Tucked away in one of the world’s most picturesque mountain-encircled harbors, New Zealand’s stylish capital is an artsy, sophisticated and dynamic metropolis that offers a wide variety of historic and contemporary attractions.
A village-like atmosphere remains in Wellington’s center, and being only 1.25-miles (2 km) wide, due to it being sandwiched between mountains and sea, it is an exceptionally easy place for the visitor to traverse on foot. The compact city is divided essentially into quarters — the Lambton Quarter, the premier shopping street, lined with arcades, plazas and elevated walkways; the Willis Quarter, which has a mix of lifestyle shops; the Cuba Quarter, an exotic display of diversity and color with its fashion boutiques, antique shops and eclectic cafes; and the Courtenay Quarter, a buzzing 24-hour experience, from early morning brunch to shopping, lattes to champagne, innovative theatre to blockbuster movies.
The heart of Wellington is known as the “Miracle Mile” and stretches from the train station at the northern end of Lambton Quay to Cambridge Terrace. Civic Square, with its public buildings, open spaces, bars, theatres, street performers, outdoor concerts and exhibitions, is a natural meeting place for Wellingtonians and visitors alike. The ever-expanding Harbor-front is dominated by the City-to-Sea Bridge, a public art space full of sculptures, and by the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, housed in an historic building on Queen’s Wharf.
An easy way to get to know Wellington’s layout is by taking the cable car from Lambton Quay to the top of Mt Victoria — with superb panoramic views and a great vantage point for planning your trip (as long as the infamous wind is not too strong, this is an invigorating experience!). From here you can spot Katherine Mansfield’s (1888–1923, the most famous of NZ’s authors) authentically restored birthplace, the architecturally special Edwardian Neo-Classical Old Parliament Building, the landmark 1970’s “Beehive” ministerial building and the Gothic Cathedral. The city is surrounded by green-belt land. The Prime Minister’s residence, the Botanical Gardens and an observatory are all located here, as well as arguably the best coastal drive in NZ.
Wellington has always been the cultural heart of New Zealand, known for its spectacular art exhibitions and galleries. Its strong visual arts scene combines an international flavor with an intrinsic Pacific identity. The city is home to the Royal NZ Ballet, NZ Symphony Orchestra, NZ School of Dance and the excellent Te Papa Tongarewa (National) Museum, acclaimed to be the most advanced museum of its kind in the world. Inside, the interactive museum has enough exhibition space to cover three football fields, housing a huge carved Maori (New Zealand’s native peoples) meeting house, a collection of ornate Maori canoes, simulated earthquakes and a futuristic, ultra-modern house that would fit well into the year 2055. And as one would expect, this vibrant, culture-driven spot is host to many eclectic events throughout the year.
Culture takes center stage at the beginning of the year with the Summer City Festival of Free Outdoor Entertainment. (Remember you’re in the Southern Hemisphere!) This is a sun worshippers’ celebration of Wellington and its people, with concerts, Maori cultural events, festivals and film events. The arts come to the fore in late summer (February to March) at the biannual New Zealand International Arts Festival, the country’s most extensive and exciting multi-arts event. The creative splendor of the Cuba Quarter is also celebrated with the two-day Cuba Street Carnival, the country’s largest and most spectacular free street festival.
With autumn comes better weather, so March is the perfect time to hold the Wellington Dragon Boat Championships, when thousands converge on the waterfront. The Wellington Fashion Festival in September is an annual event of six days of seriously cool style and is followed by the Wellington International Jazz Festival in October.
And now one of the most uniquely entertaining events in the country is coming to stamp its high-heeled mark on Wellington this September and October. It is the 2005 World of Wearable Art Show (WOW), where the world of fashion extraordinaire makes Vivian Westwood look like K-mart. The event started in 1987 as a promotion for a small gallery in the town of Nelson, on the South Island, and has now gained an iconic status. With close ties to Wellington, from home-grown designers to the NZ School of Dance performers, it is fitting that the event will be staged in the Queen’s Events Center, the sparkling venue for the Lord of the Rings premiere.
