Capital City

Tuesday 14th December

During our recent European travels I was particularly struck by how rarely a traveller’s arrival into a big city anticipates the charms that lie ahead. For logistical reasons, airports and train stations are hardly ever centrally located, resulting in often arduous journeys though suburbs and districts that no sane travel agent would ever put on a tourist map. It’s a pity, for example, that visitors coming into London via the Heathrow Express train service are first greeted by the rather bland – and sometimes downright ugly – scenery of the city’s south western council estates, rather than, say, the looming marvels of St Pauls or the Houses of Parliament. One city that spectacularly breaks that mould is Manhattan, and I vividly recall being awestruck by its distant metropolis of skyscrapers as I approached it by taxi from JFK Airport on my very first visit to New York.

Another is New Zealand’s capital Wellington, which dangles the bait of a sparkling modern port backed by splendid suburban hills as one docks at its harbour on the Interislander Ferry.

Actually, the most dramatic spectacle on our journey from Picton on the northern coast of the South Island to Wellington on the southern tip of the North was the serene hour-long passage through the Marlborough Sounds, a succession of tree-festooned peninsulas opening out into the Cook Strait at the South Island’s north eastern edge. On the map, the Sounds resemble a leaf that’s been nibbled away at by a hungry slug. From the ferry, they look like a series of half-submerged alligators crowned with the occasional millionaire’s mansion.

The unspoilt early morning skies contributed to an idyllic panorama and had we been better prepared with more wind-proof clothing we would have stayed up on deck to admire it for the entire journey, a regret reinforced once we’d ventured down to sample the swampy slop that passed for coffee in the ferry’s cafĂ©. As we emerged from the Sounds into open sea the North Island was already visible in the misty distance, though I remain impressed by how culturally and politically unified New Zealand’s two principle land masses seem to be, despite the still-significant stretch of water that separates them. The north and south of England, for example, have no such physical divide yet if you didn’t know otherwise you might assume that Londonders and Mancunians come from entirely different planets…

After rounding the underbelly of the North Island, we eventually came within sight of Wellington, recently voted the “coolest little capital in the world” by Lonely Planet. I was keen to see for myself whether it lived up to the hype, particularly in light of my previously-stated reservations about Auckland, which is by some distance the larger of the two cities. Initial impressions were certainly favourable as we strolled along the sea front, taking in the sights of a bustling quayside and wondering whether the notorious Wellington winds were a myth, so calm was the air and still the water.

Like Christchurch, though, we found the central shopping district to be mildly disappointing. Though we welcomed a condensed city centre that was, unlike its big brother up north, easily navigable on foot, the streets themselves were rather characterless and, apart from the vaguely alternative Cuba Street, it seemed to lack the hip cafes and unique shops that make Auckland’s finest areas so distinctive. I was forewarned that Cuba Mall’s Bucket Fountain, allegedly a “sculpture” comprising a series of brightly coloured containers passing water to one another, was a “love it or hate it” affair, but the fact that our encounter with it coincided with two teenage girls leaping into it and throwing soap suds at each other ensured that it fell into the latter category for me.

Again, we found that Wellington’s most enticing attractions were not in the centre but around its outskirts. The Botanical Gardens, for example, proved to be an unexpected highlight with the cable car ride to the top of the hill that houses them providing fantastic views back down over the city.

We also got waylaid for several hours in the seafront’s Te Papa, a superb national museum hosting comprehensive collections of natural, geological, political and cultural Kiwi history. Ironically, though, the most crowd-pleasing spectacle there was not Kiwi at all, but the world’s largest preserved Giant Squid, which even in its cadaverous state prompted fear and disgust with its tentacles’ rotating hooks and melon-sized eyeballs. Our visit fortuitously coincided with two excellent temporary exhibitions: a borrowed collection of European Masters from Frankfurt’s Stadel Museum and a career-spanning retrospective of Kiwi photojournalist Brian Brake. I’d never heard of Brake before but after seeing his mesmerising photo sequences on, among others, an Indian Monsoon and 1970s Sydney, I’ll definitely be checking out more of his work in the future.

Though Te Papa, the Gardens, and Parliament Buildings (which include the architectural wonder the Beehive) proved to us that Wellington had more than enough to keep the casual tourist happy, the city’s reputation as a model place to live only really made sense once we ventured further afield to the suburbs. While the majority of Auckland’s outlying hills have been left as rugged parkland, Wellington’s have been landscaped to allow its wealthier residents to build homes on them with glorious views out over the city. Far from ruining the natural landscape, for once the buildings actually enhance the views from below, with the houses all afforded appropriate space and extensive tree and plant growth encouraged between each plot of land. Thanks to the generosity of Holly’s relatives Margaret and Tim Fairhall, we were fortunate enough to experience these lofty suburbs for ourselves when they invited us to stay at their former B&B in Kandallah, around 15 minutes’ drive from the city centre. As well as offering luxurious accommodation, their place unexpectedly granted us the opportunity to see Wellington’s best kept secret, a beautifully detailed miniature recreation of Germany’s Black Forest railway network that Tim has been building in his garage for the past twenty years. Given that the Fairhall’s imminent move to a newly-built townhouse on the waterfront is going to force Tim to dismantle his grand project at the start of next year, we felt incredibly privileged to see it at all, though we were heartened to hear that he plans to start a whole new railway scene in the basement of their new property, this time based on 1950s Saxony.

On a final Wellington note, one of my most heart-cockle-tickling experiences there was watching streams of football fans pour into the concrete monstrosity that is the Westpac Stadium for a game between the local Phoenix FC and Australia’s Adelaide United. For a moment, I had to do a double take, so reminiscent was the scene of a typical Saturday afternoon in the streets around an English football ground. It was gratifying to know that even in a country in which the beautiful game is far from the top of the sporting pecking order, football fervour is at least alive and well in the capital. If only Auckland would get its act together and submit its own professional league team, I might actually be able to watch a live game over here for myself…


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