Wellington and around Travel Guide

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Understandably, people visiting New Zealand often reject its cities in favour of scenic splendour – with the exception of Wellington. The urban jewel in the country’s otherwise bucolic crown, Wellington is by far New Zealand’s most engaging and attractive metropolis, a buzzing, cosmopolitan capital worthy of any visitor’s attention. Wedged between glistening Wellington Harbour (technically Port Nicholson) and the turbulent Cook Strait, Wellington is the principal departure point to the South Island. But, as the country’s only city with a beating heart, it warrants a stay of at least a couple of days – more if you can manage it.

Tight surrounding hills restrict Wellington to a compact core, mostly built on reclaimed land. Distinctive historical and modern architecture spills down to the bustling waterfront with its beaches, marinas and restored warehouses, overlooked by Victorian and Edwardian weatherboard villas and bungalows that climb the steep slopes to an encircling belt of parks and woodland, a natural barrier to development. Many homes are accessed by narrow winding roads or precipitous stairways flanked by a small funicular railway to haul groceries and just about anything else up to the house. What’s more, “Welly”, as it’s locally known, is New Zealand’s windy city, buffeted by chilled air funnelled through Cook Strait, its force amplified by the wind-tunnelling effect of the city’s high-rise buildings.

With a population of around 400,000, Wellington is New Zealand’s second most populous city. And while Auckland grows more commercially important (and self-important in the eyes of its residents), Wellington reaches for higher ground as the nation’s cultural capital. Wellingtonians have cultivated the country’s most sophisticated café society, nightlife and arts scene, especially in late summer when the city hosts a series of arts and fringe festivals.

Central Wellington is easily walkable; the heart of the city centre stretches south from the train station to Courtenay Place along the backbone of the central business and shopping district, Lambton Quay. The main areas for eating, drinking and entertainment are further south around Willis Street, Courtenay Place, arty Cuba Street, and down to the waterfront at Queens Wharf. From the central Civic Square, points of interest run both ways along the waterfront, including the city’s star attraction, Te Papa, the groundbreaking national museum. Also worth a look is the revamped Museum of Wellington City and Sea, which recounts the city’s development, Maori history and seafaring traditions. Politicians and civil servants populate the streets of the Parliamentary District. Nearby, you can visit Katherine Mansfield’s Birthplace, the period-furnished childhood home of New Zealand’s most famous short-story writer.

The city centre is also the jumping-off point for ambling or cycling along Oriental Parade and up to one of the hilltop viewpoints, such as Mount Victoria, or catching the stately Cable Car to Kelburn. From Kelburn, you can either wander down through the formal Botanic Gardens or continue further out to see the ambitious and important conservation work at Zealandia: the Karori Sanctuary Experience, and Otari-Wilton’s Bush, the only public botanic garden in the country dedicated solely to native plants. Zealandia and Otari-Wilton’s Bush form part of the Town Belt, a band of greenery across the hills that encircles the city centre containing several good walks and many of the city’s best lookout points. To the east of the city are the quiet suburbs and beaches of the Miramar Peninsula, now best known as the home of “Wellywood”, the heart of the city’s film industry; you can’t miss it, thanks to the new Hollywood-style Wellington sign, with the letters symbolically blown along by the wind.

Superb hiking opportunities include the seal colony at Red Rocks, or the city’s many trails, notably the Southern Walkway. And at some point during your stay in this harbour city, you really should get out on the water to the serene wildlife sanctuary of Matiu/Somes Island.

Wellington also makes a good base to explore Kapiti Island and the Wairarapa wine district; and for wine tours from Wellington.

Brief history

Maori oral histories tell of the demigod Maui, who fished up the North Island, with Wellington Harbour being the mouth of the fish; and of the first Polynesian navigator, Kupe, discovering Wellington Harbour in 925 AD and naming the harbour’s islands Matiu (Somes Island) and Makaro (Ward Island) after his daughters (see Matiu/Somes Island). Several iwi settled around the harbour, including the Ngati Tara people, who enjoyed the rich fishing areas and the protection the bay offered.

