Wellington: Magnet for mavericks

By Peter Feeney

Wellington is full of geeks and arty types, and its Bohemian charm captivates Peter Feeney.
Cuba St, full of buskers and eateries, is the cultural and cuisine and hub of the city.
Cuba St, full of buskers and eateries, is the cultural and cuisine and hub of the city.

Cyclone Lusi had just struck the North Island, but that didn't explain the sudden roller-coaster drop we had somewhere high above Lake Taupo. It was a biggie; worse than any the until-then-frosty Gwyneth Paltrow look-alike one seat over had ever felt - her Dad was a pilot and she was a frequent flyer.

With the second, bigger jolt Gwyneth and I began gibbering at each other. We weren't alone. The whole plane was abuzz with chatter and even, oddly, whoops of joy. It took this fleeting reminder of our mortality for us to feel, collectively, fully alive.

Gwyneth and I exchanged embarrassed looks over the luggage carousel. Our unseemly lapse into friendliness, so un-Auckland like, had been repressed. But I wondered how long Gwyneth's newly frosted exterior would last against the charms of our destination: Wellington.

You know you're in Jackson country straight away: the great eagle from The Hobbit towers above you in the main airport hall, nailed to the ceiling after falling down in the January earthquake.

Peter Jackson's economic tentacles encircle everything, from the mechanic building a motor for one of his fleet of exact replica World War I biplanes, to the droves of artists and craftspeople ready to tool up to create the costumes, shoes, scenery and props for his latest multiplex vision.

Our capital had a head start in the 40s and 50s when it came to being "chic". Post-war, it was the favoured destination of tranches of non-English immigrants like the Dutch, and our own family friends Fred and Lotte Turnovsky, who were Jewish refugees from Austria.

These continentals brought with them tastes for food and style that were revolutionary at the time. My childhood visits to Wellington were infrequent, but I remember wondering why the Turnovskys had a coffee maker when Gregg's instant was easier to make, and the excitement of strolling into the Matterhorn in Cuba St, at a time when cafes were almost unheard of. Founded in 1963 by a Swiss immigrant, it's vastly changed but somehow remains iconic today.

Wellington still has the second highest percentage of Kiwis born outside of the country. It was rated as the New Zealand city most workers would like to shift to in a recent poll. It's eclectic and ethnically diverse, full of freaks, geeks and arty types. I fit right in.

Mind you, if a hotel calls itself "Quality", like my one did, you have to worry. The ersatz buffet breakfast, soft bed and difficulties with aircon did not auger well. But walk out the door and, happy sigh, there's Cuba St, with its mad water buckets and madder buskers.

Their names are on our Monopoly boards, but the commercial heart of New Zealand is no longer The Terrace and Lambton Quay. The pulse of the city by default has become the cultural and cuisine heartland that stretches down Cuba St, past massage parlours, and down to the waterfront.

As well as galleries, cafes and eateries there are superb craft beer bars like Blair Street and The Rogue and Vagabond. Outside, Te Papa Glen Hayward's outdoor giant replicas of Rita Angus' broken crockery (which he dug up from her garden during a residency) draw gasps and smiles; on Oriental Bay, I take in an opening at the Visual Culture gallery.

Even if you're not so lucky as to scrounge a free wine at an art opening you'll trip over numerous public sculptures. And live ones as well, such as the pot-bellied and bourbon-stained Andrew who accompanied me - cheerful and uninvited - a few blocks along Courtenay Place. He was close to Jesus, he said, because he had a dog, and did I know what that spelt backwards?

I had coffee in the sun with broadcaster Phil Darkins (close your eyes and you're listening to drive time radio) at the popular Prefab cafe. He'd been to school with Andrew - small world. But that's Wellington for you.

We were joined impromptu from the next table by Glenn Tamahori, brother of Lee Tamahori, the successful Kiwi film-maker now based in Hollywood and famous for directing the iconic Once Were Warriors.

Glenn - once a foot soldier in the film industry himself - is now a joiner. The work was too up-and-down, he tells us.

This is the Wellington I love: hemmed in by hills, inhabited by eccentrics, classy, untidy, surprising, creatively fizzing, friendly. No wonder Jackson didn't want to leave.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Jetstar flies up to eight times daily from Auckland to Wellington, with tickets starting at $49.

Details: For information on Wellington's busy schedule of festivals, go to wellingtonnz.com.

The writer flew as a guest of Jetstar.

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