Over six nights, a lavish array of more than 180 bizarre “garments” sashay down the catwalk. Think Mardi Gras, crossed with the Rocky Horror Picture Show and Milan Fashion Week. Entertainment abounds — the costumes, which range from the beautiful to the grotesque, are woven between extravagant theatrical displays, including a flame-eating magician, a gaggle of French nuns, fabulous drag queens, barroom brawls and live opera singers suspended from sumptuous silver clouds high above the audience.
Past shows have seen men parade in glittering 24-inch (60 cm) high platform shoes (eat your heart out, Naomi Campbell), and women strut their stuff whilst wearing the biggest, most ridiculously extravagant bras ever seen. Popular sections include the “Bizarre Bra” display, where the models have to dodge an on-stage barroom brawl and dancing flappers, all to the live accompaniment of the catchy song “Hey Big Spender.” The South Pacific Section encourages creations that take inspiration from traditional cultures to create a contemporary work of art. The Illumination Section has glowing knee-high boots dancing by themselves — through the illusions of UV light — and white dresses partying like they were in Disney’s musical Fantasia, full of inanimate objects cavorting with each other.
Each night, for two hours anything goes. In awesome displays of creativity, designers visually assault you using everything from gold wire, mirrors, clay, papier-mâché, shells and silk organza, to pipe cleaners, ping-pong balls, feathers, seatbelts, coat hangers, a boar’s head, rugby balls and live chickens in birdcages. The flamboyance and lavishness of each costume, combined with this inventive use of materials and attention to detail make for a fantastic sensory extravaganza. And as each year is bigger and better, it is one of the most wonderfully strange spectacles that you will ever have the privilege to see.
Often over-shadowed by the bigger city of Auckland, Wellington is now developing its own distinctive, cosmopolitan personality and artistic identity. And with the addition of events such as WOW, Wellington is fast becoming an Antipodean mecca for the culturally or eccentrically inclined.
If You Go
Wellington is at the southern tip of the North Island. All roads lead to Wellington and it is the departure point for the South Island. Wellington International Airport is only a 10-minute drive from the city center or nine hours from Auckland. The InterIsland Line and Bluebridge Cook Strait Ferry both cross between the North and the South Island up to nine times daily.
Where to eat
With more restaurants, bars and cafés per head than New York, dining out is an effortless gastronomic delight. Some of the best are:
Shed 5 (Queens Wharf) — Built in 1888 as a woolshed, it is now one of the oldest remaining wharf stores and Wellington’s finest seafood restaurant.
Bouquet Garni (100 Willis Street) — Built in 1902, the building has a colorful past, starting life as a doctor’s surgery and residence and later becoming a brothel known as The House of Ladies. The three stories offer increasing formality as you ascend from the ground floor wine bar to the main restaurant, then up to the top level Salon Privée.
The Matterhorn (106 Cuba Street) — Established in 1963 as an immigrant Swiss pastry shop, Matterhorn sets the benchmark for the finest and freshest of New Zealand’s music, dining, drink design and culture.
Dockside Restaurant & Bar (Queens Wharf) — One of Wellington’s most diverse venues with the ability to cater to every need.
Where to stay
Wellington has accommodations to suit all tastes and budgets. Inquire at the Wellington Tourist Office on the Corner of Wakefield & Victoria streets.
+ 64 48024860
+ 64 48024863 (fax)
There are eight performances in the 2005 Show season: September 23, 24, 25, 29 and 30, October 1 and 2, 2005. (Friday 23rd is the Awards Night. All Shows start at 8 p.m., except for the Sunday Night performances, which start at 6 p.m. On Saturday October 1, there is a 1 p.m. and an 8 p.m. show).
Get the free Entertainment guide The Package from any local café or bar for up-to-date information.