What can a family do with only 48 hours in Wellington, the capital of New Zealand? Enjoy every one of the 28,800 minutes being transported to new worlds.
Filmmaker Peter Jackson, his upcoming "The Hobbits," and locations from the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy are arguably the biggest attractions in Wellington. Or as the brochures like to call it, Wellywood.
But we find much more to love; even Wellington's Airport is charming. Sporting the slogan Wild at Heart it is perched on a peninsula at one end of this city of coves and bays. Air New Zealand is wild, too, flying us from Dunedin on the South Island without asking for ID, without telling us to remove our shoes and jackets, without taking away our water bottles. And when we land in the home of the nation's Prime Minister, we walk unsupervised across the runway to get our luggage.
Our Fijian cab driver announces that the quicker (read: cheaper) route is not nearly as much fun as the scenic tour he will provide, so he guns his Prius down the coastal road. He has his own Wellywood story, pointing out the former industrial zone of Miramar.
Jackson and his wife Fran Walsh have been the force behind gentrifying a big swath of Miramar over the course of filming The Rings trilogy. Their Kiwi devotion to the neighborhood has made it a filmmakers' nirvana, the site of Stone Street Studios and other facilities for the now enormous Weta Digital Empire.
Checking in, Checking Out Wellington
But on to Windy Wellington's downtown, where we check into the Heritage CityLife, an all-suite hotel where many film crews make themselves at home. Forty-eight hours is the time allotted for this stop on the 'Movie Tour of New Zealand' that my husband, a film producer, has won from Film New Zealand.
Happily, an old friend in town working on "The Hobbit" meets us for another wonderful meal (there is no bad meal in New Zealand). He chooses Shed 5 on Lambton Quay for its oysters, fresh fish n' chips and yummy Marlborough Pinot Noir… hard to believe this is a world capital where private sailboats bob up and down in front of Parliament.
Early the next morning, Roxanne and Robin from Film New Zealand pick us up for a quick round-the-coast tour starting with an aerial orientation from the peak of Mt. Victoria. The city is small but spread out, surrounded by beach coves and deep inlets off the Tasman Sea. Greenways criss-cross the low hills behind the coastal development, allowing residents to walk between many neighborhoods more quickly — a popular weekend exercise for local families.
Like Hong Kong, Wellington has many legacy British-isms: Locals walk and drive on the 'wrong' side of the road, baked beans and Marmite are served at breakfast, and everyone is unfailingly polite. We hear that the colonial days ended (in a cultural sense) in the late 1980s and Wellington has grown and become more sophisticated and multicultural ever since.
The Hobbits Movie Empire – Weta Digital
Next stop is Park Road Post, a post-production house founded by Peter Jackson and partners. Vicki's guided tour reveals a state-of-the-art editing and sound mixing facility with the computing power of NASA, the style of a Frank-Lloyd-Wright-meets-San Simeon Hollywood set and the services of a luxury hotel.
Vicky had invited a team from Jackson's nearby Weta Digital to make a presentation about digital effects (a.k.a. virtual cinematography) used recently on "The Adventures of Tin Tin," a film we love. It is a primer on state of the art visual effects used in popular movies, video games and theme park rides. Stunning examples of computer animation and motion capture techniques from "Avatar" and "King Kong" are analyzed. Slowly and patiently, using clips with and without final effects, Matt explains Weta Digital innovations and the extra demands of 3D. He shares stories about directors who have found new avenues of expression with motion capture, framing the actors' moves with an iPad-like "camera" and adding visual effects or more performance by manipulating the computer output.
Despite the powerpoint, the video clips and the explanations, Matt never dispels our firm belief that this is simply magic.
Afterwards, Roxanne and Robin take us to Stone Street Studios, The Shire itself.
With a week of New Zealand under our belts, we already appreciated how trees and rivers could come alive as epic heroes in "Lord of the Rings." We had flown over, cycled by, hiked up, stood among, and driven past actual "Rings" and "Hobbit" locations of majestic beauty. By day's end we understood how much more magical reality could be after some enhancements in post production.
