I find Wellington to be the most confounding city in New Zealand. Last month I made my fourth visit to the capital, and almost wished, by the end of the day, that I hadn’t.
My very first visit to New Zealand, in 2008, ended with a trip to Wellington, to an interview for a job I didn’t get in Naenae, in Lower Hutt, north of the city. I flew in the day before the interview, and spent a highly enjoyable afternoon exploring Wellington. On this trip I first stayed at the Carillon Motor Inn, the eccentric joys of which I wrote about elsepost, and I found myself most enamoured of the city, if not of the Carillon.
This had much to do with the city. On my first visit, the sunshine bathed Wellington. From the Botanical Gardens, at the top of the climb of the cable car, the view of the city, and of the port it hugs, was splendid. Walking Lambton Quay was a joy. The wonderful old buildings of the parliamentary quarter were magnificent. It was a good day.
But then I went back with The Girls, a year or so later, in early spring, and had to wonder if I were in the same city. Where once I had seen beauty framed by blue skies, instead I saw drear and dullness weighed down by the granite and slate of grey, heavy clouds that blanketed the sky and watered us steadily. The view from the hill, well, wasn’t — there might, for all we knew, have been a city in front of us, but we had now way of knowing. Nowhere, I’ll grant you, no city will look its best under such circumstances, but Wellington wears its winters heavy.
A third trip, again alone, again, by coincidence, for a job interview in Naenae (didn’t get that job either), that December again reminded me of the charms of the city. And so, when I heard that drinks were being laid on for the Nine To Noon team at Radio New Zealand’s headquarters on The Terrace, I booked my flight. And, as the day grew nearer, the clouds grew heavier.
I had, between my broadcast bit in the morning and the drink-up in the evening, about five hours to kill, and the weather was truly grim — drizzle if I was lucky, full-on rain if I wasn’t. After wrapping up my on-air bit, I walked back down The Terrace as far as Parliament; I was just in time for the next guided tour. I had taken the tour on my first visit, so I knew it was worth an hour of my time, and, after all, it was under cover — one major plus-point before the guide even said “hello.”
The tour was, of course, excellent. It started in the Beehive (of which more anon), and led through the Parliamentary library and into the House itself; Parliament not being session (this was just a few days after a rather dispiriting general election, and no new government had been officially formed), we were allowed to visit the floor of the House, which surprised, but also rather pleased, me. Photographs weren’t allowed; I did point out that even the Australians allow photos in the the two chambers of their Parliament during tours — telling a Kiwi that the Aussies do it better is almost guaranteed, usually, to get a result — but we had all had to surrender cameras and cellphones before the tour began.
An hour killed, I found myself outside Parliament in the steadily-building rain. I crossed the road to a cafe, and bought a cup of coffee, thinking that if I drank it slowly I could make another hour go away. As I sat at a table waiting for my flat white, I noticed a familiar-looking man walk through the door. After a couple of seconds, I recognized him as Winston Peters, leader of New Zealand First, one of the largest of the minority parties in New Zealand’s parliament. Not being overly impressed with the man, I didn’t bother to go and say hello. But I was surprised at how relaxed senior politicians are about going out in public in New Zealand. This has to be a good thing. Unlike New Zealand First.
But the coffee only lasted so long, and so, the rain having eased off considerably, I started to walk down toward Cuba Street, the funky, edgy end of town. I don’t think I’ve seen any town, any city — this includes, by the way, New York, London, Melbourne, San Francisco, Tokyo, even Auckland — anywhere that has the cafe density of Cuba Street. Every third business, it seems, has an espresso machine hissing away, and if it’s not a cafe, it’s a restaurant, or a grocer’s. Food heaven, indeed. So I stopped for lunch at a Turkish cafe that made the best doner kebab I’ve tasted in as long as I can remember — hot, spicy, oily, lamby, delicious — and then carried on toward Te Papa.
Te Papa Tongarewa calls itself “The Museum of New Zealand,” but that doesn’t quite do the place justice. It’s a huge, expansive collection of everything it means to be Kiwi — whether that means Maori, or Pakeha, or Pasifika, or any other flavor of New Zealander. Everything is represented here, from kaupapa Maori to contemporary Pakeha pop culture. The geology of New Zealand is depicted in charts, diagrammes and a model house that replicates the massive earthquake that shook Edgecombe in 1987. I spent maybe three hours wandering around the place, fascinated. I could easily have spent longer.
Possibly the most amazing thing about Te Papa is the fact that it’s free. It’s a publicly-owned museum, and so the public have free access. This is how it should be. A museum of this calibre could, should it choose, charge a large sum for admission and still hope to see plenty of visitors, but Te Papa, belonging to the people, does not charge the people admission. This is a wonderful place.
Less wonderful is the Beehive. Designed in the 1960s, and built in the 1970s, before the world realized precisely how ugly concrete really can be, the Beehive squats like a stumpy dalek, all harsh angles and freaky fins and vast sharp edges of ugly, next to the classical buildings of New Zealand’s Parliament. While it is, undeniably, an iconic symbol of Wellington, it is also testimony to the fact that construction, by and large, really should have been put on hold for much of the period between about 1960 and 1980. It’s not simply that the Beehive is ugly. It almost, but not quite, transcends ugliness, but, sadly, instead of crossing over from “ugly” to “so ugly it’s actually interesting,” it simply remains firmly in “ugly” territory. Not only is it ugly; it’s also horribly out of place. Next to the 1922 Parliament House, a lovely neoclassical construction, and the gothic-revival Library, the grey and dull brown Beehive is simply wrong.
And so the score in Wellington remains a tie — 2-2 between me and the weather. I still have a fondness for the place, and I still want to spend a little more time exploring the city, and the area around it, but more and more I find myself thinking it’s definitely a great place to visit, and a wonderful place to come home from.