Wellington Travel Guide


New Zealand's capital, Wellington Harbour lies on the unpredictable and potentially dangerous Cook Strait. This beautiful harbour is exposed to the elements and beneath the sea the reefs are deadly. The harbour is placed on the very nostrils of the Fish of Maui which perhaps accounts for the extraordinarily high percentage of windy days the capital sees each year. Air travelling through the Cook Strait becomes concentrated and gushes into the harbour. A city often compared to San Francisco due to its sloping hills and streets, the wind is further channeled between high-rise buildings thus creating a wind tunnel effect in some downtown areas.

It was a case of third time lucky which made Wellington capital. The first government sat in Russel was moved to Auckland a few years later before it finally came to rest in Wellington in 1865.

The creation of the harbour. According to Maori legend, a taniwha, coming to the harbour from the Cook Strait, swept his tail to and fro so forming the rocks which have been the sticking point of so many ships. SS Devon was stranded in 1913 just belong Pencarrow Light while as late as 1968 on the western side of the harbour, the Wahine was wrecked on Barrets Reef.

On a more scientific note, scientists believe that the harbour was formed by the down warping of the earth's crust. This led to the sea's invasion and drowning of the Hutt River's lower valley with the harbour extending as far as Taita Gorge. Over time, the delta plains of Lower Hutt city built up through natural river deposits. To the north-west, the harbour lies on a strip of 'fault coast' along the Hutt Road which lies on a fault line.

The Miramar Peninsula, once an island, is said by the Maori to have been created by an earthquake which caused the land between the mainland and the island to rise. Geographers prefer the view that the peninsula is really a tombolo or an island connected to the mainland by a bar which is created over time by deposits. They posit that a strait of calm water between the two bodies of land acted as a buffer against the currents of the coast causing deposits to form a bar which connected the island and the mainland. Another theory combines tradition and science claiming that the bar first formed and was then raised by an earthquake.

Over the centuries major earthquakes have changed the shape of the harbour. In 1400A.D. both the Wellington and Wairarapa coastlines were raised 2.5m--3m changing the shoreline. In 1855, another earthquake lifted a sea shelf right out of the water and coastal land was raised by as much as 1.5m. The change was so significant that the Basin Reserve was originally intended to be an anchorage that would have been linked by a canal to the harbour. Today, the Basin Reserve once meant as a dock, is Wellington's main soccer and cricket ground.

According to Maori legend, it was the legendary explorer Kupe who first discovered Wellington. He camped at the Miramar Peninsula and named the two main islands after his nieces who had travelled with him. The first major settlement of the area began when Whatonga, a chief in the Mahia Peninsula sent Tara and Tautoki, his sons, in search of fresh land. They built a pa on Somes Island (then Matiu) and Miramar Peninsula (then Motu-kairangi) and named the area Whanganui-a-Tara or the Great Harbour of Tara. His descendants were called the Ngati-Tara. Over the years the Ngati Tara lost supremacy over the area and by the time Colonel Wakefield arrived in 1839 the Te Ati Awa were the strongest local tribe They helped the Europeans in their quest to defeat the Ngati Toa chief, Te Ranihaeata in the hope to gain security against their enemies. Their compliance with the Europeans earned them no return favours when they returned home to Taranaki where the European settlers attacked and forcefully possessed their lands.

January 22, 1840 brought the first European settlers to Wellington on the Aurora. Tension soon arose and continued over Port Nicholson as the New Zealand Land Company had bent a few rules when appropriating the land.

What to see and do

Civic Square
It's a good idea to start your sightseeing at the Civic Square where you'll find the Visitor Information Centre within the Town Hall. Here are some attractions which you can visit for free

The Square boasts some interesting architecture designed by Ian Athfield in the 1990's. The Wellington Public Library has laid itself bare in a refreshingly modern way making no attempt to conceal its supporting structures in a mixture of stone, timber and steel flooded by light from its large windows. Next up is the City Gallery. The building was built in 1939 in an Art Deco style and today houses the best selection of avant-garde art in the country. The gallery also houses exhibitions of international and national art which you'll be able to see for an additional fee. The City Cinema is also located here and you'll be able to find more information on its art-house films in the local press.

