A weekend in Wellington
Find out why there’s no better place to be hungry than Wellington.
- March 2018
Compact, vibrant and gastronomically gifted, New Zealand’s capital city is a top spot for a short stay.
The doughnut is, in a word, monstrous. It’s slathered in caramel sauce, bursting with whipped cream and studded with gooey chunks of apple. Beside me, a young woman is photographing her own cream- and jam-filled version, presumably so she can Instagram it as #foodporn.
If I had one piece of advice for visitors to Wellington, it would be to arrive hungry. There are so many cool coffee shops, boutique food producers and restaurants that eating well in New Zealand’s capital is practically unavoidable. Don’t worry: you’ll have plenty of opportunity for exercise, too. One of the great things about Wellington is that it’s incredibly walkable. Hemmed in by hills on one side and the harbour on another, the city centre is spread over just 2km. It’s the perfect place to spend a long weekend.
The windy city
On the Friday I arrive, the tail end of a summer storm is whipping a gale through the streets. The wind in Wellington is no myth. The city is perched on the edge of the Cook Strait, which forms a narrow gap between the north and south islands. Wellingtonians are hilariously stoic about their weather. “We like it,” they say, their eyes watering. “It keeps the air pollution away.”
Having fulfilled my recommended calorie intake for the week at Sixes & Sevens deli — home of the doughnuts — I take shelter from the wind at Te Papa (Our Place). The waterfront museum, Te Papa Tongarewa, is a popular Wellington attraction, most famous for its high-tech and interactive exhibitions. Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War tells the story of the ANZAC campaign in World War I. The exhibition was created by Weta Workshop, Sir Richard Taylor’s world-renowned visual effects and prop company, and features oversized scale statues of New Zealand soldiers. They are staggeringly realistic, with sweat glistening on pores, dust under fingernails and gnarly bullet wounds.
Blue skies and craft brews
Emerging onto a waterfront bathed in warm sunshine, I’m reminded of the city’s unofficial slogan: “You can’t beat Wellington on a good day.” It’s true. When the city looks as it does now: harbour twinkling beneath a bold blue sky and lush, green villa-dotted hills, it’s easy to see why the locals put up with the weather.
Wellington is the self-professed craft beer capital of New Zealand, and its locals are working hard to maintain the title. The city is the home of the country’s best beer festival, Beervana, and breweries and craft beer bars are ubiquitous. Husk, a brewery-slash-roastery-slash-eatery, is tucked inconspicuously down an alley on Ghuznee Street (there’s no sign, just follow the fairy lights). It is half-owned by local Choice Bros brewer Kerry Gray, who says: “We’re putting a bunch of beers on tap from a little Norwegian brewery called ToØl.” Then he admits they’re numbering the taps because nobody can pronounce the Norwegian names.
At Golding’s Free Dive in the Hannah Factory Laneway precinct, a professional beer geek named Phil is manning the taps. The bar has been lovingly constructed by owner Sean Golding (a former Weta prop designer), in a style I would call ‘garage-sale chic’. Think Christmas lights, buckets, old skis and taxidermied rodents, with a ceiling made from old playground safety mats. It’s fun, very Wellington, and the perfect place to hunker down when the weather turns.
The Hannah precinct houses a small but interesting selection of artisan eateries, bars and food producers. There’s Leeds Street Bakery — home of a salted caramel cookie so good it’ll make you weep — Fix and Fogg Peanut Butter factory (try the Smoke and Fire flavour) and working bean-to-bar Wellington Chocolate Factory. Six Barrel Soda Co. creates artisanal sodas with flavours such as cherry and pomegranate and celery tonic. Pizza Pomodoro, an early laneway inhabitant, is the place to find thin, chewy, wood-fired slices.
Shepherd restaurant, co-owned by Sean Golding and chef Shepherd Elliot of Ti Kouka Cafe and Leeds Street Bakery, is an exciting new dining option. From the pulled pork and pickled apple pikelet (try saying that after a few IPAs) through to Fix and Fogg peanut butter beignets, my meal is clever and comforting. When I inquire about the aged cheddar custard, the waiter describes not only the dish, but also the cows who gave their milk for it. “There’s Daisy, Isobel and … Oh, I forget the other one,” he says apologetically.
My bed for the weekend is at the Quality Hotel, on the top end of Cuba Street. The strip is crammed with boutiques, second-hand shops, restaurants and bars for all budgets. By day its inhabitants shop, caffeinate and either admire or avoid the street performers, at night it’s a hotspot for eating, drinking and dancing.
Zest Food Tours will help you experience the best of Wellington’s culinary offerings with walking tours that take around three hours, including lunch. Fabs, a bubbly French expat who fell in love with Wellington 15 years ago, starts our Saturday morning tour with a strong flat white and a cheese scone at the City Art Gallery. We spend the morning strolling and sampling our way around the city. Highlights include a visit to Moore Wilson’s, a glorified grocery store and the Wellington Chocolate Factory, where they turn organic, ethically-traded cacao into terrific chocolate bars. Shelter from the storm.
There are more things to do in Wellington than stuff yourself silly. Shopping is one of them. Hit Cuba Street for vintage threads, Wakefield Street for edgy designer pieces and Willis Street for hours of blissful browsing at Unity Books. Don’t miss Ekor, a cute little bookstore and café opposite Moore Wilson’s, and Kura Gallery on Allen Street that sells treasures by Maori artists.
On Sunday morning, heavy, horizontal rain is blasting the city, thwarting my plan to walk up Mount Victoria. Instead I hunker down at Loretta, a large, stylish café just a few streets from my hotel, packed with hip young things drinking Ethiopian drip coffee. I order a bowl of creamy rice — hot, sultana-studded and fragrant with citrus peel.
That got me thinking. Perhaps the city should revise its slogan, because you can’t beat Wellington on a bad day, either.
Sun shining? These experiences will help you make the most of it
1. Cable car and botanic gardens
Running every 10 minutes between Lambton Quay and Kelburn, the historic Wellington Cable Car takes you high above the city streets to the top of the Botanic Gardens. See terraced hillside villas as you climb and enjoy sweeping views of the harbour, city and surrounding hills.
This 255-hectare ecosanctuary is home to more than 40 species of native birds, 24 of them endemic to New Zealand. If you’re keen to meet the country’s most famous nocturnal inhabitant (the kiwi,) opt for the Zealandia by Night tour.
3. Oriental parade
When the sun’s out, Wellingtonians flock to this central beachside suburb to lick ice creams, stroll the parade and stretch out on fine golden sand that’s been trucked in from elsewhere. If the sea’s too cold for a dip, try the harbourside Freyberg Pool
4. Mt. Victoria outlook
Easily accessible from the city centre, the Mt Victoria Lookout rises 196m above sea level and offers panoramic views ofthe city. Drive to the summit or take the walkway through forest from the top of Majoribanks Street. For bonus points, time it for sunset and take a picnic or fish ‘n’ chips.