Wellington: Comfort stop with a capital C

Colourful Cuba St is home to great restaurants and shops and is part of the lively central area. Photo / Absolutely Positively Wellington
Colourful Cuba St is home to great restaurants and shops and is part of the lively central area. Photo / Absolutely Positively Wellington

It's got to be a DIVE," my Wellington friend announced when I told her I'd booked into a Cuba St hotel for $69 a night.

Not one to waste money on accommodation, I chose my hotel on wotif.com and came up with the three-star Comfort Hotel right in the heart of Wellington's edgy "Cuba Quarter".

Truth be known, I have form for choosing the worst hotels - and this one was originally a Salvation Army People's Palace, giving the less well-heeled somewhere to stay when they visited Wellington.

To my surprise, however, the Comfort Hotel had been fully renovated with modern comfortable rooms and the best Edwardian features such as a sweeping wooden staircase and restored tiled entrance.

Outside, Cuba St is buzzing and it's hard to find a better corner of our country to mooch by day, and eat, drink and meander by night.

Weightwatchers beware. The aromas from numerous restaurant kitchens and coffee roasters get under your skin. Eateries range from bargain-basement ethnic food to some of the best restaurant tucker available in our capital city. One of Wellington's best restaurants, Logan Brown, is right in the middle of Cuba St.

It seemed a shame not to try out as many as was humanly possible. First up was The Rasa Malaysian restaurant, immediately across from the hotel. Nothing's better to start a day on than a good serving of roti and dahl.

Dinner on my first night was at Simply Paris, which had a floor show of Can Can girls to celebrate Bastille Day. Next day it was the lovely Floriditas, with its old-world charm and Parisian atmosphere, of which I can't speak highly enough.

The cafes - many with Cuban names - put their Auckland cousins to shame. Dutifully I tested out plenty, and the best were: Ernesto, Fidels, Felix, Midnight Espresso, Scopa and the Metropolitan French Bistro.

Partaking of latte after latte also provided the opportunity to spend a dollop of time people-watching, which is essential in the Cuba Quarter. It is home to some of the city's more eclectic colourful types - who from conversations overheard in cafes and on the street are students, artists, and a mix of right-brain thinkers. The fact that Victoria University's School of Architecture is situated a block from Cuba St helps boost the avant-garde feel.

Cuba St, stretching from Cuba Mall at the city or lower end to Webb St at the Te Aro or top end, is largely populated by independent stores selling everything from guitars to designer clothes. The street gets seedier the further up you go, with party pills and pipes for sale and three tattoo parlours, with names such as Flesh Wound.

Te Aro is by no stretch of the imagination upmarket. But even in the two years since I last visited, the upper end of Cuba St had cleaned itself up, galleries and cafes replacing the more run-down establishments. The newer attractions sit cheek by jowl with small, more traditional businesses including a book-binder, tailor and laundrette. Many haven't changed in years or even decades.

This end may be seedier, but it's certainly more interesting than the mall, which has been partially overrun with chain stores and the TAB.

That's not to say it's without attractions. The Felix café at the very city end of the street offers some of the best coffee going.

Not everything to be found in the Quarter is on Cuba St itself; it stretches two blocks in either direction. I chanced on The Film Archive on Taranaki St, which offers a pleasant cafe and the opportunity to watch Australian and New Zealand movies free of charge. For fringe-theatre lovers, the Gryphon Theatre, at 22 Ghuznee St, is run by the non-profit Stagecraft theatre society, which hosts several shows a year.

The "Left Bank", an alleyway off Cuba St, sports a Bouquinere and a truly eclectic Chinese medicine and treasure shop, Good Health Acupuncture & Herbal.

Back on Cuba St, the Foot & Body Health Massage Centre with its $5 introductory massages intrigued me. The down-at-heel sign and narrow staircase belied the oasis of tranquil pampering to be had upstairs from an elderly but extremely strong Chinese woman. A text to the friends I was to meet resulted in us all indulging in a pummelling before heading to Scopa for dinner.

Unsurprisingly, the Cuba Quarter has some excellent art on offer. The relatively newly opened Thistle Hall Community Art Gallery is one of those wonderful galleries that showcase new and emerging talent. When I visited, it was showing Look on the bright side - new works by Fiona Hayworth, a student artist.

Heading back downhill, Enjoy gallery, an artist-run non-commercial gallery, was exhibiting The Urban Workshop, a series of Cuba St portraits taken by 13 photographers, jointly put together by the Goethe-Institut, Massey University School of Fine Arts and Enjoy.

Museum buffs might find the Salvation Army national archives and museum at 204 Cuba St of interest.

It's easy to traipse up and down the street, window-shopping. But it's worth taking the time to look up at some original examples of Art Deco and Spanish Mission buildings, as well as Edwardian ones. Thanks to the area's down-at-heel history the developers didn't move in en masse. Some buildings are lovingly restored, but others are what one might call faded glory.

Upstairs behind those windows are night spots that hum. The San Francisco Bath House, at 171 Cuba St, by the sound that emits from it and the people entering, is one of the city's more hip night spots. It really was a bath house in a previous life.

With all this constant entertainment, it was a real find to discover the Comfort Hotel offered complimentary use of the four-storey Les Mills World of Fitness Wellington Extreme gym, which is also in the Quarter and provides an antidote to all that eating, drinking and other hedonistic pleasures.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: The Airport Flyer bus costs $8 to Wellington City, runs every 15 minutes and passes Cuba Street.

Where to stay: The Comfort Hotel can be booked at wotif.com or directly at hotelwellington.co.nz or phone (64) 4 385 2153.

Where to eat: Check out the options at menus.co.nz.

Further information: For tourist information see wellingtonnz.com or 0800 933 53 63.

Diana Clement paid for her sojourn in the Cuba Quarter.

- NZ Herald

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