm experience.
Our little slice of Karaka Bay is known for being one of the most charming stretches of the coastline, with roses climbing the frontage of historic cottages.
Wellington is a city of secrets, secret shortcuts, secret bars, and even secret bathrooms. You can get lost in discovery as you navigate through the maze of walkways and stair access shortcuts. When I first moved here I searched for a new secret walk daily, following them to places in the city that I never knew existed. As for the secret bars, they are only mildly a secret. You might see a line outside of the door of the elevator to the Dirty Little Secret rooftop bar. This pretty much tips off people to the ‘secret’. A visit to the Motel Bar, requires a bit more investigation. Located in a quiet laneway, you will have to find the buzzer to gain access to this secret tiki world of cocktails. Lastly, I can’t forget to mention the secret bathroom at Havana Bar’. Its location behind a bookshelf, will make your Webster childhood dreams come true.
Other Notable and Unforgettable Gems
Just because these places didn’t neatly fit in a category doesn’t mean they aren’t worth mentioning. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is located in the city center on the waterfront and is a can’t miss attraction. Wander the floors learning about Maōri history and experience the larger than life Gallipoli – The Scale of Our War exhibit designed by Weta Studios all for FREE. If you are a big Lord of Rings/Peter Jackson fan, check out Weta Cave and immerse yourself in the digital film making world.
If nature is more your thing, pop up to Zealandia and the Botanic Garden in Kelburn. Zealandia is a fully fenced urban sanctuary restoring native vegetation and endangered bird habitat. Restoration efforts have allowed them to bring in 18 bird species, 6 of which were absent from the Aotearoa New Zealand mainland for 100 years. The best time to visit the Botanic Gardens are when the spring blooms arrive in September or during the light and concert series in the summer months. There is no better way to access these gardens than a trip through lighted tunnels via the cable car.
So much for narrowing this blog post to a few of my favorites. If you are ever passing through Aotearoa NZ, it is worthwhile to include the pint sized capital, Pōneke Wellington on your itinerary.