Wellington, the capital of cool

Jan 04, 2015, 08:12 IST | Sonia Nazareth

Sonia Nazareth goes in quest of literary plaques, walks by a kaleidoscopic piano on the street, ambles across its museums and discovers how New Zealand’s capital is steeped in history, films and nature

Best time to visit:All year
You need: 4 days

You’ve read reams on the charm of this cool little capital — nestled between the rural heartland of New Zealand’s North Island and the wild waters of the Cook Strait. But to get hooked in the magic web it spins, you really have to visit Wellington. It is one of those cities that thankfully has not succumbed to the high-rise epidemic, is infinitely walkable and has a waterfront that sparkles, whatever the weather.

The picturesque waterfront at Wellington
The picturesque waterfront at Wellington. Pics/Sonia Nazareth

I wander along the beachfront promenade in quest of the concrete plaques and inlaid wooden “benchmarks” that quote New Zealand’s sharpest literary minds, expressing their thoughts on their city. The plaques are cleverly hidden and in their pursuit, other observations unfold. What’s immediately striking is that the cafés and restaurants here are largely one-offs, flying the flag of the quirky, the non-mass-produced. A stone's throw away are public toilets that resemble giant sea monsters, infinitely more photographed than the boats that shimmer at the bay. A piano, with the kind of scintillating colours you’d see on a coral-reef dive, is mounted along the  oardwalk for anyone to try. A little old man, no bigger than a hobbit, hops atop a waiting stool and beguiles passersby with his clever compositions.

Three trolls manning the entrance of Wet caves
Three trolls manning the entrance of Wet caves

The city’s an artist
And that’s just it, about the city. Everyone's a poet, a musician, a writer, or involved creatively somehow with life. The pace is slow and there’s enough time post whatever makes you your money, to pursue your passions, to both — become and be. When the waterways are blue and the sun is high, the waterfront with the Oriental Bay beach strip glowing beside it, is glorious enchantment. And not all the writers in the world (even though I’ve found several writer's plaques by this time), can put into words the feelings that a bright day, which dispels some of the wind-chill, can conjure.

Innovative local toilets in Wellington
Innovative local toilets in Wellington

Cuba Street, a short walk away, with its bookshops and cafés, graffiti and street installations, vintage stores and funky galleries, is a prize for those in quest of the quirky, boutique and bohemian. The young, the tattooed, the rakishly-dressed, the brazen — stroll down the street like an army of people who live against the clock, ever happy to interrupt their journey for a random conversation over a gorge on a broccoli — tomato scone and a glass of Craft beer.

Plaques from the Wellington Writers’ Walk along the waterfront
Plaques from the Wellington Writers’ Walk along the waterfront

Movie mania
Soren, the taxi driver who drives me from Cuba Street to Weta Cave, like most taxi drivers I encounter in these parts, brims over with local insights. Weta, the multi-Academy Award-winning company, which has produced movies such as The Hobbit, Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin, has addicts and aficionados like Soren,biting their nails with excitement. Inside the hallowed portals, a video plays on loop, for anyone who wants a peek at how the movies that emerge out of here, are made. In an outer chamber, guarded by gigantic garden trolls, memorabilia on sale ranges from guns that feature in video games, to ginormous statues of Gollum.

You will never tire of gazing at Wellington’s sights
You will never tire of gazing at Wellington’s sights

A freshly-devised Workshop Tour leads travellers into an exhibition w ithin the functioning Weta Workshop. The appropriately elfin lady guiding us through, wields sword, both as pointer and admonishment against anyone who might resort to the use of a camera (strictly forbidden inside). Coats of armour, cars of dizzy ingenuity, guns of all dimensions, props and displays from assorted movies —dangle enticingly around us. “You don't need to be a fancy-degree designer to become a creator at Weta; you need to be talented and super-passionate,” our guide says with a wink.

Gollum at Weta, the multi-Academy Award-winning company, which has produced movies such as The Hobbit, Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin; grafitti at Cuba Street
Gollum at Weta, the multi-Academy Award-winning company, which has produced movies such as The Hobbit, Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin; grafitti at Cuba Street

Back to history
And what runs through this city are its stories. Te Papa — the granddaddy of museums, tugs one through the portals of Maori history (amid everything under the sun, including the sun) — with its interactive displays and hands-on exhibits. If you ever wanted to experience a contemporary-take on the marae (maori communal meeting place) or be treated to the stories and songs of a living culture, there’s no better introduction.

The nearby Museum of Sea and Sky that focuses both on nation and city, is small and personable enough for one to feel the energy behind the displays. The Katherine Mansfield House (where the writer was born — and what she recalls in her writing as “the awful cubby hole in town”), re-creates her times through a reproduction of historical garments and artifacts, all  interspersed with wall-texts detailing writings from her books. Objects — like the rocking horse  and the old piano that adorn the rooms, lead you thoughtfully back in time.

Colonial Cottage — an early pioneer home, is window into the life of 19th century New Zealand. The distinct colonial sensibility of its architecture and ornamental  gardens serve as reminders of the ties that the residents had to England. But as marvellous as the stories it tells, is that you can picnic in the carefully manicured gardens, overflowing with native plants that have their own specific curative properties. Sage for sore throat. Lavender to deter insects. Feverfew for headaches. “Can I picnic here without paying a fee?” I enquire. “Public spaces are meant to be enjoyed equally and by everyone,” the museum guide says, aghast at the idea that anyone should be pushed to pay entrance fee to a museum, to relish its gardens.

One with nature
The lesson in civility that Wellington offers, comes thus from many things. From the community- driven weekend markets. The sophisticated wine trails. The free Wi-Fi around its centre. The easily-accessible Welly Walks iPhone app, that allows you to negotiate its hidden gems. But it comes especially from Zealandia. This nature sanctuary and conservation area ensconced in the hills, two km west of town, with its scenic tracks, is home to more than 20 native bird species. Kiwi, the flightless takahe, the ancient Jurassic-looking tuatara, the playful tui — all are frequent visitors to this other Eden.

What’s marvellous is not just all the flora and fauna is carefully contextualised in multi-media exhibitions, but that visitors tiptoe reverentially around the park, silent and with awe. Grateful just to be voyeurs to splendid nature as it unfolds. Taking with them their own trash. Leaving minimal footprint. Whispering, lest they disturb the birds and animals whose natural home it is. And it is this considerate, ecologically-aware spirit, which makes my experience in Wellington, greater than the sum of its wildly-disparate parts.

Fact File
Getting there:
There are several one-stop flights between Mumbai and Wellington. Wellington International airport
is an easy 15-minute drive from the city centre

Where To stay: The Museum Hotel epitomizes the spirit of this city. The owner's eclectic art collection peppers all the public areas; his philosophy based on the idea that art must be shared. The rooms are comfortably quirky and the hotel is walking
distance from the waterfront and most main attractions. For more information, visit museumhotel.co.nz

What to buy: The store at the Te Papa Museum has high-quality homeware and New Zealand souvenirs. Look out for carved
greenstone jewellery and funky kiwi-shaped artifacts

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