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The Ultimate Trip to New Zealand

October 9, 2014

Even if you’re heading to New Zealand primarily to taste wine or jump off bridges, make an extended pit stop in the harbor-hugging capital. Your appetite, and your appetite for excitement, will thank you. By Jeninne Lee-St. John. Photographed by Richard McLeish.

Published on Oct 9, 2014

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Welcome to Wellington, where everyone's a foodie, but no one's so pretentious as to say so. Though the Kiwi capital, this south-facing harbor town plays Melbourne to Auckland's Sydney, trading a glam spot on the international stage for more introspective cultures of cool. Sure, hipsters are everywhere, but there are also ranchers and the landed gentry to meet—often in the same bar. Eating out, expect big cuts of meat and lengthy local wine lists, of course, as well as fresh seafood and shared plates everywhere, not to mention microbrews out the wazoo. Victorian heritage houses, Art Deco office blocks... this compact capital is eminently livable, but if you've only got a few days, our best-of itinerary should give you good grounding in the victuals and the views. Plus, to be fair to Auckland, we list our favorite spots in the northern stunner.

Oriental Parade
Oriental Parade, the pretty coast road linking inner Wellington with Miramar


... Friday

Let's get oriented. A chopper ride with Helipro (+64 4 472 1550; circles Wellington harbor, offering an aerial overview of the capital area cascading down into the bay. There's history at every vantage point, from the manmade beaches to the murderous reefs of Cook Strait to Matiu/Somes Island, which has been a POW camp and a quarantine station for countless immigrants including one unlucky presumed-leper. Touch down over rowers, paddleboarders and, on many days, controversial pontoon-paddlecycler Rick Matenga out for their morning constitutionals. Then it's 15 minutes over the hill from downtown and you'll find yourself bouncing along the jagged and rocky south shoreline in an SUV, with the personable guides of Seal Coast Safari (+64 4 801 6040; making stops for you to spot spur-winged plovers and hand-feed friendly deer. Keep an eye out for the fur seals who laze on the beaches and boulders—and who congregate at a point at the trip's climax, reached by summiting a steep, stalagmite-like rock gate. Yes, the big adventure is in the journey: with the area's unpredictable weather and positioning on a major fault line, you never know whether around the next corner you'll be skirting the aftereffects of a landslide, fording a river that just appeared, or driving into the foggy unknown.

Helipro, Wellington
Take flight with Helipro


Seal Coast Safari
Out of the mist on a Seal Coast Safari

Your helicopter pilot probably pointed out Miramar, the suburb a smidge southeast of downtown that, thanks to Peter Jackson's outsize presence for an understated guy, has helped redefine the capital as "Wellywood." Take the pretty coastal road here for lunch at the Roxy (5 Park Rd., Miramar;, a renovated 1920's Art Deco movie theater that has become a community touchstone since its sparkling renovation three years ago. Savoring your roast pumpkin and amaretto ravioli in lobby cafe, Coco, you might spot local luminaries like co-owner and Oscar-winning film editor Jamie Selkirk popping in for a coffee on a break from his nearby office at design, special effects and props studio Weta Workshop. Trail him back up the road—not as a stalker but a gawker, on a tour of the Weta Cave (; +64 4 909 4100) and its life-size Lord of the Rings trolls and behind-the-scenes peeks at movies in the making.

The Roxy

For your first supper, walk yourself into the warm embrace of Duke Carvell's (6 Swan Ln.;, a ragtimesoundtracked, gothic candlelit, typewriters-on-the-wall place that's of-the-moment Wellington—which is to say a slightly cooler Portland. The small plates (raclette croquettes with pickles… perfectly sauced courgettes… gnocchi with gorgonzola cream and sage) nudge out the mains, but it's all solid. Whether you sit in the sexy noir banquette-lined bistro/bar, the open-air alcove, or the paintingpacked room that's pure Lower East Side gastro-pub, you'll be surrounded by a clientele that spans the age and apparent-hipness gamut. No one's too cool for school here, not even handlebar-moustachioed Lorenzo Bresolin, who often can be found amiably presiding over his favorite outpost of his and his brother's mini-empire that also includes New York-style pizza counter Tommy Millions. Duke's list of local microbrews is extensive, and the cheeky cocktail menu is hilarious: start the meal with Afternoon Tea with Betty Ford, and end it with Robert Duvall the Consigliere. You'll be all juiced up for a nightcap at Havana Bar (32a-34 Wigan St.;, which basically everyone agrees is the best watering hole in town. These colorful, connected cottages teem with lively groups, but the live jazz, dim lights and mixologist menu practically demand a cuddle in the corner.

