All's well in Wellington

All's well in Wellington

While on a food walk in Wellington, Kalpana Sunder can’t stop admiring the city of gourmands’ love for food, brews and creativity in every space

Bright red and yellow buckets fill up with water slowly and then cascade down on the lower buckets which splash, wetting unsuspecting passersby. I am on Cuba Street, watching a quirky Wellington landmark, the Bucket Fountain, erected in 1969, as a part of the Cuba Street pedestrian mall. It’s a window into the fun quotient of the city. Cuba Street is the epicentre of Bohemian Wellington with vintage shops, and vinyl collections.

Wellington is New Zealand’s ‘Windy City’ tucked between steep forest-clad hills and a wide sweep of bay, looking out to Cook Strait. As I walk on the waterfront gazing at the cobalt blue ocean lined with boats and yachts, I am entertained by the constant flow of skate boarders, cyclists and tourists in four-wheeled buggies shaped like crocodiles. A street performer and his daughter are entertaining passersby with some vigorous Irish dancing; a bright wooden piano in rainbow colours is on the sidewalk, for anyone to play or pose.

Artwork on a building
Artwork on a building

Number no bar

Wellington is also a city of gourmands — it has more bars, restaurants and cafés per head than New York. On my first day in the city I have brunch at Havana — tucked in between apartment blocks and hotels is this bar and restaurant serving cold pressed juices, beers and healthy food like sour dough bread with avocado and poached eggs, housed in two candy pink painted wooden houses with plants and skylights, in the heart of what used to be China Town, with its notorious opium dens. My local guide, Liz, from Zest Tours, takes me to the Garage Project — located at an old petrol station to try out some of their top beers.

The Garage project, a home-grown brewer was one of the pioneers of the craft beer scene in the city which was started in 2011 by two brothers and a friend, brewing beers in an old garage and created a stir by releasing 24 different beers in 24 weeks. I see locals walk in with their own containers and bottles on the way home to pick up some fresh brew. I am awed by the variety in their brews and the bright packaging of their cans with art work by local artists. “This is a city that thrives on home grown and supports its local entrepreneurs fiercely,” explains Liz. At Gelissimo Gelateria, a Wellington institution, I taste flavours of gelatos from passion fruit and dark chocolate to native fruit fejoia, made from fresh organic whole milk and sorbets started by Graham Joe, a Chinese born immigrant. The city loves its caffeine — and even here goes local with independent roasters.

Wearable art made from tea bags
Wearable art made from tea bags

It’s just wow

The city is also known for its colourful festivals from ‘Wellington on a Plate’ with cooking contests, a cocktail competition and a fiercely contested burger competition, to Cuba Dupa — a vibrant street festival held in May every year with over 200 performances and quirky costumes .

I hear about World of Wearable Art (WOW), an annual event, that has designers from all over the world competing. We peer into the Museum Hotel to see a creation for the competition made entirely from used tea bags.

Liz shows me the Civic Square, created in the 1990s to provide a European kind of square for the locals. Located between the town Hall and art gallery it was, inspired by the green spaces of Europe, where office workers sit with their lunch and people just chill on the lawns. Walking straight from this square I walk through the City to Sea pedestrian bridge which acts as a canvas for local creativity — made from roughly cut slabs of local timbers, with carved supports and chunky rough-hewn sculptures, a gill porthole that frames the high buildings of the city.

Riot of colours

The sculptures on the bridge are the work of the Maori artist Paratene Matchitt — timber sculptures of sea monsters, birds, whales and celestial motifs . The whales, the gulls, the totem poles, the seats are a favourite spot for all sorts of activities; sleeping, canoodling or reading.

Everywhere, art is an omnipresent motif. On the waterfront I see boats with art on their sides from playful seals to frisky penguins. Even car parks and walls are canvasses for creativity in this town. Even the public bathrooms in the city are a work of art — along the waterfront are the famous lobster loos made of long capsules of red metal, with concrete tentacles in distinctive shapes and voted as the third best public loo in the world. Nowhere is the startup spirit more evident than in Hannah’s lane precinct — an old shoe factory that was decrepit before young startups took up the abandoned industrial spaces. Creativity is in full flow here from the car parks painted with images of shoes to bakers, roasters and brewers who operate small shops here.

I wallow in the delicious flavours of chocolate and indulge in chocolate tasting, seeing organic chocolate transformed into bars at the Wellington Chocolate factory. This artisanal producer makes bars of chocolate from single origin beans, in creative flavours from chili lime to Anzac cookies, and offers them wrapped in colourful wrappers designed by local artists. Fix and Fogg on Eva Street, is my favourite local enterprise — where a tiny window serves the best peanut butter that I have tasted in my life — their innovative flavours from peanut butter with organic Kiwi chillies and Spanish paprika is the brainchild of a husband and wife team, who gave up a law practice to make peanut butter.

We end our food walk at Moore Wilson’s, a local supermarket with a bounty of fresh and organic produce from native fruits like fejeois to cheeses and crusty breads. Liz has arranged a platter of produce which turns out to be one of the most delicious meals that I have had — not surprising in this capital of good taste.