Both Abel Tasman (in 1642) and Captain Cook (in 1773) were prevented from entering Wellington Harbour by fierce winds, and, apart from a few sealers and whalers, it wasn’t until 1840 that the first wave of European settlers arrived. They carved out a niche on a large tract of harbourside land, purchased by the New Zealand Company, who set up their initial beachhead, named Britannia, on the northeastern beaches at Petone. Shortly afterwards, the Hutt River flooded, forcing the settlers to move around the harbour to a more sheltered site known as Lambton Harbour (where the central city has grown up) and the relatively level land at Thorndon, at that time just north of the shoreline. They renamed the settlement after the Iron Duke and began land reclamations into the harbour, a process that continued for more than a hundred years.

In 1865, the growing city succeeded Auckland as the capital of New Zealand, and by the turn of the twentieth century the original shoreline of Lambton Harbour had been replaced by wharves and harbourside businesses, which formed the hub of the city’s coastal trade; Wellington has prospered ever since.

Accommodation

Wellington has plenty of accommodation in the city centre, including some excellent backpacker hostels. B&Bs are becoming less common, but there’s an increasing number of stylish self-catering serviced apartments. Breakfasting (or brunching) out is a quintessential Wellington experience, so you might not want a place where breakfast is included. Central motels are in short supply, but many business-oriented hotels offer good-value deals, especially at weekends. For a little peace and quiet, you might want to stay outside the city centre, and drive or take public transport into town.

Civic Square

A popular venue for outdoor events, Civic Square was extensively revamped in the early 1990s by New Zealand’s most influential and versatile living architect, Ian Athfield, who juxtaposes old and new, regular and irregular forms and incorporates artwork. The open space is full of interesting sculptures, including Neil Dawson’s Ferns – interlinking metal fern fronds formed into a ball that appears to float above the square.

Drinking and nightlife

Most pubs and bars are open daily, from around eleven in the morning until midnight or later. The distinction between bars and clubs is often blurred, with many bars hosting free live music and dancing in the evenings, especially at weekends. Resident and guest DJs mix broad-ranging styles to create a party- or club-style atmosphere. Cuba St is home to some of new Zealand’s best nightlife, with a huge array of late-night cafés, bars and clubs within walking distance of each other.

Eating

Wellington has more places to eat per capita than new York and the standard is impressively high, whatever the budget. As the country’s self-professed coffee capital (Wellington has no fewer than ten independent roasteries), you’ll find the good stuff served up everywhere from cosy spots through to the très chic. Gastronomes might want to join a gourmet tour. If you want to head further off the beaten track, local neighbourhoods worth scouting out include newtown and the aro Valley. In the streets around Courtenay Place and Cuba Street there’s a plethora of local and international restaurants – from cheap curry joints and bohemian cafés through to award-winning establishments headed up by some of the finest chefs in the country. During the day many restaurants offer bargain lunch specials. Many pubs and bars also serve impressive and generally inexpensive fare. If you’re here on a Sunday morning, head down to the car park near te papa to the fruit and vegetable market and the nearby of artisan goods from local producers.

The Hutt Valley

At the northern end of the harbour commuter-land spreads along the Hutt Valley, the largest tract of flat land in these parts, accessible along SH2 and by suburban trains and buses. The original founding of Wellington is remembered in Petone’s Settlers Museum, while nearby Lower Hutt has Wellington’s closest campsite, a great art gallery, and is on the way to the rugged Rimutaka Forest Park.

North of Civic Square

As the city progressively reconnects to the harbour, there’s plenty of action around Queens Wharf, home to expensive harbour-view apartments, the Museum of Wellington City and Sea and a variety of bars and restaurants, as well as the Mojo coffee roastery.

The business heart of Wellington beats along Lambton Quay, which runs north to the Parliamentary District, the city’s administrative and ecclesiastical hub. Parliament marks the southern edge of Thorndon, Wellington’s oldest suburb and home of the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace.

