Wellington, from the top of Mt. Victoria
I love Wellington. I think if I was ever going to move to New Zealand, I would move to Wellington. It has all the charm, personality and life that Auckland doesn’t, it’s surrounded by beautiful hills and beaches, and Peter Jackson lives there, so it must be cool, right?
After my Lord of the Rings tour the day before, I went out for drinks with my two roommates, Lawrence, from the Netherlands, and Roger, from Australia. Lawrence was just as cool and laid-back as you would expect a Dutchman to be, and Roger was… odd. That about sums it up. Nice guy, harmless, but he rarely blinked, and he was fascinated by pretty much everything. I think he’d spent too much time in the hot, Aussie sun.
We went to Molly Malone’s to listen to some live music, which was really good, and Roger spent the whole time trying to convince me to go to Parliament with him the next day for a tour and then Question Time, which sounds too much like “Nap Time” or “Play Time” for me to take seriously.
Ghandi stands guard over Wellington's Central Station.
Question Time is when members of Parliament get to shout at each other under the guise of making political inquiries. It did sound interesting, but I didn’t really want to spend the whole day with Roger, watching him stare at me. (I swear, he only blinked like twice the whole time I talked to him.)
So, with just half a day in Wellington before I had to catch a plane to Christchurch, I checked out of the Wellington YHA(probably the best YHA in all of New Zealand), stored my stuff in a locker for the day, and went for a long walk along the waterfront to the train station.
Why go to a train station if I wasn’t taking a train? Because my LOTR guide the day before mentioned that the design was based on Grand Central in New York, which I thought was neat. She also said it had a Platform 9 3/4, like King’s Cross Station in London, which I thought was weird. A train station in New Zealand, that looks like a station in New York, but with a Harry Potter platform like they have in London?
Next stop: Hogwarts
And it’s true. Walking in to the station I felt like I had stepped back in time a little, to when New York was cleaner and newer, and there was a big sign for Platform 9 3/4. It wasn’t over a real platform, just hanging on a wall, for no real reason, but it was interesting enough to get me and probably lots of other tourists to go in and take a picture.
Outside the station, in another nod to multiculturalism, is a statue of Ghandi, given as a gift by the people of India.
The Beehive, New Zealand’s funny-looking capitol building, is just a couple of blocks from there, so I walked over and saw that I was just in time for one of the hourly tours. The tour did not answer the question of whether the building really was designed on a napkin as a joke that got taken too seriously, but it did teach me a little more about the New Zealand government, the role of women, the Maori and other cultural groups in politics, and New Zealand’s ties to England and the throne.
Next, I just had to ride the Wellington Cable Car. I love rides. Another backpacker gave me a ticket he bought but didn’t use, otherwise it would have cost NZ$5 to go up and then down again. The cable car takes a steep path, from Lambton Quay (pronounced “key”) to high above Wellington, past Victoria University, up to the Botanic Gardens.
The gardens are massive and lovely. Be sure to grab a map so that you don’t get lost in all the various paths and trails. The gardens are a great place to take a picnic, or to spend a whole afternoon wandering around. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a whole afternoon to kick back and relax, so I settled for a walk around the rose garden and a quick snack at the cafe there (watch out for the super-aggressive pigeons), then a slow meander back to the cable car, taking a peek in the free Cable Car Museum while I waited for my ride.
No wonder Wellington is a sister city to San Francisco with its earthquakes, hills and a trolley car.
A colorful scene in the Rose Garden's greenhouse.
The last thing I had to see before saying goodbye to Wellington was Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand. I’d spent about an hour and a half there two days before, when I first got to Wellington, but with five floors of exhibits and special collections, there was a lot more to see.
Te Papa is one of the most impressive museums I’ve ever been to. It’s a natural history museum, art gallery, cultural center and science exploratorium all in one. And best of all, it’s free. Go in to see the colossal squid that was discovered in Antarctica in 2007, learn more about how volcanoes have shaped New Zealand’s landscape, hear stories from immigrants who have started new lives in New Zealand or buy a ticket to one of the museum’s simulator rides.
Te Papa, the museum Kiwis call "Our Place"
When you go in you’ll see that all of the exhibits start on the second floor. This is to prevent damage to the collection in the event of a tsunami. They built the museum knowing that the first floor would likely be wiped out in a natural disaster (the Wellington airport would also be a goner), so you have to go upstairs to get to the good stuff.
One of my guidebooks said to plan a full day at Te Papa. When I read that I sort of chuckled, but it’s pretty accurate. You can always go in just for an hour and see the one or two things that interest you most, but if you like to wander, like I do, four to five hours is more realistic. Luckily, because it’s free, you can split it up over a couple of days, like I did, because there’s no pressure to get your money’s worth.
I did pay the admission price to get into the special Monet exhibit. I figured that you don’t get to see Monets just anywhere, so I should take advantage of the opportunity. However, once I got in and started to look around, I saw that many of the paintings we on loan from the MFA in Boston. I had to laugh because, having lived in Boston for several years, I’d probably seen these paintings before… a few times. Still, it was a good exhibit, serene and calming before a trip to the airport.
From Te Papa I rushed my tired feet back to the YHA to collect my bags. There’s a bus stop about a block away where the Airport Flyer picks up. It’s just NZ$6.50 and 20 minutes to get there.
And I was off to the South Island.
Next stop: Christchurch