Although we spent most of our time looking after our friendly little puppy, we did get a chance to explore downtown Wellington a few times while he was off at doggy day care on Mondays. The city is really quite interesting, crammed on a peninsula, between several hills. It’s all tunnels and steep streets and exposed waterfronts, with lots of local art and culture thrown into the mix. It had a neat vibe and I think we would have really enjoyed exploring things in more depth if we’d been based downtown. The city is known as “Windy Wellington”, as evidenced by the huge Hollywood style sign on the bluffs overlooking the bay, and we certainly felt it some days as we walked around, especially along the coast where there were no windblocks.
The first time we made it into the city, we decided to stick to the waterfront, and experience the harbor. The famous city square is surrounded by the main library, art museum, and city hall. Between them is a space filled with silver fern sculptures, and a seemingly hovering orb, with fern filigree.
You continue past this to a really interesting pedestrian bridge over the main harborside road, with bizarre scultpures, and wooden facing. Lots of people were sitting around enjoying the brisk, windy afternoon and we joined them for a midday snack.
We then came upon the harborside, and spent a while walking up and down the shoreline. There are a lot of little shops set up there with traditional crafts, and even a public diving platform (though it was closed due to pollution). We also came upon an interesting statue showcasing the original Maori explorers, juxtaposed against a colonial era building.
After exploring for a while, we headed to the Te Papa National Museum, which was set up really well. Rather than try to cover the full breadth of subjects, they chose to focus on topics that were more close to New Zealand. There were, of course, exhibits on colonialism and the native peoples, including a Maori longhouse which had been relocated here. (on loan from the tribe with guardianship over the Wellington area).
There was also a large exhibit on native flora and fauna, and local sea life. They had a Colossal Squid (biggest in the world) on display, as well as the skeletons of many whales, dolphins, and seals. A lot of stuffed kiwis as well! I never knew they could get so big. I also learned that a kiwi egg takes up nearly all of the body cavity of the mother. They had one inside a skeleton, and it was remarkable how much space was used.
The final exhibit we visited was about volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the other natural forces at work in the volatile part of the world. New Zealand sits on several fault lines, and is right on the Ring of Fire, and so has more than it’s share of violent natural activity. We visited here before the earthquake that struck a few weeks later, or we probably would have read everything more closely! Two things stood out to me as really interesting. There was a fake house set up that you could stand inside and it would then shake and create noise as if in an earthquake. There was also a section about the various layers of the earth, with rock samples representing each that you could lift. It’s amazing the difference in density and weight between a piece of Mantle (granite?), and of Core (they used pure meteorite iron as the sample, I think). It was neat to be able to really feel the difference.
There is a big hill dividing the peninsula with the main city to the north, and the area we were staying to the south. The whole area is dotted with walking and mountain biking trails, and there are several viewpoints, the best being atop Mt. Victoria. One day we decided to take our little puppy up there for a walk. He had a great time exploring the new places and smells, though he was feeling a bit down due to the car ride. The poor guy gets a bit carsick.
On our second big day in the city, we decided to follow a brochure detailing a local art walk that wound through the city. Unfortunately, this was the day after the big quake hit, and many buildings were closed for engineering inspections. Still, we managed to see quite a bit in the few hours we wandered the city streets. Things started off with a dystopian sculpture created by the special effects wizards at WETA, designed to highlight Wellington’s movie-making fame.
We then moved on to the Museum Art Hotel, which hosts works by more than 60 local artists, covering all sorts of styles.
They are also the home of the Hippopotamus Bar. I love any establishment that features a Hippo.
Continuing on, we walked through several laneways. Though they didn’t compare to the vibrant and encompassing artwork seen in Melbourne, we did see some great scenes, including the multiple stories depicting the heavens on the wall of a building on Lukes Lane.
Along Cuba Street, the main pedestrian thoroughfare of the city, we were greeted with a work of art with an element of movement. These vibrant buckets would fill with water, and the unexpectedly splash passersby as they dumped their contents. We were lucky to avoid getting soaked!
We also saw a bit of Wellington’s funny side, with hotels and restaurants advertising “Earthquake Specials” among other things.
We wound our way through the city, stopping in a theater here, or office building there, checking out installments of various art, from sculptures to paintings to fountains. Inside the foyer of the Majestic Towers was a globe within a globe, featuring a strange, distorted view of the Pacific islands, ensconced in a bubble of sorts.
Inside the foyer of the Dominion office building was this odd Art Nouveau Arc de Triomphe. Reading in the booklet, I was definitely not expecting it to be painted on the walls in a garish green and blue, with completely anachronistic doors to either side. It didn’t really seem to fit, but still it was interesting to see.
Further along, in what we guessed was the original central city area, was the Old Bank Shopping Arcade. This had a lot of the same feel as the covered arcades we’d walked in Melbourne, or in Brussels for that matter. There was a grand mechanical, musical clock that displayed on the hour, high class shops, the vault door of the old bank, and the remains of an old ship that had crashed in the 1800s, had been used as a dock and warehouse afterwards, and had just recently been uncovered in renovations.
Walking along the harbor, we passed several art galleries and local academies, including one located in the historic Wharf Harbor Board Building. We stopped in the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, which was located in an old warehouse building, complete with the original wooden beams and roof and brick walls. Among the portraits of notable Kiwis were signs of earthquake damage, including lots of little pieces of rubble fallen from the walls. It makes you think about the differences between old and modern construction, and how much more resilient new building are.
While hanging around by the seaside, we also encountered the elusive rocket snails, a rare sighting!
Well, that’s what I thought at least. It turns out they were just really strangely shaped toilets. And in keeping with the humor of the city, they had similarly amusing signs on their doors.
Wandering around the high street area, where all the fancy stores congregate, we came upon the Te Puni Kokiri House, with one of the most famous examples of local street art out front; a series of fallen classic columns, integrated with the sidewalk, and a pillar supporting a mangled mass of tortured lettering. We’re not sure if the vibrant red pillow trapped in the iron bands was intentional or not.
On the far side of the city was the Supreme Court, which was sadly closed due to the quake. The whole facade was enclosed in a wire frame, very non-judicial looking. Inside the main courtroom is supposed to be covered in a Kauri cone motif. It would have been interesting to see. Just past, and our last stop for the day was the New Zealand Parliament, known as the beehive to locals, for obvious reasons.
As we walked back to our car, content after our exploration of the city, we noticed something very, very odd. There was this restaurant on the corner, and it was called Wisconsin Burger!! We were really excited, but much to our chagrin, they ended up being closed. It would have been so great to find out what their story was, and whether they actually had good American burgers. Perhaps next time we’re in Windy Wellington we’ll have the chance to find out.