There’s a palpably infectious energy and creative spark that keeps raking and reshaping Wellington’s platter of urban temptations. As the pale winter sun bathed my morning stroll around the ravishing Wellington waterfront, the capital’s tall towers backed the thick forest of sails standing to attention at Chaffers Marina. It’s the condensed, high-density, cheek-by-jowl nature of Wellington’s compact layout that underpins the city’s alluring vitality. I began my latest leisurely sortie to Wellington, as I always do, promenading around the city’s world-class waterfront, richly embellished with eye-grabbing artworks and sublime vistas, sprinkled between the headline attractions. Standing at Clyde Quay and gazing across the glassy waters to glittery Oriental Bay, it’s that radiant sweep of brightly painted boatsheds that exemplifies Wellington’s perky, playful personality. So do the waterfront artworks.
Yes, there’s the typical stone statues exuding stately formality and tradition, like the majestic Kupe monument, but a few steps on, your inner-child is titillated by the whimsy of the Water Whirler sculpture. After all, this is city that proudly boasts the Bucket Fountain, that still drenches unsuspecting and inattentive passersby in Cuba Street. I lost my eBike virginity in Wellington last month – a city tailormade for electric-powered pedalling. Meeting up with Ryan O’Connell from Switched on Bikes, he led me on a tantalising ride around the bays and up Mt. Victoria, unfurling a feast of nuggets and fun anecdotes along the way.
For novices like myself, eBikes are super easy to ride. Flick the power mode into turbo and hey presto, you’ve got a sinfully effortless ride. Whether you’re navigating a head wind, a steep hill, or both – turbo mode made very light work of that! What absolutely staggered me is how far you ride in such a short space of time. After departing from Ryan’s depot by Shed One at Queen’s Wharf, I was gazing nostalgically at my old flat in Evans Bay. Whether you’re after a riveting guided bike tour or simple hire, Switched on Bikes is your go-to in Welly.
Confession time – despite previously living and Wellington and enjoying countless visits to the capital, I’d never taken a ride on the emblematic Cable Car, until last month. Sacrilege! New Zealand’s only running funicular railway is a sweetheart, faithfully connecting Lambton Quay to the top of Wellington Botanic Garden, since 1902. En-route, two tunnels have been pimped out with a trippy LED light show. Just five minutes away from the hustle of the CBD, the nation’s oldest botanic gardens are a soulful oasis of calm and character, with an array of enticements like Begonia House and the Sundial of Human Involvement. Strolling the shaded paths with heart-stealing city vistas, it’s a highly instructive reminder on how visionary it was for the New Zealand Company to create a Town Belt, a hillside garland of green space, after establishing the colonial settlement in 1839. Despite subsequent incursions, most of it remains intact.
The capital’s bragging rights as an artisanal mecca are constantly refortified with an ever-evolving swag of new entrants adding more spark and verve to sample. I staked out some of the temptations in the slinky little alleyway of Lombard St. Refuelling on fabulous coffee at Pie & Pickle, I popped next door to Denzien, the nation’s first destination urban distillery, producing craft gin on-site, and scooping up so many awards since opening 18 months ago. Always intended to be a shop-front distillery, the gins are magnificent. Swing by for a chat with the distillers, learn about the botanicals, try a tasting flight or maybe a cheeky cocktail. Co-owner, Mark Halton, remarked that the brand name came about through a dyslexic spelling mistake. Planned to be known as Denizen, the typo actually hit the spot. Denzien is a Nordic word for a clan of people who enjoy the finer things in life. Boom!
When in Wellington, take a transfixing escape to the staggering sanctuary of Zealandia. I’ve previously enjoyed daytime and twilight tours of this awe-inspiring sanctuary – the world’s first fully fenced urban ecosanctuary. On my latest visit, I joined a night tour where the starring attraction is the chance to see foraging kiwi at night. Over 100 little spotted kiwi call the valley home, so your chances of a close encounter sighting are good. I savoured four kiwi, up-close, on my torchlight tour, beautifully led to passionate, authoritative and intuitive guides. The glow worms spangling the hillsides turn on a stunning light show to rival the Wellington Cable Car. The evening birdsong was headlined by the piercing calls of kiwi, singing out to their partners, while the unmistakable call of the morepork was a thrill to hear. Kaka, who should be tucked up in bed, continue to made a racket at will. Testimont to Zealandia’s sterling endeavours, tui, bellbirds and kaka are now pervasive in Wellingtonian’s backyards.
For a truly distinctive dining experience, make your way to the Beehive to enjoy dinner at Bellamys by Logan Brown. I cannot think of any other parliament in the world which has opened its doors for public dining, within the halls of power. As you’d expect from Logan Brown, the culinary offering at Bellamys is supreme. I started with Beetroot, Barley and Evansdale Smoked Brie Croquettes, complemented with Tahini Yoghurt, Wild Herbs. A sensational taste-hit. For my main, I plumped for a hearty winter staple, Braised Beef Cheek with Pumpkin Skordalia, Red Cabbage and Turnips. There were two Cabinet Ministers dining alongside me. An essential Wellington experience.
Follow the fairy lights down the alleyway off Ghuznee Street to find HUSK, an all-in-one eatery, bar, brewery and coffee roaster. Like a celebration of the city’s culinary culture, HUSK is the home of decadently rich Karamu Coffee and quirky Choice Bros brews. After a pre-dinner drink, I then headed to another new head-turner, High Water Eatery. Situated at the harbour end of Cuba Street, Highwater is a fiendishly popular inner-city eatery, where nearly everything is made from scratch and inhouse. A must-try star specimen on the menu is the Duck & Prune hotdog with gentleman’s relish, crispy shallots and fermented cabbage powder. I still dream about it! www.wellingtonnz.com
Within shouting distance of Speaker Trevor Mallard’s rulings in the House, treat yourself to a five-star hospitality experience at the sparkling Sofitel Wellington, at the top end of The Terrace on Bolton St. Wrapped in lush botanicals, in the shadow of the Botanic Gardens, this elegant property and its delightful staff embody the best of Sofitel’s French “art de vivre” brand, overlaid with effervescent, outgoing Kiwi hospitality. In a nod to the building’s former life as the Apple & Pear Board HQ, artful design elements subtly salute its past. The vintage gold and bronze tones that underpin the design motif throughout the hotel, exude glamour and grace. I fell in love with the richly detailed wallpapers.
My guestroom was a refined and spacious sanctuary of creature comforts and calm, beautifully-appointed with a modern bathroom, rain shower and French amenities. Sofitel’s famous ‘MyBed’ ensured I slept like a baby perfect, while the in-room tech toys included a work desk, personal espresso machine, Smart TV, complimentary WIFI, BOSE sound system with bluetooth connectivity and USB chargers. I enjoyed a typically indulgent breakfast at Jardin Grill, which also offers dining throughout the day in its lusciously designed surroundings. Spoil yourself with a stay at this champagne cork-popping hotel. Magnifique! https://www.sofitel-wellington.com/
I picked up a rental car from Avis at Wellington Airport to free-roam the capital. The Avis Safety Pledge has been deployed across all of its New Zealand locations, in the wake of domestic tourism’s restart, allowing customers to pick up and drop off vehicles with minimal contact. Avis has unveiled a range of sizzling rental deals to celebrate the lockdown era being consigned to the rear mirror, including 20% off all pre-paid rentals until the end of August, complimentary upgrades and score the fourth day free when booking for three. www.avis.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.