Wellington, NZ: Coolest Capital Ever

I grip the handbrakes tightly and ease off on the right brake. The ATV lurches, skids, and stops. I take a deep breath and do it again and again and again until, inch by inch, I make it down to the bottom, where my son Scott and our guide, Nigel, are waiting. In front of me another rocky trail awaits, and it’s heading straight up. “Get a running start,” says Nigel. I nod, rev up my ATV, and up the mountain I go.

My husband, Peter, decided to skip the ATV tour, and I’m sorry he’s not here, exploring this amazing landscape. It’s Day 10 of our two-week camping trip around New Zealand’s North Island, and it’s been one non-stop adventure: tubing through underground streams, floating in black caves lit by tiny glowworms, exploring Hobbit homes, soaking in geothermal pools, and watching tribal dances. My only regret is that I didn’t have the nerve to Bungy Jump off the bridge with Scott in Auckland.

But life’s too short to look back with regret. Besides, it looks like Wellington offers plenty of options for fun. After only a day here, I decide it’s my favorite New Zealand city. Spread out on a hill overlooking the harbor, Wellington offers stunning views—you can even see the South Island from here—and it’s spotlessly clean. I also love the city’s electric vibe. Perhaps the energy comes from Wellington’s hipster population, which drives a spirited buy-local economy. Or maybe it’s the rushing wind that blows non-stop here in what some say is the windiest city in the world.

Wellington is also nicknamed the world’s coolest little capital, thanks to its combination of natural beauty, culture, cuisine, and adventure. All I know is Peter, Scott, and I can’t wait to get to know it better.


We’re camping downtown in a paved city campground surrounded by parking lots just a stone’s throw from the harbor. Across the street towering skyscrapers are odd neighbors, but it’s kind of cool camping in the city. We’re close enough to walk just about everywhere, and when the day is done, our cozy camper is steps away from downtown.

Our mornings start with a stroll along Wellington Harbor, a cozy mix of plazas, bridges, stairways, and public art, including a Writers’ Walk. In unexpected places along the waterfront, eleven text sculptures appear—quotes from writers with ties to the city. Seeking them out is like a scavenger hunt. My favorite is by Lauris Edmond: “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.” I like that. We all need more verbs in our lives. Walkable Wellington encourages visitors to get exercise, another reason I love this city!

One day we head to the Botanic Garden, which looms above the harborfront and offers miles of walking paths past manicured rose gardens edged by exotic trees and a protected forest. We also visit the Cable Car Museum at one end of the garden and learn about the unique cable cars that transported people between the harbor and the hills for 100+ years. Unfortunately, the cable car—now a tourist attraction—is closed for repairs, so we wander over to nearby Carter Observatory and take a planetarium journey through the Southern Hemisphere. I love learning about planets and stars and happily wander through the exhibits immersed in cosmology: the Big Bang, black holes, celestial navigation, and the Maori story of creation.

One thing I find refreshing about New Zealand is how well blended the European and Maori cultures are. Unlike some countries, where indigenous cultures are treated like second-class citizens, New Zealanders celebrate their Maori roots. From the greeting “Ki Ora” to names of streets and birds, you can’t go far in this country without feeling connected to the Polynesians who discovered the land and settled here. Of course, the country’s history hasn’t been smooth, marked by clashes and broken treaties and debates about tribal land ownership. Fortunately, a peaceful harmony seems to exist among residents today.

You can learn a lot about Maori culture at Te Papa, New Zealand’s national museum right beside the harbor. If you’re a museum lover like me, you’ll want to spend days here. Five stories high, Te Papa is fabulous, and Peter, Scott, and I haven’t alloted enough time to view its bounty. The museum houses 11 galleries of art and an Earthquake House, where you can learn about New Zealand’s split from the other continents 85 million years ago.

I love the Mana Whenua exhibit, which celebrates the trials and triumphs of the Maori settlers. Maori are a very spiritual people, and being in the presence of taonga tuku iho, the treasures handed down from generation to generation, feels empowering. In this exhibit you can enter Te Marae, a communal meeting house created by Maori artists that’s truly a work of art. Described as “a place … to belong,” Te Marae symbolizes New Zealand’s bicultural identity and the spirit of partnership between the two cultures that lies at the heart of Te Papa’s mission.

One day I take a Zest Food & Wine tour with Stephanie. It’s a whirlwind of flavors mixed with interesting facts about local food pathways and Maori culture. We start at Mojo Coffee Cartel in Shed 13 in the Wellington Harbor, where they roast and bag some of the best coffee I’ve tasted.

New Zealanders are serious about coffee. One local I met said as soon as she flies into Auckland from anywhere in the world, she heads straight for the coffee bar. As we sample Mojo coffee—a flat white with the signature fern leaf, Stephanie says, “A good coffee roaster is like a good winemaker.” In fact, coffee connoisseurs use similar adjectives to describe coffee flavors: spicy, nutty, fruity, etc. Wellington’s coffee culture helped jumpstart the downtown renewal, Stephanie tells me. Ahh, maybe that’s why I detect such energy here: it’s fueled by caffeine!

