My Kind of Place Though a small city, New Zealand's capital boasts world-class art and food scenes on par with any found in Europe.
Natural beauty elevates trendy Wellington to 'coolest little capital'
Wellington is the southernmost capital city in the world. Its relative isolation in the South Pacific Ocean and its small population of less than 400,000 have encouraged the city to develop a strong sense of individuality. It houses a national museum, Te Papa, which is worthy of any in Europe and has an incredibly vibrant arts scene for a city of its size, with a year-round calendar of events even in winter. It has developed its own specialised cuisine using foods revered by New Zealand's indigenous Polynesian people, the Maori, and it has embraced the coffee bean with more tenacity than Seattle - Wellington has no fewer than 15 independent coffee-roasting businesses supplying a plethora of cafes. Centre stage is the stunning, dazzling harbour, washed daily by the cleanest seas on Earth as they roll in from the South Pacific Ocean. No wonder Lonely Planet named Wellington the "coolest little capital in the world".
A comfortable bed
If you fancy a small and intimate boutique hotel, then Ohtel (www.ohtel.com; 00 64 4 803 0600) is for you. The owner and designer Alan Blundell has created this unique 10-room design hotel on the harbour front at Oriental Bay, furnishing each room with chairs, sideboards, desks, lamps and other decorative items that he has sourced from far and wide, including some Scandinavian classics. It all works and is a reminder that Wellington is arguably the epicentre of the country's creativity. Try to get a room with a harbour view (from NZ$265 [Dh817] per night, including taxes).
The Museum Art Hotel (www.museumhotel.co.nz; 00 64 4 802 8900) sits right opposite the harbour and Te Papa. The black-walled building has - as its name suggests - more than a passing affection for art and houses scores of local works. It also has a fascinating history - the entire building was moved on rails from across the street in 1993 to make way for Te Papa to be built. Double rooms cost from NZ$220 (Dh680) per night, including taxes.
Find your feet
The best way to get your bearings in this geographically complex and up-and-down city is to take the Cable Car (a funicular railway) from just off Lambton Quay to the Botanic Gardens high up on one of the many hills that make up the city's greenbelt. From the gardens you have the entire sweep of the city before you and you can see for miles across the harbour to the mountains and forests beyond. The gardens are a delight - full of towering pines and numerous examples of the magnificent tree fern, a species so ancient it has its roots in the former supercontinent of Gondwana.
From the gardens it's an easy and pleasant walk back down to the city centre through the Bolton Street Cemetery which houses the graves of the first European settlers, and past the famous parliament building known as the "Beehive".
Meet the locals
New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa (www.tepapa.govt.nz), is a cultural gem. It carefully details the beliefs and legends of the Maori and the history of more recent settlers from Europe and elsewhere. There is information on the country's unique flora and fauna and its tempestuous seismic activity, and amazing stories of early South Sea navigators, who found their way across thousands of miles of empty ocean using only the swells and stars as their guides. If you fancy testing your own navigation skills, head for Ferg's Kayaks (www.fergskayaks.co.nz) on Queen's Wharf and get out on the harbour for some paddling. You can drift leisurely for an hour or take a day tour with an experienced guide.
Book a table
Dine in style at the marvellous Logan Brown (www.loganbrown.co.nz), situated in a former bank building on Vivian Street. The staff are impeccably trained and the food is exquisite and imaginative; the dishes include such local delights as "paua", a shellfish delicacy and a treasured food among the Maori. An average two-course evening meal costs from around NZ$80 (Dh245) per person (a cheaper bistro menu is available at lunch).
Another good option is Le Metropolitain (www.lemetropolitain.co.nz), a busy bistro on Cuba Street with some classic French dishes. The Boeuf Bourguignon is a favourite (NZ$25; Dh76), and is perfect to boost your energy after a day kayaking on the harbour.
The best among the city's many cafes are Thunderbird on Featherston Street, Mojo on Willis Street, and Caffe L'affare on College Street.
On Cuba Street is a wide variety of vintage shops that are great for browsing and picking up the odd gem. For jewellery seek out Quoil on Willis Street, for shoes try Shoezies on Wakefield Street, for alternative fashion, go to Zambesi on Customhouse Quay, and for ceramics and designs Jo Luping Design, also on Willis Street. Chocolate lovers should not leave without a slab (or three) of New Zealand's own Whittaker's.
What to avoid
It is impossible to book at many restaurants, so avoid arriving late and be prepared to wait 30 minutes for a table at the more popular venues. Also, don't assume a sunny morning means an equally pleasant afternoon - the weather can change in minutes so carry extra jumpers and a rain jacket at all times.
The natural surroundings. Take a bicycle ride around the small and tranquil mini-harbour of Evans Bay east of the city, then on and around the headland at Kau Bay, and down to Karaka Bay, past uninhabited coves and picturesque clapboard waterfront houses. Take a picnic with you, find a quiet beach and soothe your feet in the cool surf. Also, don't miss getting out on the water for an hour or two, kayaking over the harbour waves and keeping an eye out for dolphins.