Capital thrills: Attractions that make Wellington and its countryside enchanting

Zealandia, an eco sanctuary in Wellington.
Zealandia, an eco sanctuary in Wellington.PHOTO: TOURISM NEW ZEALAND

(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - When you're as far away from the rest of the world as Wellington is, you need to create your own entertainment or literally be bored to bits. So leave it to the residents of New Zealand's capital, who have long learnt that if the music won't come to Muhammad, Muhammad will just make his own.

A walk around the urban centre will show you why Wellington isn't just the country's political capital since 1865, it is also its cultural centre. The city is dotted with theatres and its calendar jam-packed with artistic events throughout the year. This isn't counting regular performances by the resident New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

One event that has even put it in the global spotlight is the World of Wearable Art show, founded by Dame Suzie Moncrieff, a respected sculptor and arts entrepreneur. It's now one of the biggest design competitions in the Southern Hemisphere, inspiring designers and artists to create avant-garde wearable works. There's also the annual Wellington Jazz Festival, which saw the likes of British pop diva Alison Moyet and New York jazz singer Keith Sweat headlining the show.

Wellington is easy to explore on foot, with almost every worthwhile sight within a 15-minute radius. First stop is Cuba Street, the hippest thoroughfare in town. It's lined with upmarket designer boutiques, vintage stores, art galleries and pottery studios. Look out for Kate Sylvester's quirky fashion buys, Vessel for ceramics by the country's top potters, and Ziggurat for antiques. Get lost in the little alleys that branch off the main street, and stumble upon artisanal makers and retailers of homemade chocolate and craft beer. Milk Crate is a friendly, buzzy coffee joint with a community spirit where everyone seems to know everyone.

A lot of the new buzz in the city is a result of the major earthquakes that destroyed buildings but not the human spirit. New residents - mainly young working adults from Christchurch and Auckland - have since made Wellington their home, bringing renewed vigour into the city.

With its proximity to fresh home-grown produce, it's hard to get a bad meal in Wellington. Don't even think of slinking into familiar fast food eateries out of indecision. Even the smallest, most humble cafe will be able to serve you fresh, wholesome goodness to order. And it is surprisingly cosmopolitan, with cuisines as varied as the flags flapping gently outside the United Nations headquarters.

Whether your palate leans towards Asia, Europe or Polynesia, the city's bright young chefs will impress with their passion and creativity. Take Loretta, a three-year-old casual eatery that has earned a special mention in Vogue Australia as the hippest place to be in Wellington. Open from breakfast to dinner, Loretta is big on hearty cooking which comes in well-proportioned servings. And for those who cannot survive a day without Asian food, there is Monsoon Poon, a vibrant Asian restaurant serving contemporary dishes from India, South China, Vietnam, Thailand and the rest of the region.

History buffs can easily get lost for a couple of hours in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, right in the city centre. It's the go to place for a quick lesson located in the city centre, which offers a quick introduction to the past, present and future of New Zealand and its people. What grabbed us was the recent and spectacular exhibition on the history of Gallipoli, unfolded through the eyes and words of ordinary New Zealanders. The biggest thrill was the sight of awesome, giant figurines created at Weta Workshops.

When you've had your fill of the city, let the countryside around Wellington lure you with its charms. Head for Greytown, located two hours by car from the city, and chill out with a glass of wine from a boutique winery. Poppy and Shayne Hammond, a husband-and-wife team, are household names known for their stylish wine and food. Their well-decorated vineyard-cum-tasting room at Poppies Martinborough looks like a page straight out of Elle Décor. Catch either the husband or the wife, who would be glad to guide you through their extensive list of wines to wash down platters of local seasonal food.

Recover from all that wine with a visit to the Kahikatea Gardens - 40 acres of manicured greenery populated by pet sheep, miniature horses, alpacas, donkeys, and a sheep that thinks it's a pet dog. Owned by a local couple, Neil and Greg Montgomerie-Crowe, this estate has been in their family for three generations. Neil proudly points out certain trees and garden sculptures that were grown and made by his parents and grandparents. If the owners are in a good mood, there will be a spread of homemade biscuits and jams waiting for the visitors.

Greytown might be small, remote and filled with Victorian colonial architecture, but it's home to a famous retailer. Food Forest Organics is owned and run by the Cameron family - yes, that of famous Hollywood director James Cameron. The shop's produce is grown and harvested on The Cameron Family Farm in Wairarapa. The town also features a wide range of cafes and restaurants serving seasonal menus and local wines. Chocolate aficionados should drop by Shoc Chocolates, where owner Murray Langham sources cocoa beans from all over the world to create over 85 flavours for the fussiest clients.

Before your flight home from Wellington airport, drop by Zealandia. This 225-hectare, fully fenced eco sanctuary was founded on an extraordinary 500-year vision aimed at restoring Wellington Valley's forest and freshwater ecosystems as closely as possible to their pre-human state. The walking trail within the sprawling grounds is clearly marked and will take you within sight of some of the rarest birds, reptiles and insects living in their natural habitat, including the lizard-like Tuatara, and the wild fowl, Takahe and Kiwi.

Places of Interest

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa
55 Cable Street
Wellington
Tel: +64-4-381-7000

Zealandia
End of Waiapu Road
Karori, Wellington
Tel: +64-4-920-9200

Shopping

Food Forest Organics
101 Main Street
Greytown, NZ
Tel: +64-6-304-9790

Kate Sylvester Wellington
26 Cuba Street
Wellington
Tel: +64-4-473-0943

Shoc Chocolates
177 Main Street
Greytown 5712, NZ
Tel: +64-6-304-8960

Vessel Shop
87 Victoria Street
Wellington
Tel: +64-4-499-2321

Ziggurat
144 Cuba Street
Te Aro, Wellington
Tel: +64-4-385-1077

Dining

Loretta
181 Cuba Street
Te Aro, Wellingotn
Tel: +64-4-384-2213

Hippopotamus Restaurant
QT Museum Wellington
90 Cable Street, Wellington
Tel: +64-4-802-8935

Milk Crate
35 Ghuznee Street
Wellington
Tel: +64-4-802-5960

Monsoon Poon
12 Blair Street
Wellington
Tel: +64-4-803-3555

Where to stay

Museum Art Hotel
90 Cable Street
Wellington 6011, NZ
Tel: +64-4-802-8900

Getting there

SIA flies to Wellington
via Canberra