Surprising Nightlife & Dining Scene in Wellington
It had been less than 24 hours in town and we headed to one of Wellington's central nightlife zones, Tory Street. After being told there was a 90-minute wait at the Asian fusion Monsoon Poon, we moved on. Several favorite ethnic eateries around Courtenay Place were also fully booked. Four sold-out restaurants later, after strolling with hundreds of others this fair autumn evening, we settle into a French bistro for a nice roast lamb dinner with the Film New Zealand team and their colleagues.
Wellington is one of those progressive cities where free arts and cultural events are a given. The annual International Arts Festival was sponsoring an event — a light show broadcast against the facade of the national museum — so we stood in the cool evening breeze watching abstract Maori symbols float by.
We did not get to Cuba Street, a popular BoHo area for shopping and what's said to be some of the best coffee in town, but we did stop at Havana Roasters, a very hip faded-Fidel-style cafe with a big roasting plant decorated with portraits of old Cadillacs and Che as a young man.
On the other end of the lifestyle caféspectrum, Caffee L'Affare on College Street is the original gathering place for Kiwi coffee lovers. Local and visiting families can sip a variety of brews while their little ones hang out in the toddler playspace at the back of the restaurant. You'll notice their sign everywhere around town as many other cafes serve their blends.
Malibu? It's a Wellington Beach Outing
If it's sunny as usual in Wellington, most visitors head to the beach for lunch. Our Film New Zealand hosts point out the ocean-hugging community of Scorching Bay then, farther on, Worser Bay, two poorly named, super affluent coastal villages where West Coast emigres and visiting celebrities like to rent homes.
Kite boarders practice on the choppy waves while we enjoy fish tacos at the Maranui Surf Club. If we've just left Malibu, then this loud and lively beachfront cafe packed with suited politicians and soccer moms must be Santa Monica. Get in touch with them about surfing and kiteboarding lessons if you're in town for more than 48 hours.
Wellington Cultural Highlights & Family Attractions
48 hours is not enough time to do everything, but we tried. We toured the Museum of New Zealand – Te Papa Tongarewa and appreciate how deeply the Pacific Island cultures are entwined in New Zealand life. It's a don't-miss attraction, with many exhibits manned by museum staff devoted to helping guests understand Kiwi heritage. This museum also has an interactive Our Place for ages 5-12 and the sweet Story Place for ages 12-48 months with toddler activities and special scheduled programs.
There is the Wellington Cable Car which rattles its way high above the city to the Botanical Gardens. Active families should allow an hour to walk up to the gardens or about half that time to walk down; the cable car is fun for at least one way. It’s very close to Lambton Quay if you want to combine it with some shopping, and Saturday and Sunday there are outdoor markets on the waterfront.
For a day in nature, locals head to the nearby Zealandia, known as The Karori Sanctuary, a volunteer-run wilderness habitat where a variety of Kiwi wildlife can be seen. They have night tours to experience the 10pm sunsets in summer, and get up close to a large variety of native birds.
We did not have time to visit the popular planetarium show at Carter Observatory but we can vouch for the city's brilliant clear skies.
And we never got to The Weta Cave, a Peter Jackson fan emporium whose merchandise from so many blockbuster films may be the true golden ring behind the Weta Digital empire.
Trip Planning: A Wellington Movie Buff Family Vacation
It's been said that two nights is not enough time in Wellington, and we agree.
Fortunately, visitors can learn from Tourism New Zealand about ideas and itineraries for touring New Zealand to explore in and around Wellington, then plan the rest of their lives touring this amazing country. Those who don’t want to plan ahead can go to m.WellingtonNZ.com for mobile maps or download their WellyWallks app from iTunes.
Although we did not need their services, we were very impressed with what the city has done for the mobility impaired. Public facilities, museums and restaurants were all accessible via ramps or elevators, and there’s a well paved pathway along Lambton Quay for wheelchair users. Mobility scooters can be booked free of charge for up to 4 hours of use from several locations around town and local buses, taxis and trains are accessible. For more information about where to go and how to get there for the mobility impaired, visitors can call the city’s Accessibility Advisor at +64 4 4999 4444 or email questions to [email protected]
There are many interesting hotels around town with accessible rooms, but we always felt at home in New Zealand at Heritage Hotels . With every comfort, style, they are great value for their amenities and service. At least the Heritage CityLife, with its great skyline views, kitchen and laundry facilities, made us want to settle in Wellington and enjoy its lifestyle for a very… very long time.
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