Few things please me more than a cheese trolley, and yet they are so difficult to come by, at least in the circles in which I ordinarily move. I am delighted to discover one at the QT Hotel in Wellington, set amid art works and objets and the dim lighting of its fine restaurant.
The cart, groaning with blues and bries and washed rinds, and captained by a knowledgeable French waiter, is a fitting introduction to my stay at the QT. The hotel gained notoriety in 1993 when it was itself placed on a giant cart of sorts, and transferred from its old home, 120 metres up Cable Street, where it nudged Wellington's spectacular harbour, to its current home, where it looks out over the spectacular harbour. The QT was the Museum Hotel then, and in its old spot the marvellous Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa was created.
The great 1993 carting of the Museum Hotel was a grand spectacle, with thousands of Wellingtonians turning out to watch the largest ever building to be moved in New Zealand. It's tempting, here, to insert a joke about the calm and quiet of a town that considers a building removal an Event, with a capital "E". Wellington is used to those sorts of jokes, as is its sister city, Canberra. And that's just fine, because Canberra was the reason I was in Wellington, in a roundabout way.
In 2016, the two great capitals decided to become trans-Tasman twins, in a formal sister-city arrangement. Singapore Airlines announced it would operate direct flights between Canberra, Wellington and Singapore. ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said the exchange would include business partnership programs, education and cultural exchange, and tourism, which is why I am here.
Both cities are small and proud with highly educated populations. Both have coldish climates and are steeped in politics, although Canberra more so, given the Australian capital was purpose-built for government. And both cities have a thriving food and wine scene for which they are not nearly well enough known.
Which brings me back to the cheese cart. When I arrive at the QT, I am welcomed with a pre-dinner cocktail in its Hippopotamus Restaurant, which is billed as "French-inspired". Its aesthetic is fin de siecle Parisian bordello-meets-Victorian parlour, featuring a giant mirrored bar, plush chairs, chandeliers and a giant stuffed peacock.
My Kiwi companion and I are seated for dinner. For entree we share citrus-marinated tuna and a buffalo mozzarella and heirloom tomato salad. For main, I order La boeuf dans la prairie (a fillet of beef) with a side of potatoes gratin. My Kiwi companion has the lamb, which is predictably patriotic of him, but it's so meltingly tender it's hard to fault him for it.
Everything is served with the greatest solicitude by our waiters, who all seem to be French, and who leap up at the smallest turn of our heads in their direction. We don't do dessert, preferring the carted cheese. Its contents are all French, with nothing local, but we make up for it with plenty of Marlborough region pinot noir.
Full of cheese and wine, I am ready to retire happy. My room is simple, with an enormous and enormously comfortable bed, and a view straight across the generous curve of Wellington harbour. The bathroom houses an enormous freestanding bathtub, with high sides to hide behind with a book, which I do until my skin pickles.
The following afternoon we have a mini walking tour of Wellington's laneways and foodie spots. The highlight is the Wellington Chocolate Factory, which is housed down a little cobbled lane, across the way from a hole-in-the-wall vendor who sells artisanal peanut butter sold in cups with a spoon, like gelato. This must be a Kiwi thing.
The chocolate factory makes single-origin, "bean to bar" fair trade chocolate, some of it carbon-neutral, using cacao nibs sourced from run-by-locals farms in Africa, South America and the Pacific. We take a tour and I eat a lot of chocolate at various stages of its production, and we finish with a cup of hot chocolate, which is really just melted chocolate, and so rich that even someone with my passion for the sweet brown gold has trouble finishing it. I still leave with several chocolate bars, all with tastes distinctive to the beans used to make them.
We press onwards to high tea, back at the Hippopotamus Bar, where a tiered cake platter is placed before me, bearing all manner of delicacies, from cheese puffs to cucumber sandwiches and mini meringue pies.
I take the afternoon off from my eating schedule for a long, sweeping walk around Wellington's harbour, which is buzzing with young people, families and couples, all walking, having barbecues and playing Frisbee in perfect harmony. It is idyllic. It literally reminds me of depictions of heaven I have seen in Christian pamphlets.
And so, to Canberra, on the new trans-Tasman express run by Singapore Airlines. The trip is actually too quick – I would like to linger in the business class cabin. My seat is roomier than some of the inner-city apartments I have lived in and I have enough privacy to cry uncontrollably at my choice of soppy movie (Lion). Soft tissues and high quality wines are on hand to soothe me.
The QT Canberra is larger and smarter than its Wellington counterpart. Its foyer features pop-art wallpaper of politicians' photos, with the current Cabinet prominently displayed. I wonder if they change the decor for every reshuffle? The political touches continue in my room, where there is a spy kit and further pop art paraphernalia featuring the faces of former prime Ministers, and quotations from them. The QT Bar, on top of the building, has wonderful views across Canberra, and has become a hub for meetings, some more clandestine than others, between political types and those who hub around them – journalists, lobbyists and businesspeople. It is darkish, sleek and discreet, catering for people who do want to be seen, and those who need not to be.
As Sydney is so quick to remind it, Canberra lacks the beauty and glamour of a natural harbour. But Lake Burley Griffin, on a fine autumn day, is very pretty indeed, and once I have hung around at the breakfast buffet for longer than is seemly, I take a stroll along its foreshore. If it weren't for all the politicians within a short radius, this would verge on idyllic too.
Singapore Airlines Capital Express Canberra to Wellington return business class fares cost from $1835. See singaporeair.com
Suites at QT Museum Wellington cost from $389 a night.
Suites at QT Canberra cost from $279 a night. See qthotelsandresorts.com/canberra.
Jacqueline Maley travelled as a guest of QT Hotels.
FIVE CAPITAL THINGS
Lunch at the Bookplate Cafe at the National Library of Australia, under the famous stained glass windows made by renowned glass artist Leonard French.
Canberra's art deco Kurrajong Hotel is where politician Ben Chifley lived during his parliamentary career, including his term as prime minister, because he preferred it to The Lodge.
The New Zealand Parliament, an early 20th-century building next to the distinctive modernist "Beehive" building, which houses the government's executive wing.
Wellington's architecturally unique (but prosaically titled) "Government Buildings" is a huge, restored 19th-century wooden building in the style of an Italian stone palace. It used to house the cabinet room and the ministers' offices, and these parts are still open to the public.
The Australian War Memorial; it will be of great interest to Kiwi tourists as well as Australians. Many rate it as Canberra's finest museum.