The Botanic Gardens

A lookout at the top of the Cable Car provides spectacular views over the city. Here, you’re also at the highest point of Wellington’s Botanic Gardens, a huge swathe of green on peaceful rolling hills with numerous paths that wind down towards the city. Pick up the useful free map from the Cable Car Museum.

Lady Norwood Rose Garden and Begonia House

The star in the Botanic Garden’s firmament is the fragrant Lady Norwood Rose Garden, where a colonnade of climbing roses frames beds of over three hundred varieties set out in a formal wheel shape. The adjacent Begonia House is divided into two areas: the tropical, with an attractive lily pond, and the temperate, which has seasonal displays of begonias and gloxinias in summer, changing to cyclamen, orchids and impatiens in winter.

Carter Observatory

Two minutes’ walk from the upper Cable Car terminus is the fabulous, revamped, 1941 Carter Observatory, which has illuminating displays on the New Zealand angle on the exploration of the southern skies, from Maori and Pacific Island astronomy and astronavigation through to recent planet searches. Of particular note are a telescope from Captains Cook’s era, a piece of moon rock you can touch and the chance to launch a rocket – you man the console, initiate the launch and feel the ground shake as you view the footage of the space bound projectile. Make time to catch one of the jaw-dropping planetarium shows that include live night sky viewings.

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield Beauchamp (1888–1923) is New Zealand’s most famous short-story writer. During her brief life, she revolutionized the form, eschewing plot in favour of a poetic expansiveness. Virginia Woolf claimed Mansfield’s work to be “the only writing I have ever been jealous of”.

Mansfield lived on Tinakori Road for five years with her parents, three sisters and beloved grandmother, and the place is described in some of her works, notably “Prelude” and “A Birthday”. The family later moved to a much grander house in what is now the western suburb of Karori until, at 19, Katherine left for Europe, where she lived until dying of tuberculosis in France, aged 34.

Museum of Wellington City and Sea

Near lively Queens Wharf, a Victorian former bond store houses the absorbing Museum of Wellington City and Sea. The city’s social and maritime history unfolds through well-executed displays on early Maori and European settlement and the city’s seafaring heritage. The ground floor offers an easily digestible chronological overview of key events, while the main focus of the first floor is the poignant coverage of the Wahine disaster, remembering the inter-island ferry that sank with the loss of 52 lives on April 10, 1968. The Wahine foundered in one of New Zealand’s most violent storms ever, with 734 people on board. On the top floor, a hologram presentation tells the Maori legends of the creation of Wellington Harbour, while rising up through the centre of the building, a tall screen features a roster of short films. There are also museum tours, including the popular Ship ’n Chip tour which involves a ferry trip to Matiu/Somes Island and fish and chips for lunch.

Parliamentary District

The northern end of Lambton Quay marks the start of the Parliamentary District, dominated by the grandiose Old Government Buildings, which at first glance appear to be constructed from cream stone, but are really wooden. Designed by colonial architect William Clayton (1823–77) to mark the country’s transition from provincial to centralized government, the intention was to use stone but cost-cutting forced a rethink. When completed in 1876, it was the largest building in New Zealand, and except for an ornamental palace in Japan remains the largest timber building in the world. It’s currently occupied by Victoria University’s Law Faculty, but you can usually duck inside, nip up the rimu staircase and see the series of photos of the building as a backdrop to various historical demonstrations and protests.

The Katherine Mansfield Birthplace

A ten-minute walk north from the cathedrals through Thorndon gets you to the Katherine Mansfield Birthplace, a modest wooden house with small garden that was Mansfield’s childhood abode. The house has a cluttered Victorian/Edwardian charm and avant-garde decor for its time, inspired by Japonisme and the Aesthetic Movement. An upstairs room is set aside to recount a history of the author’s life and career, with some black-and-white photos of Wellington and the people that shaped her life – and videos including the excellent A Woman and a Writer.

