Christchurch, New Zealand
Although it lies on a major fault line and is one of the windiest cities on earth, the compact capital city of Wellington is a better place to catch your breath than to lose it. Overlooking scenic Wellington Harbour near North Island’s southern top, New Zealand’s second largest city entertains visitors with an impressive series of festivals, renowned museums, and some of the country’s best theater and dance. A ten minute drive from the bustling city center brings visitors to wild shorelines and nature preserves.
Central Wellington is remarkable compact, though its suburbs sprawl around the harbor into nearby valleys and out onto the Miramar Peninsula. Easily explored in a day, downtown Wellington sits between the Railway Station and Kent Terrace, at the base of Mt. Victoria. Lambton Quay, home to hordes of well-dressed business types and fancy restaurants, is the main drag. Courtenay Place hopes with nightlife between Cambridge Terr. and Taranaki Street, while Cuba Street cultivates a more bohemian air between Abel Smith and Manners St. Locals say that the intersection of Cuba and Vivian St. is the “red-light district.” The Civic Square, near the waterfront, leads to Queens Wharf, Te Papa, and Oriental Bay. Near the water to the north is the historic area of Thorndon, home to the Railway Station and government buildings such as Parliament’s Beehive. The quiet residential streets and backpackers of the Mt. Victoria area form the southern edge of downtown.
Wellington offers a plethora of museums, city sights, libraries, cathedrals, and gardens to please any tourist. Stop by one of the numerous cafes before heading to the Courtenay Place for a fun night in town.
No matter where you choose to visit in Wellington, you can’t go wrong. Here are our recommendations in case you can’t decide. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.
Lambton Quay and Willis Street are full of lunch spots, but become dead at night. The young and chic liven up Courtenay Place and its side streets on evenings and weekends, while Cuba Street is peppered with smaller ethnic restaurants and cafes.
With the highest number of cafes per capita in the Southern Hemisphere (and thankfully, only three Starbucks), Wellington is certainly doing something right. Courtenay place is lined with standard cafes, while funkier finds dot the bohemian stretch of Cuba Street. Most cafes serve food and many extend the party with liquor licenses and late hours.
In the tradition of the earliest inhabitants’ dinner of roast moa and kumara (sweet potato), New Zealanders still maintain a largely meat-and-potatoes diet. While vegetarian and vegan options are becoming trendy, traditional New Zealand food tends to be meaty. The national dish is hot meat pie loaded with lamb or beef and gravy in flaky pastry. Seafood is always an abundant alternative; fresh fish, prawns, crayfish, shellfish, and more overrun coastal towns. Fruit-flavored ice cream with chunks of fruits is consumed in vast quantities, though hokey pokey (vanilla ice cream loaded with bits of toffee) is a national favorite. Not only does New Zealand proudly produce the most ice cream per capita in the world, it also rivals the US for most ice cream consumed per capita.
In small towns, the tendency toward the basic can be seen in the Main St. triumvirate of fish ‘n chip dives, cafes, and ever-present Chinese restaurants – all serving fried, greasy goodies. Ethnic restaurants, such as Thai, Malaysian, and Indian are no longer few and far between. Middle Eastern kebab joints, usually a good deal, have been proliferating. Keep in mind that ordering an entree will often get you an appetizer or starter in New Zealand; main courses are listed as mains.
While Kiwis serve excellent beer, with various national lagers and draughts (e.g., Steinlager, Speights, and Tui), it’s the wine that takes the cake. The wines of the Marlborough of Hawke’s Bay regions are world famous, particularly the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir varieties. New Zealand white wines challenge the French hold on the market, and red wines are improving. For non-alcoholic refreshment, try Lemon and Paeroa (L&P), a popular carbonated lemon drink that is “world-famous in New Zealand.” For a more refined thirst-quencher, you can enjoy a British-style Devonshire tea.
The late afternoon meal traditionally consists of tea, scone with Devonshire cream or jam, crumpets, and other delectables. A lighter Kiwi treat, often served for dessert, is the pavlova, a tribute to egg whites and kiwifruit. New Zealand offers a range of exotic fruits and veggies, including feijoas, nashi, persimmons, and of course kiwifruit. In 2000, the golden kiwifruit, a yellow, sweeter version of the traditional kiwi, was engineered for worldwide consumption.