After tanking up on delicious coffee, we head to Gelissimo Gelato, where I sample ginger beer and quince sorbets and chat with the owner, Graham Joe, who customizes batches for local chefs. “Every week we’re asked to do something new,” he says. I try a tangy Gorgonzola sorbet, which a local chef pairs with pear and red wine sauce.

At the Wellington Chocolate Factory, I sample single-estate chocolate from Peru, Madagascar, and Dominican Republic. Owner Rochelle tells me she and her partners hand-built a tempering machine using vacuum cleaner parts to help keep costs down. The chocolate is amazing. After a couple other stops, Stephanie and I finish the tour at Logan Brown, an elegant restaurant in a former bank, where we enjoy a wine-paired lunch with abalone ravioli, roasted monkfish, and toasted coconut panna cotta. Perfect!

Foodies will find even more deliciousness in nearby Petone, a bedroom community a few minutes’ drive from downtown. Zany Zeus, for example, specializes in handcrafted cheeses and supplies its dairy products to local restaurants. I taste their ice cream (yum!) and buy some halloumi cheese to fry back in the camper. We have tea at Sweet Pea with finger sandwiches and then visit La Bella Italia, a restaurant, café, and retail shop whose owner sends us home with delicious pizza bread. Dinner in the camper will be extra special tonight.

After the Zest Food Tour, we join Wellington Rover Tours for a half-day Lord of the Rings location tour. Our guide takes us to a local park on Mt. Victoria and shows us the Hobbiton Woods, where the hobbits hid from the Black Riders. Next we head to “Wellywood,” home of WETA, the award-winning company that created characters, props, and scenes for the LOTR trilogy.

LOTR’s popularity prompted the owners of WETA to create a tourist attraction so fans could get a glimpse of the artistry and mechanics involved in creating the creatures that populate these films. In the museum, you can view actual weapons and armor used in the films. Ready for a selfie? Gollum waits by the front door, perfect to pose with. Don’t miss the film about WETA’s humble beginnings and its meteoric rise to the Oscars.  The company continues to make cinematic magic for other films, and on the tour you can see some of the artists at work.

Next on the agenda is a visit to a craft brewery called The Garage Project Cellar Door owned by three brothers, Ian, Pete, and Josh. Their claim to fame is the amazing flavors they experiment with in the creation of their brews: chili and mango, for example. They even create batches of beer flavored with sauvignon blanc grape juice. We enjoy sampling brews such as Angry Peaches, a pale ale made with Amarillo hops and no peaches! My favorite is Pernicious Weed, another pale ale that’s bitter, hoppy, and delicious.

One evening we dine at one of Wellington’s top restaurants, Charley Noble Eatery & Bar. Known for its open-flame cooking, this lively venue sources much of its food locally. We sample their grass-fed Angus beef from Hawke’s Bay, and it’s delicious. I can’t resist the lamb sausages, which are house made and come with cornichons and a mustard sauce. Scott tries the Charley Noble burger, topped with Monterrey Jack, bacon, and pickles. We wish we had time to enjoy more of Wellington’s foodie scene.

But it’s time to head north. We have a long drive back up to Auckland, where we’ll return the camper and prepare for our arduous journey home. Fortunately in New Zealand, even driving is an adventure. Highways morph into two-lane roads, passing through small towns that look like movie sets. Always on the horizon are amazing mountains, including Mt. Ngauruhoe, which is known as Mount Doom in LOTR.  Time doesn’t allow us to hike six hours to the top of the mountain, so we content ourselves with photos as we pass by.

We stop in at Zealong, a tea estate about 90 minutes south of Auckland. It’s New Zealand’s only tea plantation, conceived by a Taiwanese gentleman who noticed how camellia plants, which are related to tea, thrived in the Waitomo region. Turns out growing conditions are ideal for tea in the hilly land, and Vincent Chen and his son imported tea seedlings from Taiwan and created this idyllic estate. Not only is the tea grown only on the estate, Zealong hires Taiwanese pickers every spring, who come to New Zealand to help with the harvest. “It’s the purest tea in the world,” our guide says.

Back in Auckland on our last night, Peter, Scott, and I head to a lively sports bar near our hotel for dinner. Our eyes shine as we talk about all the adventures we’ve had. Scott and I agree our four-wheeling tour in Wellington was the Best. Fun. Ever.

I think about how my confidence grew while I was learning to drive my four-wheeler. I remember the rush of adrenaline I felt as I increased my speed and began to enjoy the challenging terrain. Soon I was zipping up and down the mountain trails like a roadrunner, my fears forgotten.

The best travel experiences teach us lessons, don’t they? Our trip to New Zealand brought us face to face with new places and people and activities we’d never encountered before. And each moment we found ourselves coming to a deeper understanding of this enchanting country and its people, culture, nature, geography, history, and values.

Learning is what traveling is all about, I think. Connecting with our fellow human beings teaches us how alike we are. Travel also teaches us about ourselves. We try new things and discover who we really are.

I can’t think of a better place to meet your inner adventurer than New Zealand. And, take it from me, if you get a chance to Bungy Jump, don’t even think about it. Just close your eyes and leap.

For more information:

• Tourist Information - www.newzealand.com

• Maui Motor Home Rentals - www.maui.co.nz

• Wellington - www.wellingtonnz.com

Peggy Sijswerda

Tidewater Women Magazine, Editor & Co-Publisher.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com
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