Wellington was ranked the 12th most livable city in 2007 in a study conducted by Mercer Human Resource Consulting. Having lived in Auckland for over 12 years, I thought it was finally time to visit the capital city I had been meaning to visit for so long.
Minutes after checking in to my hostel in Courtenay Place, I was staring at the ever-shrinking colossal squid, touching pounamu (greenstone) and cramming weird and wonderful facts about New Zealand nature and history at Te Papa museum.
After setting off to discover Oriental Bay, Cuba Street and Lambton Quay by foot, I realized soon enough that Wellington City is so compact that it is near impossible to get lost. Skateboarders and cyclists are aplenty – a cheap, eco-friendly way to get around the petite vicinity.
I found Cuba Street to be the bohemian centre of the city, bubbling with charming buskers, bartering magicians and street performers, a handful of delightful cafes, secondhand bookshops, record stores, galleries and vintage boutiques.
Left Bank is a treasure – a small arcade which rests off Cuba Street. Here you will find Offbeat Originals, where their tofu vegan burger was undoubtedly the best I have ever had. A waterfront walk along to Oriental Bay Beach with a punnet of fresh strawberries in my hand preceded my trip to the Beehive Parliament Buildings.
The following morning I rode the famous red Cable Car up to the top of the Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden is home to acres and acres of protected forest, and there is even a duck pond. I recommend doing this whatever your age, packing a picnic and sitting under a tree, especially since many Wellingtonians I met took the Gardens for granted.
I concluded the day with by indulging in a hot chocolate from Café Enigma and taking a brief walk to pedestrian-only Manner’s Mall in twilight, where a talented three-piece jazz band played outside closed shops to an audience of three, and the occasional passers-by. It seems Auckland City is simply deprived of moments like these.
The exquisite Embassy Theatre, which hosted the premiere of Peter Jackson’s The Lovely Bones recently, was my choice of early morning entertainment on my last day in Wellington.
The theatre comes with attractive student prices, good coffee and a regal, marbled interior worthy of world premieres. It was a delight to see the children’s film Where the Wild Things Are by Spike Jonze at 10.30AM.
Intercity rivalry was as evident as ever. I saw an American folk-rap band called Why? at the San Francisco Bath House later that evening, who mentioned that they had played a show in Auckland the night before. Immediately, the bald-headed man next to me shouted out, “We call them Dork-land! We call them Suck-land!” Even the band engaged in some of the double-edged name calling. Very mature.
Wellington’s self-declared “cultural capital” status in certainly a true one. Sculptures in Auckland City tend to be contemporary and conceptual to the point of being ugly, whereas most of what I found in Wellington simply looked good in relation to its space and in respect to its Maori-Pakeha history.
There was a decent combination of traditional and contemporary art which brought the city to life. However, Auckland definitely wins the multicultural melting pot award.
A fine statue of Mahatma Gandhi fronts the Wellington Railway Station. The delicately detailed life size statue was donated to Wellington by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, sculpted by Indian artist Gautam Pal. At 6.30am, having a supermarket-bought breakfast outside in the overwhelming wind prior to catching my train, it was a delight to see a touch of Indian spirituality and political history embedded in Wellington’s aesthetic.
Upon telling locals that I was taking a train back to Auckland, they would respond with a "Why?” and “Haven’t you heard of flying? People fly, you know”. Riding the Overlander train from Wellington to Auckland is definitely worth the journey if you can endure the 12-hour travel time.
Meal choices on the train are limited, so be prepared with your own food if you are picky. I had a forgettable pumpkin-feta wrap accompany the unforgettable views of ravines, lakes and waterfalls, virgin forests, and the epic, snow-covered Mt Ruapehu.
Instead of reading Rukun Advani’s Beethoven Among the Cows which I had picked up at a bargain bookshop on Cuba Street earlier, much of the 12-hour trip was spent looking out the window, at rolling green hills and herds of little sheep running away from the sound of the train engine. It was a bit like traveling through the nostalgic backstreets of the beautiful rural New Zealand that city slickers rarely venture to see.
Being a tourist in the very country I live in was all very satisfying despite the lack of effort it took to travel - the flight was less than an hour, there was no currency to exchange and no language barrier to cross.
I left having discovered a small but attractive, and certainly very livable and colourful coastal city. The only time in my trip where I felt like I was out of my element was the occasional battles with the overpowering wind, but struggling to cross the road whilst keeping my hat from being blown off was a valuable experience in itself.
* Travel writer Manisha Anjali is a double major graduate in Film/TV/Media Studies and English from the University of Auckland