Duke Carvell's
Lorenzo Bresolin (left) oversees Duke Carvell's

Havana Bar
Live jazz at Havana Bar


... Saturday

Roust yourself for an hour's drive up the Kapiti Coast, via car, to the Bus Stop (50 Dixie St., Te Horo; +64 21 650 636)—really, a 1960's blue bus parked in proprietor Kirsty Green's front lawn—for your flat white with a side of flaky steak-and-cheese pie, a homemade grapefruit soda chaser, and a dash of random, witty banter. Sure, you can sit at her picnic table feeling the beach breezes from a block away, but we'd stay squeezed in the chassis, maybe commandeering the driver's seat, and joining the group chat. "I'm a suburban cook," Green says. "I used to run a restaurant to bring the community together: call it social work slash brunch." And speaking of community, the fact that Kiwis comprise quite the tight-knit one smacks you in the face when you run into a bemused Jamie Selkirk ("Didn't we see you with your suitcases at the Roxy?") and his wife Ann here again… or yet again five minutes away in the gardens of the equally engaging though more polished homestead of New Zealand's go-to State Dinner celebrity chef. Book a slot well in advance at Ruth Pretty Cooking School (41 School Rd., Te Horo;, where Pretty alternates teaching with a rotating roster of guest chefs. If she's not at the stove, you'll find this favorite aunttype flitting about her lovely brookaccented, picket fence-lined property. Get her talking and she just might share some choice tidbits on her afternoon grilling with Prince William and Prime Minister John Key, but when a woman's scones are this light, who needs dignitaries to dignify your respect?

Bus Stop
Chatting at the Bus Stop

The delightful greenhouse lunch that comes with your cooking class will power you back to Wellington, where it's time to hit up the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (55 Cable St.; This crazy-comprehensive, vaultedceilinged, interactive national exhibition will guide you through the intersecting geological, historical, artistic, maritime and sociological stories of the Land of the Long White Cloud. Key takeaways: 1) The hooktentacled, beak-mouthed colossal squid—even encased in glass—is terrifying; and 2) When warriors (read: Maori) consistently beat back colonial invaders in wars for territory, whether or not they actually maintain sovereignty in a blended country, their valor lives on in their new nation's origin story.

With class time over, take a load off at the Malthouse (48 Courtenay Pl.;, a happening hops showcase of 29 beers on tap and more than 80 brands from all over the world. Yes, New Zealand is wine country, but it's also a microbrew microcosm, with loads of baby-batch brands competing for your taste buds. If beer commentator Neil Miller is at the bar, ask for his advice. For many labels, the backstory will sell you, the unique brews a happy bonus. Take, for example, ParrotDog, run by three 20-something guys named Matt—"the boy band of brewers," Miller quips—out of an old mechanics shop 200 meters from the Malthouse. If you promise it won't spoil your dinner, try a Spider: their dark Dogg session ale with a dollop of ice cream. Then trot a few blocks over to the Wellington institution that is Matterhorn (106 Cuba St.; Opened as a Swiss cafe 50 years ago, this is now one of the sleekest, best-executed resto-bars in town. We insist you get the crispy pork belly with homemade kimchi, and the roast wagyu fat potatoes with toasted hay, buttermilk, crisp sage and almond beurre noisette. Did reading that sentence just stop your heart? We won't even bring up the oysters. (But, really, if they're from Bluff, sorry, gotta do it.) Then stick around for digestifs, and tunes that run the gamut from remix-master, radio DJ Redbird to live sets by Rwanda-born, jazz-influenced rapper Raiza Biza.

The Malthouse
The Malthouse



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