Wellington: New Zealand's gastronomic capital

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The pint-sized city of Wellington is not just New Zealand's political centre but a gastronomic capital too, as Chris Dwyer discovers

Capital cities around the world tend to fall into one of two categories: big, brash and in your face, or soulless political hubs filled with technocrats and suits. New Zealand’s capital, Wellington, is neither. Instead it manages to meld laid-back, small town charm with jaw-dropping vistas, a vibrant arts scene and a thriving locavore food culture, fuelled by world-class coffee and wine.

Welly (as the locals occasionally call it) is barely a 45-minute hop from Auckland, down at the southern tip of the North Island. The arrival sets the tone as, on a clear day, the minutes before landing are nothing short of breathtaking. Vertiginous cliffs and snow-dusted mountains give way to the calm waters of Wellington Harbour as the city is laid out beneath you. 

As you walk off the plane, you’re met by an enormous fiberglass Gollum suspended from the terminal ceiling, a reminder that Oscar-winning director Peter Jackson is the city’s most famous son and one of its biggest employers through his companies, such as special effects studio Weta Workshop.

On the ground, one thing quickly becomes clear – Wellington is compact and eminently walkable. A taxi from the airport to the city centre takes barely 15 minutes and is possibly the only time you’ll need to take one the entire time you’re visiting. It’s also easy finding your bearings, especially once you’ve been up in the 113-year-old cable car to the Botanic Garden and Kelburn Lookout. The single red carriage is not unlike our Peak Tram in Hong Kong, even if the gradient is softer and the journey shorter. After only a few minutes you’re overlooking the entire city, the harbour and the surrounding Rimutaka Range of mountains.

The walk back downhill takes 40 minutes or so, wending its way through landscaped rolling parks, where the only sounds are birdsong and the occasional pant of a jogger running the ‘city to sea’ trail. Wellington’s history is comparatively recent, so there aren’t a huge number of historic sites, but as you finish the walk you’re not far from one of the best. Old St Paul’s (34 Mulgrave St, Pipitea; +64 4473 6722) is a wooden cathedral made entirely from native timbers with soaring wooden arches. The city – and indeed the country’s – past is beautifully laid out at the Te Papa museum (55 Cable St, +64 4381 7000; tepapa.govt.nz) on the waterfront. In addition to brilliant natural history exhibits, it tells the story from Maori tradition of how Whatonga was the first person to settle the lands at the tip of the North Island and named the harbour Whanganui-a-tara after his son. Subsequent European settlement followed in the mid-19th century.

A century and a half later, arguably Wellington’s greatest asset is its people and their seemingly innate ability to appreciate the good things in life. It shows as people walk, run and bike home along the waterfront at a decent time, not chained to their desks or stuck in the rat race. But nowhere is this trait more apparent than in their love of good food, coffee and wine. 

Almost everyone seems well informed, knowledgeable and passionate about the culinary scene. The beauty is that, while they take quality very seriously, it’s done without pretence or show. Restaurants are the definition of relaxed; even at the higher end there’re no starched linen or outrageously marked-up wine lists, just knowledgeable and friendly staff who are proud of what they’re doing. And so they should be, as professional and home chefs alike benefit from a cornucopia of stunning local produce that would be hard to equal anywhere else. 

Brunch is a big deal, not least because coffee has become a religion here and every street seems to feature a roaster or a café emitting enticing aromas. Nikau Café (101 Wakefield St, Te Aro, +64 4801 4168; nikaucafe.co.nz) serves justifiably famous pancakes and a kedgeree to die for in a cool space near the Wellington Art Gallery, while Prefab (14 Jessie St, Te Aro, +64 4385 2263; pre-fab.co.nz) is a cracking modern spot open until mid-afternoon with one of the finest bacon sandwiches in the southern hemisphere. Floriditas (161 Cuba St, Te Aro, +64 4381 2212; floriditas.co.nz) wins out in the photogenic stakes, thanks to its charming interior of white tiles, huge windows and high ceilings in a heritage building. And for its fish pie, too. All serve great coffee but Customs Brew Bar (39 Ghuznee St, Te Aro, +64 4385 2129; coffeesupreme.com) takes the caffeine prize with an impressive array of beards, Ethiopian single estate brews and retro equipment. Next door, Bowen Galleries (35 Ghuznee St, +64 4381 0351; bowengalleries.co.nz) features works by the local artists who continue to make Wellington the country’s artistic hub.

Dinner sees the restaurant scene truly come in to its own. Logan Brown (192 Cuba St, Te Aro, +64 4801 5114; loganbrown.co.nz) is something of a local institution, generally accepted as the city’s most refined dining spot. The dining room is a stunner, housed in a 1920’s bank chamber with high stuccoed ceilings, but, again, the service and approach is eminently down-to-earth. The paua ravioli is a must-order. Paua is Maori for abalone and chef Steve Logan serves it enveloped in light pasta parcels under a basil, coriander and lime beurre blanc. It’s a cracking dish, as is the dangerously decadent lamb rack with rabbit shepherd’s pie, pancetta and kale gratin. Both are available as part of the chef’s choice tasting menu ($479).

Down from the Te Papa museum, looking back over the water towards the city, Whitebait (G04/1, Clyde Quay Wharf, Te Aro, +64 4385 8555; white-bait.nz) is the newest venue from chef Paul Hoather. In a first for the city, he has translated his entire menu into Maori and in a sleek, contemporary space that feels almost Japanese, he lets the quality of natural, sustainable and local produce shine through. 

A visit to New Zealand feels incomplete without a wine experience and Wellington is also perfectly positioned to tick that box. A picturesque hour-long train ride snakes along the shores of Wellington Harbour, taking you to the small town of Featherston. From here a number of companies collect passengers for a gourmet wine tour around the vineyards of Martinborough. 

The area benefits from a unique microclimate and, although this is very much pinot country, offers a wide selection of grapes, blends and vintages. The renowned Ata Rangi (14 Puruatanga Rd, Martinborough, +64 6306 9570; atarangi.co.nz) is one of the best vineyards. It’s tiny, with a tasting area like someone’s front room, but everything here, especially the 2012 organic pinot noir, is a knockout. A fitting précis of Wellington itself – a world-class experience in humble and laid back surroundings.

Where to stay
The Museum Art Hotel describes itself as a ‘privately owned luxury boutique hotel in the heart of New Zealand’s capital’. This 165-room property offers both hotel-style and apartment-style rooms with a kitchenette. Rooms are spacious and have an arty touch. 90 Cable St, Te Aro, +64 4802 8900; museumhotel.co.nz. Rooms from $1,100 per night (inc tax). 

Recently refurbished, the InterContinental is located close to the waterfront, with a total of 232 rooms and suites featuring views of the harbour or the city. There are also two restaurants and spa facilities available. 2 Grey St, +64 4472 2722; ihg.com. Rooms from $1,330 per night (inc tax). 

How to get there:
Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies to Wellington, via Sydney from $8,000 (inc tax). However, if you have time, the slow but jaw-droppingly scenic train takes 12 hours from Auckland.  

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