Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Easter in Wellington 6-9 April

We're booked into the James Cook Grand Chancellor hotel which is spacious and comfortable (once we’d sorted out the air con). It’s also central and we can walk to most places from here. We don’t really want to breakfast in the hotel and that’s a bit of a problem because lots of places seem to be closed for Easter. We have the most amazing weather all w/e, with clear blue skies, bright sun and very little wind.

Street performer drawing the crowds in the courtyard outside Te Papa

Te Papa Museum
It’s certainly impressive and requires more than one visit. A busy place, it’s free entry to encourage visitors, but the building creates a feeling of height and space so it doesn’t feel crowded. We ‘did’ the ground floor which covers mostly natural history (including the giant squid), geology (where the earthquake simulation wasn’t as good as Auckland Museum’s ), and the Waitangi Treaty. We went on up to the national art collection on the top floor for our second visit. It’s a big collection but again, as with the Auckland gallery, you get the feeling it’s playing second fiddle to the galleries of Europe, just so much newer with less inherited wealth of paintings. Their collection of NZ artists is interesting and the narrative works hard to explain the particular difficulty they’ve encountered. Artists historically felt forced to leave their native NZ to study and develop alongside European artists but as a direct consequence, back home, their art was considered too avant garde by NZ’s more conservative audience, so they often remained abroad. Nowadays the dilemma is that their art is assiduously bought up by NZ galleries which takes it out of the European scene with the result that its importance internationally is all too easily be overlooked by art historians.

Te Papa: looking down to the ground floor from the top gallery

I was pleased to see the Katherine Mansfield portrait  (Anne Estelle Rice) and also found a lovely landscape by an NZ artist called Rhona Haszard who had spent some time living in the Channel Islands.

Botanical Gardens
We took the cable car up high above the city and walked through the gardens back down into town. There are big areas devoted to cactus etc which are lovely but we were quite late in the day so didn’t get to do it justice really. The tea house and Rose Gardens were a bit of a disappointment but that was largely due to the most awful tea served at the cafe.

Spot me sat in the middle of the cactus garden

Otari-Wilton Reserve
We caught the bus up to this reserve and did quite a long walk here. It was actually nothing special compared to other reserves we’ve seen, but included a couple of very ancient Rimu trees and a lovely picnic area beside a stream. We ended up walking out of the reserve through pine trees and on up to the skyline walk which was terrific because it gave us great views over Auckland.

Mike on the hills above the Otari-Wilton reserve, with the skyline walkway behind

This really has to be the highlight of our visit: an evening tour beginning half an hour before dusk. Zealandia is a large reserve which includes a dammed lake. All non-native mammals have been eradicated and it’s surrounded by a 6 ft high wire mesh fence to keep invaders out. It contains about 100 kiwis (brown spotted), tuataras, frogs, and loads of lovely rare native birds: takahes, kakas, morepork and a huge shag colony. We’re here to see the kiwis needless to say, and though they don’t guarantee a sighting it’s our best bet and we’re not disappointed. It’s the most beautiful clear cold evening with an enormous full moon. First we come across the huge shag colony just settling down for the night, then 2 takahes come lumbering past us. There are flocks of kakas squabbling loudly above, unsettled by the brightness of the moon perhaps, and but we can only see their silhouettes as they fly overhead. There are tuataras, silent and still on the bank beside the walkway. We've all been supplied with red light torches so the minute anything's spotted our torches are all aimed in the same direction.

The first kiwi we hear because it’s rustling on the bank ahead and we watch it for quite a while as it scrummages for food with its long beak. It’s obviously aware of us but doesn’t seem to mind us so long as we don’t get close. It walks purposely but in a random jerky fashion and eventually disappears into the bush. Our second spot is even closer and the warden thinks it must be Flip flop, a kiwi whose nervous system has been permanently damaged by eating poisoned berries and consequently had a habit of falling over unexpectedly. Tonight he’s digging furiously at the feeding tubes that are buried in the soil. He seems lighter in colour and very fluffy. Their coat is more hair than feather which, along with the long beak, gives them a very endearing appearance. Unlike our first kiwi he’s facing us full on so we get a good look at him before he too wanders away.

Walking back to the entrance we cross the dam and star gaze for a while. The warden is very informative, pointing out the Southern Cross and other constellations. The moonlight is amazingly bright and it’s a beautiful still calm evening. We jump into our waiting taxi are dropped off in Cuba St and have a great meal in the Spanish style Duke Carvell’s.

Crane boat on the waterfront
Wellington Waterfront
On Sunday morning there’s a Liverpool match on the telly so Mike stays in and I wander around the Wellington waterfront which on this bright sunny morning is just fabulous. It’s a little reminiscent of Vancouver, on a smaller scale of course, but with helicopters flying overhead and kayaks and little boats all over the sparkling water. There’s a large open air fruit & veg market just the other side of Te Papa, and an indoor market a little further on, so lots to investigate. There are some good wooden sculptures on the bridge going over to the Civic Centre, interesting old cranes, and warehouses, but a distinct shortage of cafes. We meet up at Te Papa, do the National Art Collection, and grab some street food at the market.

Kayaks and paddle boats on the waterfront

Lots of interesting wood sculpture on the bridge across from the waterfront to the Civic Centre

Red Rocks and beyond
We get a taxi over to Island Bay, because we’re running short of time, and set off walking east mostly in the shadow of the cliffs which tower above us. Wellington is known as the windy city though we found it very calm during our Easter visit; however here, just a little north east of the city, the wind is blowing fiercely. The sea is pretty wild too with huge masses of seaweed swirling around the rocky coastline. We walk around a headland and come across Red Rocks, which, true to its name, is a crop of red rocks (with some blue and green too) amongst the grey, then turning a corner through a gap in the headland it's a whole different world. From deep shade we walk into brilliant sunshine, and looking across to the horizon we clearly see the hilly coastline of South Island across the Cook Straits. Our struggle against the elements had been worthwhile, especially as a little later on our return we see a fur seal lolling about on top of a rock near the water’s edge.

Looking across the Cook Straits to the north coast of South Island

Getting back to the CBD is a bit of a challenge as it’s about 5pm on Easter Sunday, and on the advice of a local we end up road walking over the headland to pick up a bus. Turns out well and we only have to wait 5 minutes before one trundles by.

Halfway up Mt Victoria looking across to Wellington CBD
Looking down from the top of Mt Victoria
Mount Victoria
On our last morning we walk along the waterfront, around the marina, then up to the top of Mt Victoria which has great views over the city. Wellington has some great Art Deco architecture dispersed amongst the weatherboard houses and the modern blocks. Art Deco with its Ocean liner style seems to work very well here in this city with a great waterfront. Having walked back down to the CBD we end up using the loos in the Embassy theatre, Courtenay Place, which seems to have maintained most of its original interior (Classical Style 1924) with curved marble staircase, and fabulous tiles everywhere (even in the toilets!). Cuba St again for lunch then back to the hotel to collect our bags and home to Auckland.

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