By now you'll have seen the City-to-Sea bridge which links the the square to the waterfront.. The structure is the work of the Maori artist, Para Matchitt The huge totems and wooden sculptures of birds, whales and the heavens is a tribute to the settling of the city by Maori and Europeans.

Te Papa or The Museum of New Zealand was built in 1998, cost some $350 million and has already attracted more visitors than any other site in the country. The first national museum in the country brings to life the history of the land, its people, flora and fauna with imaginative, high-tech interactive displays. The Mana Whenua is a Maori exhibition complete with an 1840 Marae or meeting house which comes to life with myths and tales told by Maori via the audio-visual screens. You'll also be able to appreciate Maori art and craftmanship here. There are taong or treasures from the waka taua a war canoe and kahu or cloaks intricately designed and crafted from feathers and other natural materials as well as the famous greenstone weapons and jewellery. If you head upstairs to the Te Marae, you'll get to experience a formal Maori welcome complete with Iwi or tribal ceremonies. Other interesting displays include an earthquake simulator which recreates the explosive force of a major earthquake not uncommon to the country and a virtual trip to Wellington as it will be in 2050. You can also take a trip into virtual reality and experience a bungy jump, take a ride on a back of a whale or go sheapshearing. Head outside for a tour of wildlife and the environment with real wetlands and bush. You can also dig for dinosaur bones, see glow-worms in limestome cave, find out more about the rock formations created through the ages or give gold-panning a go.

On a fine day, you'll find the Oriental Parade bubbling with life. This is Wellington's promenade and beach, picturesquely lined with old wooden colonial houses, cafes and Norfolk pines. To get there it will take you about 10 minutes from Te Papa. Just enjoy the walk along the seafront through to the Chaffers Marina and on to the Oriental Parade.

If you've any interest in seafaring history the Maritime Museum on Queen's Wharf is worth your time. The museum houses displays and artefact's on the maritime history of New Zealand as well as international exhibits. Pride of place is a film which pays tribute to Wellington's inter-island ferry disaster in 1968. The T.E. Wahine had 734 passengers aboard when it sailed into Wellington harbour and one of the worst storms ever recorded in the country. Violent seas made rescue attempts impossible and when the weather subsided the passengers discovered that there weren't enough lifeboats to go round. 51 lives were lost in the tragedy which also saw the end of the ferry service from Lyttleton which moved closer to Picton instead. Other models like that of the sinking Titanic will also send shivers down your spine.

The Botanic Gardens
The Botanic Gardens which covers an extensive 64 acres or 26 hectares is another free and essential part of your sightseeing in Wellington. The most visited section is the Lady Norwood Rose Garden which is geometrically laid out in a formal pattern shaped like a wheel with some 300 varieties. You'll find it at its blossoming and fragrant best in summer. Just next to it is the Begonia House which is divided into 2 sections; the temperate and tropical. The temperate section is seasonal, containing begonias and gloxinias in summer which changes to cyclamens, orchids and impatiens over the winter months. The tropical section has water lilies and some interesting carnivorous plants (don't worry they won't bite you they're in cages).

Just a little further on from the Rose Garden you find the Bolton Street Memorial Park. The entrance will strike you with its memorial to the Richard Seddon, New Zealand's best loved politician and rightly so. He acted as Prime Minister between 1893 and 1906. Under his government, New Zealand became the first country in the world to entitle women to vote. He also created a first with the introduction of the pension for aging citizens. The Victorian Cemetery was originally 3 separate cemeteries devoted to Anglican, Jewish and the general public. Established in 1840 it became the final resting place for some of the early pioneers. By 1892 burials were only allowed in existing plots. Abandoned in the 1960, the cemetery caused a general public outcry when it was decided that some 3,500 bodies would be exhumed and reburied to create the motorway which you can see there today.

Within the gardens those with astronomical aspirations will enjoy the Carter Observatory which was built in 1941. From 8pm on Saturdays and Tuesdays you can observe the Southern Skies. The tour includes a talk on astronomy and a 1/2 hour planeterium show. Alternatively head to the Thomas King Observatory which dates from 1912. You'll be able to see the very instruments which were of great importance during their time for time-keeping and navigation.