Riding the Cable Car

Even if you never use the rest of Wellington’s public transport system, don’t miss the short scenic ride up to the leafy suburb of Kelburn and the upper section of the Botanic Gardens on the Cable Car, installed in 1902. Its shiny red railcars depart every ten minutes from the lower terminus on Cable Car Lane, just off Lambton Quay, and climb a steep, one-in-five incline, making three stops along the way and giving great views over the city and harbour. At the upper terminus on Upland Road, the Cable Car Museum contains the historic winding room with the electric drive motor and a cat’s cradle of cables. Two century-old cars are on display along with plenty of background on cable cars around the world. Take time to catch the short movies, particularly the one about the 400-plus mini cable cars people still use to access their properties locally.

South of Civic Square

You’re likely to spend much of your time south of Civic Square visiting Te Papa or eating and drinking around Cuba Street and Courtenay Place, but don’t miss out on Oriental Parade – a lovely stroll with harbour views, a small beach and the chance to hike up to the summit of Mount Victoria.

Courtenay Place and Cuba Street

Wellington’s entertainment heartland is centred on Courtenay Place and adjacent Cuba Street. Named after an emigrant ship (not the island after which the ship was christened, despite the Cuban-themed establishments in this part of town), Cuba Street and its offshoots comprise Wellington’s “alternative” district, with secondhand bookshops, vintage record stores, retro and emerging-designer fashion outlets, quirky cafés, and hip bars and restaurants. Between Dixon and Ghuznee streets, Cuba Street’s colourful and iconic Bucket Fountain was installed in 1969 and still splashes unsuspecting passers-by.

Cuba Street under threat

If not the character then certainly the look of some parts of Wellington is set to change. Many of Wellington’s older, more atmospheric buildings, primarily along Cuba Street and its surrounds, are under threat, having fallen foul of new legislation on building safety, enacted since the Christchurch earthquakes of 2010 and 2011. The cost of bringing these edifices up to standard is, in some cases, prohibitive and may mean their loss to the wrecking ball. As with Christchurch, this is both an opportunity and a bane, since new buildings will almost certainly be high rent, forcing many of the current quirkier occupants to decamp.

Mount Victoria

At 196m, Mount Victoria Lookout is one of the best of Wellington’s viewpoints, offering sweeping views of the city, waterfront, docks and beyond to the Hutt Valley; all particularly dramatic around dusk. If you don’t fancy the steep but rewarding walk, you can also reach the summit by bus (#20; Mon–Fri), the Wellington Rover, or by car following Hawker Street, off Majoribanks Street, then taking Palliser Road, which twists uphill to the lookout.

Oriental Parade

Immediately east of Te Papa, Waitangi Park is named after a long culverted stream that has been restored to its natural course, creating a small urban wetland. At the end of Herd Street, the Chaffers Dock development incorporates cafés as well as the atrium where Wellington’s Sunday-morning farmers’ market sets up. The park marks the start of Oriental Parade, Wellington’s most elegant section of waterfront. Skirting Oriental Bay, this Norfolk-pine-lined road curls past some of the city’s priciest real estate and even flanks a beach installed here in 2003 with sand brought across Cook Strait from near Takaka. Apart from the Freyberg pool and a few restaurants, there are no attractions as such, but you can extend a stroll into a full afternoon by continuing to Charles Plimmer Park and joining the Southern Walkway to the summit of Mount Victoria.

Te Papa

The constantly evolving Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa, rewards repeat visits – you can spend an entire day among the exhibits and still not see them all. A couple of cafés help sustain long visits.

This $350-million celebration of all things New Zealand occupies a striking purpose-built five-storey building on the waterfront and was opened in 1998 after extensive consultation with iwi (tribes). Aimed equally at adults and children (including hands-on kids’ activities in dedicated “discovery” spaces), it combines state-of-the-art technology and dynamic exhibits. Well worth $3 is the Te Papa Explorer guide, outlining routes such as “Te Papa Highlights” or “Kids’ Highlights”. Alternatively, book one of the amazing guided tours.

