For all the times that Auckland is mistaken for New Zealand’s capital city, you’d be forgiven for wearing riot gear and wielding a cattle prod when broaching the subject in a rambunctious Wellington pub overflowing with locals. I shouldn’t have been surprised, however, when the most common response was aptly reflective of both its people and the city itself: dignified, informed, and culturally aware but more often than not, said with a cheeky, almost knowing grin. one which seems to suggest that whether you know it or not, you’re likely to find more to entertain and satisfy you exploring Wellington’s underdog status than you ever would amidst Auckland’s flashy, show-boating exuberance.
With a population of 400,000, Wellywood (as the locals like to call it) may take second place in the list of New Zealand’s most populated cities, but a decade of artistic, political and sporting investment has seen it justifiably nab the more enviable crown as the country’s ‘Cultural Capital’. Situated at the south-westerly tip of the North Island with nothing but the country’s great aquatic divide and some vertigo-provokingly twisty mountains for company, Wellington may geographically sit as ‘The World’s Most Remote Capital’ but no-one seems to have told it that.
Maori legend states that the first Polynesian voyager, Kupe, initially discovered Wellington back in 925AD and was so enamoured with the surrounding scenery and the beauty of its natural harbour that he named its two small islands after his daughters. When it comes to european settlers, things weren’t quite so simple, and both Abel Tasman and Captain Cook – in 1642 and 1773 respectively – were denied claimant rights after the area’s harsh, fierce winds kept their boats from entering the harbour. The year 1840 saw the first successful settlers forge a life for themselves and the region’s steady growth, coupled with Auckland’s flailing prosperity saw Wellington succeed it as the country’s capital city in 1865. As seems common with the majority of New Zealand’s densely populated areas and the nation’s lackadaisical approach to town planning (Auckland, for one, is merrily plonked within the bosom of over 50 volcanoes), Wellington sits on the crux of a major fault line and has, unsurprisingly, experienced more than a few geological hiccups along the way.
The landscape of the harbour and CBD was irrevocably changed after the bowel-loosening 8.2 Richter-measuring earthquake of 1855, but rather than withdraw into a make-shift world of bubble-wrap cottages and cushion fortresses, the town’s architects decided to make the most of the situation. Beautifully San-Franciscan wooden town houses now dot the hillsides, strategically positioned away from the main strip, offering a cosy, seaside vibe to the surroundings. And it’s not just the tectonic plates that are in flux. After only a short time exploring the city, you’ll quickly realise that Wellington is one of the few places in New Zealand that thrives on the uninhibited freedom of artistic and cultural change.
A trip to Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (or Te Papa as it is more commonly known) is a shining example of the decade-long investment that has been injected into revitalising the CBD and waterfront. Sitting proudly at the harbour’s edge and costing around NZ$350 million (£125 million), Te Papa is Wellington’s jewel in the crown and New Zealand’s most significant cultural investment. And it shows. Interactive, monster-size exhibits are spread over five floors that celebrate every facet of Kiwi culture. everything has been designed to stimulate your senses, with colour, sound and image melding together to educate through an undeniably unique experience.
To be honest, if psychologists truly realised the level of regression it sparks in a number of otherwise sensible adults, I’m sure they’d slap a health-warning on the place. Trust me, you’ll be running from exhibit to exhibit with giddy schoolyard excitement before you know it. For all its simulators, virtual reality rides and other shiny bells and whistles (and if there were a metaphorical clang-o-meter, Te Papa would have it reaching deafening levels), it still caters to the classics. There really is no greater thrill than standing dwarfed in the shadow of a pygmy blue whale’s 65ft-long skeleton. It’s astounding.
6th-7th May 2017
13th-14th May 2017
21st-22nd October 2017
28th-29th October 2017