To get to the gardens you can enter from Glenmore Street or Upland Road. However, you're much better off taking the short, cheap and scenic cable car ride which leaves every 10 minutes from Lambton Quay. Aboard the Victorian tramway, you'll be delighted by the spectacular views across the harbour and city while you climb steeply. The steam-powered tram system came into operation in 1902 but was replaced by a more modern electrical system in 1933. Today, the tram is a Swiss system which propels 2 cars via an electrical motor at the top station was introduced in 1978. At the top, the lookout is superb. There's also Cable Art a photo art gallery dedicated to the history of the cable car depicted in black-and-white photos. You can also enjoy the view and a coffee or a drink at the licensed Skyline Cafe.

The Parliamentary Quarter
Within the Parliamentary District you'll find some of the finest examples of New Zealand's architecture On Lambton Quay, you'll see the impressive 4 storey Old Government Building. It was the largest building in New Zealand when it was built in 1876. Today it is the second largest timber building (after Japan's Todiaji Temple) in the world. Although mainly occupied by the Law Faculty of the Victoria University of Wellington, some areas are open to the public eye. The building is the brainchild of William Clayton and was intended to represent the move from a provincial government system to a centralised one.

Just across Lambton Quay you'll be able to see the current Parliament Buildings. Free tours are available. You'll be taken to the the Upper House, House of Representatives, the Maori Affairs Select Committee Room (complete with the craftsmanship of various iwi or tribes), the Gothic General Assembly Library and the Beehive which is the executive wing, reserved for ministers and civil servants. While the design (apparently inspired its architect, Sir Basil Spence, by a matchbox) gives the impression of bustling and busy politicians it is reportedly a nightmare to work in. You may also enjoy watching the Debating Session which is general quite entertaining (if for a limited time) should it happen to be in session. The parliament is modeled on and similar to the British House of Parliament at Westminster.

This colonial neighbourhood is the oldest suburb in Wellington. Europeans settled here for the first time in the 1840's and you'll be able to picture the era as you stroll through the wee side streets and cobbled ways past the timber 19th century cottages. You'll find the most impressive on Tinakori Road. If you're interested in catching up on some Kiwi literature head to the Millwood Gallery, 291B, on the same road for some interesting books or more info on the area in a helpful pamphlet called, Thorndon Walk. There's also the Tinakori Gallery, 314 where you can see some early local and contemporary fine-art works. At No 25., Tinakori Road a modest 2-storey house is the first residence and birthplace of Katherine Mansfield. Probably the most famous New Zealand writer originally called Katherine Beauchamp, she lived here till the age of 5 when the family moved to a better residence. Although Mansfield moved to England when she was 19, she retained fond memories of her homeland and this house. Infact she mentions No. 25 in some of her stories such as, 'A Birthday', 'The Aloe', and 'Prelude'. You'll understand why the house left such an impression on her memory when you see its colourful charming decor; an interesting mixture of Japonisme and the Aesthetic Movement. amongst the restorations, in the kitchen you'll see a doll's house which was recreated from one of her stories which unsurprisingly was called, 'The Doll's House'. Upstairs are black-and-white photos of some of the important people in her life and the city as it was during her time. Today you'll be able to see and interesting 50 minute documentary, A Portrait of Katherine Mansfield: A Woman and a Writer.

Old St. Paul's lies on Murphy St., just off Tinakori Road. This Gothic timber church styled in European form is undoubtedly one of the nicest in Wellington It was designed by Reverend Frederick Thatcher who was the vicar of the parish. This was the parish church of Thorndon between 1866 and 1964. The lovely wooden interiors have aged gracefully and lend a rich hue set off by the gorgeous stained-glass windows and shiny brass plaques.

Next head to the National Archives on Mulgrave Street. The archives house some of the country's most important constitutional and historical documents. You can take a look at the infamous Waimangu Treaty (damaged by rodents and water when it was reportedly lost in the Old Government Buildings), the Declaration of Independence, The Women's Franchise Petition (notably the first of its kind in the world, which empowered women with the right to vote) and the the Order of Council of 1904 which made New Zealand a dominion rather than a colony. There are also Maori petitions which date as far back as 1909 detailing their concern over promise return from the treaty which they never saw. You'll also be able to see 2 signatures of Te Rauparaha, a chief who was twice rewarded for his name in the form of muskets and blankets.