Level 2

The hub of Te Papa is Level 2, with its interactive section on earthquakes and volcanoes, where you can experience a realistic quake inside a shaking house, see displays on the fault line that runs right through Wellington, watch Mount Ruapehu erupt on screen and hear the Maori explanation of the causes of such activity. There’s also the hi-tech multimedia centre OurSpace, where you can project your own text images onto a giant screen, The Wall, and board two simulator rides ($10 each, or $18 for both): The High Ride, whirling you through the 3D world of The Wall, and the Deep Ride, journeying into a virtual underwater volcano. Level 2 also provides access to the outdoor Bush City, a synthesis of New Zealand environments complete with native plants, a small cave system and swingbridge. From November to March, the hour-long Taste of Treasures tour (11am; tickets must be bought before 10.45am; $24) includes traditional Maori refreshments made from bush plants.

Level 4

The main collection continues on Level 4, home to the excellent main Maori section including a thought-provoking display on the Treaty of Waitangi, dominated by a giant glass image of this significant document. There’s also an active marae with a symbolic modern meeting house quite unlike the classic examples found around the country, protected by a sacred boulder of pounamu (greenstone); check behind the cupboard doors at the back for some imagery that shows both a sense of humour and the incredible significance of the place. Temporary exhibitions include displays by different iwi showcasing that particular iwi’s art and culture.

Adjacent to the marae, look out for displays on New Zealand’s people, land, history, trade and cultures including Michel Tuffery’s bullock made from corned beef cans, and Brian O’Connor’s paua-shell surfboard.

Level 5

Level 5 is the home of New Zealand’s national art collection, displaying a changing roster of works on paper, oils and sculpture representing luminaries of the New Zealand art world past and present; Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Ralph Hotere, Don Binney, Michael Smither and Shane Cotton are just a few names to watch for.

The suburbs

Wellington’s suburbs are within easy reach of the city centre and contain the groundbreaking Zealandia: the Karori Sanctuary Experience, complemented by a fine stand of native bush a few kilometres north at Otari-Wilson’s Bush. A number of good walks thread through the greenery of the Town Belt or head beyond to the quiet pleasures of Scorching Bay on the Miramar Peninsula, the hub of Wellington’s film industry.

The best view in Wellington

If the city panorama from Mount Victoria isn’t enough for you, head west to Brooklyn Hill, easily identified by its crowning 32m-high wind turbine. Fantastic views unfold across the city and south towards the South Island’s Kaikoura Ranges as the giant propeller blades whirr overhead. This demonstration turbine has been harnessing Wellington’s wind since 1993, providing energy for up to a hundred homes but failing to ignite enough interest to install more. To reach the turbine by car, take Brooklyn Road from the end of Victoria Street and turn left at Ohiro Road, then right at the shopping centre up Todman Street and follow the signposts (the road up to the turbine closes at 8pm Oct–April and 5pm May–Sept). Bus #7 runs up Victoria Street in town and drops you 3km from the summit.

The Miramar Peninsula

Around 10km southeast of the city centre, Wellington’s airport occupies a narrow isthmus between Evans Bay and Lyall Bay. Making your way there from downtown you’ll see a number of sculptures that use the wind to create movement or sound, all part of Wellington embracing its “Windy City” tag. Beyond the airport is the Miramar Peninsula, a collection of suburbs and picturesque beaches, including Scorching Bay, a crescent of white sand 13km east of the city centre, which has safe swimming and a play area. Miramar is the hub of New Zealand’s film industry. You can visit the peninsula as part of a movie tour.

Otari-Wilton’s Bush

For a glimpse of the New Zealand bush as it was before humans arrived, head to Otari-Wilton’s Bush. The remains of the area’s original podocarp-northern rata forest were set aside in 1860 by one Job Wilton and form the core of the lush 0.8 square kilometre preserved here.

At the unstaffed visitor centre you’ll find a map of the walks, which initially follow a 100m Canopy Walkway of sturdy decking high in the trees across a gully. This leads to the Native Botanic Garden, laid out with plants from around the country, and the informative Nature Trail (30min), a good introduction to the New Zealand forest and its many plants. Assorted trails (all 30min–1hr) wander through the bush, one passing an 800-year-old rimu.

