Perennially playing second fiddle to Auckland, Wellington is a striking harbour city that deserves more than the flying visit bestowed by many as they make their way overland to the South Island. This compact capital, often described as a mini Melbourne on account of its laneways, has a thriving coffee and craft brewery scene and is an incubator for local artisans. Sure, it can be horrendously windy, but the adage holds true: You can't beat Wellington on a good day.
New Zealand's national museum Te Papa (tepapa.govt.nz) provides an excellent introduction to Kiwi history and culture, and the Gallipoli exhibition – brought to life with giant life-like sculptures made by the Weta Workshop special effects studio – is not to be missed. For sweeping views of Wellington ride the funicular (wellingtoncablecar.co.nz ) to Kelburn and meander through the Botanic Garden back to the city centre, or drive to Mount Victoria, a 196-metre lookout just east of the CBD. On a good day, the bayside walk to picturesque Oriental Bay is a delight. A little further afield take the short scenic drive around the Miramar Peninsula to Seatoun, where you can explore fancy neighbourhoods and old coastal war batteries.
Wellington is a city that can be explored via the glass and its gastronomy. Floriditas in trendy Cuba St offers a scrumptious brunch and a counter laden with house-baked goods (floriditas.co.nz ), while the Leeds Street Bakery (leedsstbakery.co.nz ) is famous for its salted caramel cookies and coffee, courtesy of Red Rabbit Coffee Co next door. In this artisanal enclave you will also find the tempting Wellington Chocolate Factory (wcf.co.nz) and handmade soda producer Six Barrel Soda Co (sixbarrelsoda.co.nz). The Garage Project is an experimental craft brewery with eight brews on tap (garageproject.co.nz), while for dinner you can't beat Charley Noble, a colossal dining hall near the waterfront that specialises in wood-fired fare (charleynoble.co.nz).
With pastel weatherboards clinging to the hills, a big-town vibe and a glistening harbour (on a good day), Wellington is a picture-postcard city. Located on the south-west tip of the North Island, it's the launch pad for the three-hour ferry journey to Picton, on the South Island, and thus a popular transit city. The Cook Strait, separating the two islands, is notoriously blustery, and the winds funnelled through this channel are what give Wellington its moniker "the Windy City".
The Lord of the Rings is spruiked unashamedly in New Zealand, and at Weta Cave (wetaworkshop.com), in the coastal suburb of Miramar, you can explore the creative genius behind the blockbusters' most famous characters. On a fascinating 45-minute tour of the Weta Workshop studio (co-founded by director Sir Peter Jackson) come face to face with orcs and formidable villain Sauron. The workshop has been involved in more than 200 film productions around the world.
The Museum Art Hotel is a quirky, boutique find ideally located on the waterfront, opposite Te Papa. Recently acquired by the QT Hotels group, the property is an attraction in its own right and features more than 150 artworks amassed by former owner Chris Parkin. There's a limited edition MV Agusta motorbike in the lobby and a gleaming bull made from vintage tins of corned beef. Superior king rooms start at $NZ249 (museumhotel.co.nz).
Leave the car at your hotel or ditch it altogether: Wellington is a city best explored on foot. Stay central and you can comfortably navigate the whole city by pounding the pavements. Not only will you find hidden treasures down the city's many laneways but you'll also avoid the confusing network of one-way streets.
Catherine Best was a guest at the Museum Art Hotel.