Did you know that the famous red Wellington Cable Car has been running for 121 years? Or that you can find a hilariously terrible taxidermy lion in the attic of Wellington Museum? How about the fact that Parliament was officially opened by the Queen in 1954?
One fact that most people know about Wellington is that it tends to blow its guts out here. On a grey and blustery day, rain speckles the windows and outdoor tables at Lola Stays in Wellington’s Oriental Bay. On a good day it would be a popular spot to dine alfresco opposite the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club where a grove of masts sways in the ubiquitous wind. Hardy joggers persevere along the parade, squinting into the inclement weather.
Fortified by a nutritious lunch, I zip myself into my raincoat to brave the city’s elements. Umbrellas are rendered redundant here pretty quickly.
The Wellington Cable Car is a historic attraction, first opening in 1902 to passengers, but still serving a valuable purpose more than 120 years later – providing easy access to the steep hillside suburb of Kelburn, to Victoria University and the city’s Botanic Gardens.
Construction started on the Cable Car in 1899, and it took two and a half gruelling years to construct the three tunnels, four viaducts and 39 chains of cable up the steep incline. Today, the tunnels are bedecked in LEDs, creating colourful light displays that add smile-inducing vibrancy to the short journey.
The Wellington Botanic Gardens are similarly steep. Multi-tiered layers cascade down the hillside, with pockets of exotic botany zoned for different parts of the world. I descend past the discovery garden, a hands-on spot for kids to explore, past succulents and cacti with a growing sense of anxiety: I’m going to have to go back up... But I steel myself and climb the hill through groves and along stepped pathways, calves burning, with screeching kākā swooping overhead.
It’s a relief to sink into a comfortable reclined seat at Space Place Te Ara Whānui ki te Rangi at Carter Observatory to gaze at the heavens. On the enormous, domed ceiling, galaxies swirl and shift above me. I spot the Southern Cross aka Māhutonga aka Crux, the key constellation of the Southern Hemisphere. The informative talk explaining the mind-boggling vastness of the universe makes me feel like an infinitesimal speck.
I feel similarly small walking back along the Wellington waterfront where the wind is like a giant palm pressed against my back. Max Patte’s famous Solace in the Wind sculpture is clenching his iron buttocks extra hard today. Wobbling, giggling tourists pass me on hired scooters – everyone tangled of hair and flushed of cheek.
Ortega Fish Shack is another Wellington institution. A stalwart of the city’s dining scene, Ortega sits at the juncture between CBD and suburbia at the foot of Mount Victoria. Inside, the décor is quirky. Maritime-themed art jostles with framed fly-fishing lures, vintage sardine tins and a stuffed rooster who presides over the dining room. It is warm, inviting – fine-dining in disguise. I choose the Asian flavours of the kingfish ceviche followed by succulent tentacles of octopus sourced from the Tora coast in Wairarapa.
The next day is one of the kind that Wellingtonians boast about. A ‘good’ one, in which the city is hard to beat. The sunny waterfront hums with a briny breeze and brisk walkers.
A trio with at least 20 dogs on a spiderweb of leashes draws bemused smiles from onlookers. This is the kind of day when outside tables are coveted, grass squares are dotted with sunbathers, scoop ice cream is de rigueur. Sunshine pinpricks the harbour with diamonds.
Away from the sea I head to the most famous building in Aotearoa: The Beehive. Designed in the 1960s and predominantly constructed in the 1970s, today the Beehive houses the executive wing of Government.
I join one of the regular daily tours to explore the hallowed halls and rooms made famous by clamoring press mauls and media briefings. Visiting the theatrette is like stepping into a 1pm pandemic briefing, the space is so familiar from our screens. The debating chamber – the setting for arguments, both petty and groundbreaking, verbal jousting and famous faux pas – feels much smaller in real life.
On my visit, the freshly minted 54th Government are still in the process of changing guard. Offices will be shifted, with the outgoing cabinet moving to Parliament House and the new MPs taking up residence in the Beehive. It’s all swings and roundabouts here.
Over the years I have crossed the City to Sea bridge many, many times on visits to the capital, without having much idea of its historical or cultural significance. So, I take the opportunity to delve deeper on a City to Sea walking tour.
The tour begins at Te Wharewaka o Pōneke, the cultural and function centre on Wellington’s waterfront, with a mihi whakatau – an informal welcome and waiata from hosts Kohu and Ariana. They are young people, both fluent in te reo, and with a passion for sharing stories of Māori culture and history. The site of Wharewaka o Pōneke was once a significant Māori settlement on the harbour’s edge, Kohu explains, so operating from here represents a restoration of Māori presence by the harbour.
The City to Sea bridge opened in 1994 to do exactly what its name says – connect the CBD to the waterfront and provide pedestrian access across the busy downtown road. Crafted by artist Paratene Matchitt, the design incorporates a pair of albatrosses, a pair of whale tails, talking to various Māori legends. Kohu explains how one of these legends is the creation story of Te Whanganui a Tara, telling the tale of two taniwha brothers, Ngake and Whataitai who once lived in the harbour and broke through to create the entrance to Cook Strait.
I leave the tour with something new in my knowledge kete. But I need a second knowledge kete after a visit to the Wellington Museum.
Originally a bond store building, constructed in 1892, legend has it that the original wooden warehouse was rebuilt in concrete because sailors would drill through the floorboards to steal the liquor stored there.
On the ground floor I walk over Wellington City. The carpet is a LINZ photo of the full city map. It’s fascinating to have a bird’s-eye perspective of the places and spaces I’d been exploring earlier.
The museum is unashamedly Wellington-centric and very eclectic, from pop culture items like trousers that belonged to Booga Beazley from Kiwi band Head Like a Hole, to intricately carved Māori jewellery boxes. There's the cannon from the Aurora, the first European ship to visit Wellington in 1840. There’s maritime memorabilia, quirky social history and that mangy, moth-eaten lion with lurid green eyes known as King Dick, after Prime Minister Richard Seddon, who has become a bit of a Wellington icon himself.
The museum provides a new perspective on the history of Wellington. It’s a perspective that I find I’ve inadvertently applied to my whole visit – discovering new and unexpected sides of the city.
Explore more from AA Directions magazine while you're here:
- Discover how the Featherston Community Centre in Wairarapa enhances the small town
- Get top tips from Nichole Lewis, property expert
- Find out how you can make your home safe for babies and young kids