Zealandia: the Karori Sanctuary Experience

Just 3km west of the city centre in the suburb of Karori is a pristine oasis called Zealandia, named after the Zealandia microcontinent that broke away from the super-continent of Gondwana some 85 million years ago. Started in the late 1990s, the sanctuary is successfully restoring native New Zealand bush and its wildlife to 2.25 square kilometres of urban Wellington. Sited around two century-old reservoirs that formerly supplied Wellington’s drinking water (and still do in times of water shortage), the managing trust first designed an 8.6km-long predator-proof fence to keep out all introduced mammals. As well as restocking the area with native trees, eradicating weeds and fostering the existing morepork and tui, the trust has introduced native birds – little spotted kiwi, weka, saddleback, kaka, bellbird, whitehead, North Island robins, takahe and kakariki – plus tuatara (back in a natural mainland environment for the first time in over 200 years) and the grasshopper-like weta to the sanctuary from the overspill of the conservation and restocking programme on Kapiti Island.

This far-reaching project won’t be entirely complete until the forest has matured in around 500 years. You can already walk the 35km of paths (some almost flat, others quite rugged) listening to birdsong heard almost nowhere else on the mainland – making it easy to understand why early arrivals to New Zealand were so impressed with the avian chorus.

The sanctuary grounds

It’s worth spending at least half a day here wandering past viewing hides, areas noted for their fantails or saddleback, and even the first few metres of a gold-mine tunnel from the 1869 Karori gold rush. Also worthwhile are the guided night tours that give you a chance to watch kaka feeding, see banks of glowworms and hear kiwi foraging for their dinner. With luck you’ll even see one or two. The sanctuary is already having a wider effect, with increasing numbers of tui, bellbirds and kaka spotted in neighbouring suburbs.

Admission includes entry to Zealandia’s state-of-the-art visitor centre. Spending around an hour touring its interactive exhibits before exploring the sanctuary puts Zealandia’s evolution into context. There’s also an on-site café serving quality deli-style food.

Walks around Wellington

With its encircling wooded Town Belt, great city views from nearby hills and the temptation of watching seals along the southern coast, Wellington offers some excellent and easily accessible walking. Pick up free detailed leaflets from the i-SiTe (see p.000). for information on walks around Wellington, see p.000.

Red Rocks Coastal Walk (4km each way; 2–3hr return). An easy walk that traces Wellington’s southern shoreline to Sinclair Head, where a colony of bachelor New Zealand fur seals takes up residence from May–oct each year. The walk follows a rough track along the coastline from owhiro Bay to Sinclair Head, passing a quarry and the eponymous Red Rocks – well-preserved volcanic pillow lava, formed about 200 million years ago by underwater volcanic eruptions and coloured red by iron oxide. Maori variously attribute the colour to bloodstains from Maui’s nose or blood dripping from a paua-shell cut on Kupe’s hand, while another account tells how Kupe’s daughters cut themselves in mourning, having given up their father for dead. The track starts around 7km south of the city centre at the quarry gates at the western end of owhiro Bay Parade, where there’s a car park. To get here by bus either take the frequent #1 to island Bay (get off at the Parade at the corner of Reef Street and walk 2.5km to the start of the walk) or, at peak times, catch #4, which continues to Happy Valley, 1km from the track. Both head east from Courtenay Place.

The Southern Walkway (11km; 4–5hr). Offering excellent views of the harbour and central city, this walk cuts through the Town Belt to the south of the city centre, between oriental and island bays. despite a few steep stretches it’s fairly easy going overall. fantails, grey warblers and wax-eyes provide company, and island Bay offers some of the city’s best swimming. The walk can be undertaken in either direction and is clearly marked by posts bearing orange arrows. To start at the city end, simply walk along oriental Parade (or take bus #14 or #24) to the entrance of Charles Plimmer Park, just past 350 oriental Parade. To begin at the southern end, take the #1 bus to island Bay and follow the signs from nearby Shorland Park.

