1 The Strait – Late If possible, arrive in Wellington at sunset via the three-hour Interislander ferry (or the faster Lynx), which sails from Picton, at the top of the South Island. With luck, the Cook Strait will be calm, and you’ll enjoy an unforgettable passage watching gannets, black-backed gulls, terns, dolphins, and even penguins and whales. For the finale, put on your wool cap and scarf, find a good spot on the foredeck, and take it all in as the ship slips into Wellington while the city lights begin to shimmer beyond.
2 Breeze Ways Like Chicago, Wellington is a famously windy city. Windsurfers revel in the gusts that barrel straight off the water via the Cook Strait and the South Pacific. From September through December, seven out of ten days have good winds for sailboarding. Take the 30-minute ferry from Queens Wharf to Eastbourne and rent equipment (or a boat) at the Days Bay Boatshed, across from the pier. Beginners heading to Lyall Bay in Central Wellington will find lessons and rentals in a safe harbor.
3 Victoria View The South Walkway starts from the entrance to the Oriental Parade, near the Hotel Raffaele, and passes through the Town Belt forest on its way up Mount Victoria (about an hour’s walk). A 360-degree view awaits on top. You’ll see the colorful Victorian homes hugging the hillside in the older part of the city, as well as Hutt Valley, the eastern harbor bays, the Tararua Range, rugged Houghton Bay, and the beach at Island Bay. Back at sea level, you can catch a bus back to the city.
4 Government Buzz As the capital city of New Zealand, Wellington is home to some notable architecture, such as the old Government Buildings at Lambton Quay. Built in 1876, they’re the second-largest timber buildings in the world. Also worth visiting are the Victorian Gothic Parliamentary Library (1899) and the Edwardian Neoclassical Parliament Building (1918), where you can witness heated parliamentary debates. Next door is the once-controversial “Beehive” (1977), which houses the ministerial offices. Stop in at the Back-Bencher pub to see ministerial types – in the flesh and in effigy, too.
5 Cable Car to Blossom Land Catch the red cable car on Lambton Quay and ride up the steep hillside, past Kelburn Park and Victoria University to the final stop at the Botanic Garden. Thousands of tulips bloom in late October, and some 300 kinds of fragrant roses fill the Lady Norwood Rose Garden’s formal beds. In the Begonia House, you can sip tea by a lily pond surrounded by orchids and other tropical beauties. Later, enjoy a view of the city over a drink or a snack at the Skyline Café, right by the cable-car stop.
6 Civic Things to Do The city’s vibrant cosmopolitan culture centers around Civic Square, a broad pink-and-beige checkerboard plaza that was transformed in the early 1990s from a bustling boulevard into the locus of all kinds of interesting action. There’s the Michael Fowler Centre, a world-class concert theater-in-the-round; Old Town Hall; and a science-and-technology museum for kids. Architect Ian Athfield’s postmodern Wellington Public Library grabs the eye, and at the contemporary City Gallery, which opens onto the square, you’ll find exhibits, concerts, street performers, and all kinds of characters.
7 All Things Kiwi The five-year-old Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (known locally as Te Papa) is a celebration of the country’s people, land, and culture. High-tech interactive displays engage children and adults alike. If you are pressed for time, take the 45-minute guided tour; just don’t miss the fourth-floor Maori cultural exhibit, which features a meetinghouse and a big carved waka (seagoing canoe). Between exhibits, refuel at the Icon, one of New Zealand’s finest restaurants.
8 Curtain Call Wellington has long hosted an edgy performing-arts scene, especially at such venues as the Downstage Theatre and the Circa Theatre, a cooperative next to Te Papa. The Space, a theater/ gallery/bookshop located in Newtown, offers evenings of improv, jazz, “noise music,” poetry, and theater. The newly refurbished St James Theatre and The Opera House on Courtenay Place was built in 1912 as the largest vaudeville and movie house in Australasia. You can have dinner in the foyer at The Jimmy Café & Bar, then catch a play or an opera in the lavish auditorium.
9 South Hollywood Wellington’s nickname – “Wellywood” – refers to its thriving film industry. The Fellowship of the Ring director Peter Jackson is based here, and as in Hollywood, you can come upon a location shoot at any time. Wellington’s growing International Film Festival takes place in July, and the city has some great cinemas. The Embassy and the Paramount show mainstream and independent/art-house films; The Rialto Film Centre screens independent and avant-garde films. The Penthouse in Brooklyn is the place to see international independent features in a comfortable, old-fashioned venue.
10 Go Off-Island The Maoris once used Matui/Somes Island (rhymes with “homes”) as a navigation point. Now you can use it as the center of a day of peace and quiet. The island was a prison camp during World Wars I and II, but the Department of Conservation is revitalizing its vegetation and has reinstated the tuatara, a prehistoric lizard. Pick up a map in Wellington, and catch the Days Bay ferry from Queens Wharf. Explore the trails, and watch for little blue penguins.