By RICH GRANT
WELLINGTON – The Lonely Planet travel guide books once called Wellington the “coolest capital city in the world,” an accolade the town loved so much, they made it their official slogan.
And why not?
New Zealand’s capital city is a pretty cool place, and the 300,000 people who live here know it.
More than a quarter of them walk or bike to work, many along a spectacular two-mile-long waterfront walkway that is lined with pubs offering views of boats, mountains and the skyline.
Come 5 p.m., it’s almost dangerous strolling here as the wide walkway is packed with hundreds of bikers, joggers, roller skaters and commuters heading home, while the harbor is filled with sailboats and rowing crews. It’s standing room only at the outdoor pubs on a sunny day.
Wellington offers some other world-class urban tramps (what New Zealanders call walks) on the two flanking mountains that overlook the harbor.
One of the hills can be accessed by a bright red cable car that takes you to the top for a sweeping view of the harbor, followed by a long, meandering walk back to the city through the free and very pretty Wellington Botanic Gardens. There are well marked trails that go through a combination of rainforest jungle and English gardens.
The other hike up steep Mount Victoria has even more rewarding views of the harbor and the surrounding hills and skyline. Trails branch off at the summit and lead through a forest of unusual trees that doubled as a fantasy set for hobbits in the “Lord of the Rings” film series.
Wellington is also New Zealand’s cultural capital, and as such, has great restaurants and a slew of outdoor brewpubs.
Mac’s Brewbar and St. Johns Heineken Hotel on the waterfront at Taranaki Street Wharf are fun, have outdoor decks and a great selection of local brewpub beers.
New Zealand beers are mostly very similar lagers, ales, golden ales and reds, with an occasional stout. It’s the New Zealands wines that are stellar and memorable, but the beer is certainly drinkable, if not outstanding.
There are a number of Irish pubs in town: Molly Malone’s has a fireplace and nice outdoor deck on the pedestrian and bar-lined Cuba Street. Kitty O’Shea’s has live traditional Irish music on Courtenay Place, another street of pubs. The Green Parrot, they say, is where you might spot visiting movie celebrities.
Throughout the downtown, there are art galleries, bookstores and local coffeehouses galore, and every vacant wall is covered with posters for theaters and a symphony, all of which give the city a cultural look.
Nothing in New Zealand is very old, but what old architecture you’ll find is here – though overall, the city has a modern feel, especially in the truly bizarre national capitol building (called the “Beehive,” because it looks like one).
There’s plenty of downtown shopping and about every third store is selling sportswear or outdoor gear. The shop, Simply New Zealand on 101 Wakefield Street in Civic Center Plaza has everything related to New Zealand and is connected to a superb information center with tons of free maps and brochures.
The must buy is something with Merino wool (the finest, thinnest, warmest wool in which New Zealand specializes) or anything from the national rugby team, the All Blacks.
Wellington’s top attraction is the Te Papa Tongarewa.
In Maori that means ‘container of treasures’ – and that’s exactly what the National Museum of New Zealand is.
Called Te Papa for short, it’s free, huge and fun … and centrally located right on the waterfront.
There’s a cannon from Captain Cook’s ship, the Endeavor, a house that shakes in an earthquake, a walk over a swing bridge through the bush, and more about the native Maori culture than you’ll ever want to know (11 percent of New Zealand’s population are Maori).
The exhibits on the geology of New Zealand help give some idea why this country has such a crazy landscape, showing how a series of faults all collide under New Zealand, creating volcanoes, earthquakes and mountains that are still growing.
Welly’s second big attraction is its most famous resident, Sir Peter Jackson.
He was a virtually unknown director when he started filming the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, but Jackson is now an Oscar-winning, international director, movie producer and innovator, who has moved much of his film business to Wellington and the neighboring town of Miramar, known as “Wellywood.”
Jackson’s films have done for New Zealand what John Ford’s films did for the American West.
His iconic fantasy images of the stark New Zealand landscape have transformed the country into one of the world’s hottest film locations.
There’s a huge back-lot green screen in Miramar where scenes from LOR and King Kong were filmed, and Jackson also built the massive Park Road post-production facility here.
Today, it is one of the world’s top special effects centers. “Avatar,” “Tin Tin” and some 150 other movies have been put together in Park Road’s three IMAX screen-sized editing suites.
Weta Workshop is also located here. This is where they produce the fantastic models of fantasy creatures, dinosaurs and weapons used in many of Jackson’s films.
The Weta Cave is a small, free museum filled with models and props from films. Not only can you see these props, you can buy replicas of them as well (but like everything in New Zealand, they are expensive!).
Peter Jackson lives nearby and is a local hero who has brought hundreds of millions of dollars to the New Zealand economy,
There are several “Lord of the Rings” tours where you can visit nearby filming sites, such as the place where the hobbits hid from the Nazgul on Mount Victoria.
The tour guides worked as extras on the films and have lots of inside knowledge and anecdotes about Sir Peter.
If you love the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, one of these tours is a must.
There is also a book by Ian Brodie that details all the LOR filming locations throughout the entire country.