The Northern Walkway (16km; 4–5hr). extending through tranquil sections of the Town Belt to the north of the city centre this panoramic walk stretches from Kelburn to the suburb of Johnsonville, covering five distinct areas – Botanic Garden, Tinakori Hill, Trelissick Park, Khandallah Park and Johnsonville Park – each accessible from suburban streets and served by public transport. Highlights are the birdlife on Tinakori Hill (tui, fantails, kingfishers, grey warblers, silver-eyes); the regenerating native forest of Ngaio Gorge in Trelissick Park; great views across the city and the harbour and over to the Rimutaka and Tararua ranges from a lookout on Mount Kaukau (430m); and, in Johnsonville Park, a disused road tunnel hewn through solid rock. Start at the top of the Cable Car and head north through the Botanic Garden, or join the walk at Tinakori Hill by climbing St Mary Street, off Glenmore Street, and following the orange arrows through woodland. To begin at the northern end, take a train to Raroa station on the Johnsonville line.

Wellington Harbour

The sight of multicoloured sails scudding across the water should convince you Wellington is at its best when seen from the water. Wellington Harbour offers some excellent water-based activities (see Wellington tours and activities) that can help you do so, although at the time of writing there were very few sailing opportunities. However, you can hop on the ferry to Matiu/Somes Island, isolated in the harbour’s northern reaches, for a good look around.

Matiu/Somes Island

One of Wellington’s best day-trips is to Matiu/Somes Island, in the northern reaches of the harbour. Legendary navigator Kupe is said to have named it Matiu (meaning “peace”) in the tenth century and his descendants lived on the island until deposed by European settlers in the late 1830s. They renamed the island after Joseph Somes, then deputy governor of the New Zealand Company that had “bought” it. For eighty years it was a quarantine station where travellers carrying diseases such as smallpox were held until they recovered or died. During both world wars anyone in New Zealand considered even vaguely suspect – Germans, Italians, Turks, Mexicans and Japanese – was interned on the island until the end of the war, after which it became an animal quarantine station for a number of years.

In the early 1980s its conservation value was recognized, and it is now managed by DOC, which oversees continued efforts to revitalize native vegetation and restore the historic buildings. All introduced mammalian predators have now been eradicated and threatened native species are being introduced in an effort to save them from extinction. Already there are six types of lizard, kakariki (the red-crowned parakeet), North Island robins, little blue penguins, the cricket-like weta and the ancient reptilian tuatara. Over fifty of these ancient lizard-like creatures were captive-bred at Wellington’s Victoria University and released in 1998. They seem to like it, as numbers are increasing.

“Wellywood”

Wellington is the capital of New Zealand’s film industry, which is increasingly centred on the Miramar Peninsula. During World War II, defence bases were set up here, and the large, long-abandoned buildings were prime for conversion into production company studios. The stunning natural setting has also been used for film locations for numerous films including the Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and the two Hobbit films, the first of which is expected to be released in late 2012.

Peter Jackson still lives out this way, and his special effects and entertainment company, Weta, which he co-owns with Richard Taylor, Tania Rodger and Jamie Selkirk, has its base in Miramar. A visit to the workshop’s Weta Cave, on the corner of Camperdown Road and Weka Street, includes an engaging twenty-minute film of behind-the-scenes workshop footage, along with a peek at the small museum, and the chance to buy hand-crafted figurines and limited-edition collectibles at its shop, which also sells movie location guides. Look for the King Kong footprint in the concrete out front.

Weta partner Jamie Selkirk, along with a number of business partners, had a hand in restoring The Roxy, Miramar’s Art Deco cinema. Some ten different Wellington city tour operators, including those listed on, offer movie tours taking in the peninsula’s movie-making hotspots.

To learn more about New Zealand’s film industry – and to watch New Zealand films on demand for free – stop by the New Zealand Film Archive in the city centre.

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Rough Guides Editors
9/14/2020
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