Wellington nightlife comes in flavors ranging from business chic to skater cool. The Courtenay Place stretch is clogged with slick bars frequented by after-work businessmen and black-clad students; most establishments are indistinguishable from one another. The chilled-out pubs on Coba Street tend to be just as crowded but are less fond of amped up rock remixes.
The Summer City Festival is a brilliant cavalcade of festivals like Sunday night jazz in the Botanic Gardens, mass walks up Mt. Victoriam, and a Pacific Island festival. Wellington’s young crowd flocks to the Cuba Street Carnival in mid-February for live bands, street performers, and food. The biennial New Zealand Festival of the Arts, the country’s biggest celebration, draws artists and performers from across the globe. Between February and March, the Fringe Festival takes Wellington to the cutting edge, showcasing underground and experimental theater, music, dance, and spoken word. May plays the fool with the New Zealand International Comedy Festival, featuring big-name comedians from New Zealand and abroad. July rolls out the red carpet for the annual New Zealand International Film Festival, regular stop on the post-Cannes film festival circuit. The New Zealand Wearable Art Awards showcases outrageous human spectacles each September. For judges, gawkers, and their own entertainment, contestants design themselves as everything from dragonfly beauties to spiked cyberpunks to jellyfish. The Wellington International Jazz Festival takes to the waterfront during the last two weeks of October.
New Zealand society is largely bicultural, comprised primarily of British, Pakeha, and Maori New Zealanders. The world maori was originally used to distinguish “ordinary people” from strange European explorers. In fact, many Maori did not self-identify as Maori until well into the 1830s. Maoritanga, loosely translated as “the ways of the Maori,” serves as an umbrella term for the cultural traditions and organization of Maori life. Although many Maori now live off the traditional grounds in an urban environment, New Zealand has experienced a renaissance of Maoritanga as more Maori look to their rich heritage for identity.
The most fundamental idea of Maori custom is the notion of tapu and its lesser-known counterpart, noa. Tapu, roughly translated as “sacred” or “spiritual restriction,” indicates the presence of supernatural power (whether good or evil) and commands respect and attention. Ignoring tapu is a great taboo – yes, that is the root of the English word – across New Zealand. Noa underscores the absence of such power and thus deserves no special caution. For example, a man has the tapu responsibility in a tribe to oversee ceremonial duties and give speeches at a marae, but he cannot look respectable without the help of the female’s noa duties of preparing food and singing songs. Personal relationships within and between tribes also require an understanding of mana. Translated literally, the word means “prestige” or “responsibility,” but the meaning is more of an essence that grants seniority to a worthy individual. Traditionally, the amount of mana in an individual depends on his or her ancestry, experience, and seniority in a tribe. Nowadays, mana is instead often influenced more by one’s success and achievements.
In New Zealand, tribal association is not an official designation; there are over 40 recognized iwi in New Zealand. Within the iwi exist smaller regional communities called hapu. These communities were originally groups that owned land within the tribe. Today, each hapu seldom owns more land than a marae reserve. For this reason, the hapu generally has more significance for rural populations; city-dwellers generally tend to identify less with their hapu.
The marae are sacred grounds around a Maori whare tupuna (ancestral meeting house) and the site of the powhiri (formal welcome), receiving visitors into the community. The ceremony consists of four basic components. Upon arriving at the marae, a warrior from the village will greet visitors with a haka, an elaborate set of body movements and a tongue-protruding facial gesture (it’s exceedingly uncouth to return such a gesture). The wero (challenge) ends when a teka (peace offering) is offered and accepted. After this step, a female elder will issue the karanga, a chant of welcome and mourning for the visitors’ great ancestors. As your group crosses the marae, pause and bow in respect for the ancestors of the tribe before congregating in front of the whare. In response to the chief’s whaikorero (speech of welcoming), the designated chief of your group will deliver a brief speech in return (preferably in Maori as well, but protocol varies). To seal the bond of friendship, both chiefs press (but do not rub) noses together in the traditional greeting known as the hongi.
After the hongi, the separate groups finally mingle and are called to dine in the whare kai. Shoes are not worn inside the whare kai, and pictures may not be permitted, depending on the tribe. After a karakia (prayer) is given, the hangi (dinner), is prepared – sweet potatoes, meat, and other goodies roasted in a pit of stones.