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Wellington, New Zealand's cosmopolitan capital city, is located at the southern tip of the North Island and at the physical center of the country. You could say that all roads lead to Wellington -- as do all ferries cruising over from the South Island, about 60 miles away across Cook Strait.
According to Maori legend, the two main islands of New Zealand are actually the great canoe of Maui (the South Island) and the giant fish he caught (the North Island). Wellington harbor is the mouth of that huge fish. So where did the city's name come from? From Arthur Wellesley, the first Duke of Wellington and British Prime Minster from 1828 to 1830.
Though a geographic hub, Wellington is surprisingly compact -- it's nestled between the harbor and steep, forest-clad hills -- and wonderfully walkable. The revamped waterfront area leads from the cruise dock at the eastern edge of town to the must-see Te Papa museum in the west. A stroll along the quay is filled with surprises. There's a grassy playground for kids, large-scale sculptures and fun wooden walkways. Cross the street, and you'll have your choice of cafes and shops.
Foodies will love Wellington for its wide range of dining options (there are some 400 restaurants and counting). Note that coffee has recently replaced tea as the beverage of choice, and New Zealanders have their own lingo for coffee drinks -- flat white (not a cappuccino, but similar), short black (espresso) and many more.
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A bottle of wine, perhaps a Pinot Noir from the nearby Wairarapa region, or a pair of gloves made from a blend of possum fur and sheep's wool. Both will warm you up back home.
Everyone speaks English. If you're a coffee lover, however, you'll need to learn the Kiwi way of ordering your favorite brew. A few handy, commonly used Maori phrases are "kia ora" for "hello" and "ka kite ano" for "see you again."
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The New Zealand dollar is about 1.45 to the U.S. dollar, good news for cruisers. The easiest way to get local currency is from an ATM, found at the railway station and at major banks. Shoppers using debit cards can ask for "cash out," the Kiwi term for money back. For current exchange rates, check www.oanda.com.
Where You're Docked
The big ships dock at Aotea Quay, between the Interislander Ferry Terminal and the train station. The walk to the city center takes over 20 minutes. Small ships dock at Queens Wharf, right in the heart of town.
Aotea Quay cruise terminal is an industrial area. It's a five-minute walk to the train station, which has cafes, newsstands and small shops.
If you're docked at Queens Wharf, you'll be a few steps from the Museum of Wellington City and Sea, not to mention a couple of blocks from all the downtown shops and restaurants.
Wellington is relatively small. You can walk to all the major sights from your ship, though you may want to grab the ship's shuttle or a taxi from Aotea Quay to the center of town and walk from there.
By Taxi: You'll find cabs at the pier. They usually take debit and credit cards. If you need to call, try Corporate Cab at 0800-101-103.
By Bus: Walk from the dock to the north end of Lambton Quay for frequent bus service linking one end of the harbor to the other. Go to the railway station for buses traveling beyond the city center and harbor area. Bus fare starts at $1 NZ. A $5 NZ day-tripper pass gets you on local public transport, including the cable car.
By Rental Car: For out-of-town exploration, rental cars are available from the usual outlets -- Avis, Budget and Hertz. Darn Cheap Rentals offers a small car at $28 NZ (about $19 US) per day. Call 0800-800-327.
Museum of New Zealand: You could easily spend all day at Te Papa, New Zealand's marvelous national museum. Five floors of interactive exhibits and displays are housed in an enormous contemporary building showcasing New Zealand's treasures. The exhibits tell the story of the nation's past (a Maori meeting house and the entertaining Golden Days junk shop), present (a virtual bungee jump) and future (special exhibits). Be sure to ask about special programs, such as Polynesian dancing or a Maori version of the game "Simon Says." Open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., and Thursday until 9 p.m. Free admission except for short-term exhibits and the Time Warp.
Cable Car View: For a spectacular overview of the city and harbor, ride the cable car from Lambton Quay (behind the downtown shops) up to the hilltop district of Kelburn. The cars move along a cable in the ground, not in the air. You can ride down ($1.80 NZ one way), or spend an hour or more strolling back to sea level through the Botanic Garden and the gorgeous Lady Norwood Rose Garden. Allow extra time. It's further than it looks, especially if you take a wrong turn. Fortunately, the signage is excellent, and you can catch a cab if you need one.
Nautical Museum: The Museum of Wellington City & Sea, appropriately located right on Queens Wharf, is devoted to the city's maritime history. Modern technology brings Maori legends to life while a short film relives the 1968 Cook Strait ferry tragedy. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free admission.
Been There, Done That
Native Wildlife: If you're set on seeing New Zealand's unique native birds, the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is the place. The protected sanctuary houses a growing number of flightless wonders (with no predators they have no need to fly away), many endangered since less-friendly animals were introduced to the islands. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Foodie Walking Tour: Get a behind-the-counter look at Wellington's trendy coffee, deli and gourmet market scene with Zest Food Tours. A guide takes you walking from shop to shop, sampling piccolo (espresso) coffee, artisan cheeses, warm-from-the-oven bread, flavored honeys and kiwi fruit. The three-hour nosh ($195 NZ per person, about $135 US) begins at the Civic Square Visitor Center at 9:30 a.m. and ends with lunch. Reserve in advance at www.zestfoodtours.co.nz.
Shopping: Get a glimpse of history while you shop in the Old Bank Arcade on Lambton Quay. The building is Old-World beautiful, and the remains of an old-time ship can be seen through a section of glass flooring.
Hint: Tipping is not customary in New Zealand.
Casual Cafes: As long as you're visiting Te Papa, you may as well stop for a bite at The Cafe on level 1. It's open 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. For a quick pick-me-up, try Mojo (182 Wakefield St.) for excellent coffee and Greek pastries. Head to Wellington's ethnic dining enclave, called Cuba Quarter, and window shop (or follow your nose) until you find your favorite foods. They're all there -- Chinese, Indian, Vietnamese, Mexican.
Local Food: Zibibbo (25-29 Taranaki St.), named for a grape, offers great dining in casual surroundings. Chef Adam Newell, who hails from London's star-rated La Gavroche, shows off his creative talents with fresh fish and local produce. Open for lunch Monday thru Friday from noon on. Shed 5, built in 1888, is one of the oldest remaining wharf buildings. Now it's a seafood restaurant, refurbished of course, right on Queens Wharf. It's open Monday - Sunday from 11 a.m.
Gourmet: Step back in time at Logan-Brown Restaurant (Corner of Cuba and Vivian Sts.). It's set in the rotunda of a classic 1920's bank. Be sure to sip some New Zealand wine at the glass-topped aquarium that doubles as a bar. Lunch: Monday thru Friday, noon to 6 p.m.
Hint: It's easy to see city sights on your own. Join group excursions to venture into the countryside.
For Wine Lovers: A scenic drive over the mountains takes cruisers to the Wairarapa wine-growing region, a trendy weekend getaway spot for Wellingtonians and a bit like California's Sonoma Valley. Stop at Featherston to see the restored 1800's Fell locomotive before visiting the historic village of Martinborough, known for its boutique wineries. Then travel to Te Kairanga winery for a tour and tasting.
For Movie Buffs: The "Lord of the Rings" trilogy boosted New Zealand up the "must-see" travel charts. Wellington, or "Wellywood," was the center of the filmmaking, not surprising as director Peter Jackson lives in the 'burbs. Visit the location sites used for the gardens of Isengard, Rivendell and Lorhlorien. Some tours include the Stansborough weaving mill where the elfin cloaks were made.
For a Country Lodge Splurge: Travel out of town to Papanui Station, a 3,200-acre sheep and cattle farm, to see sheep shearing and sheep dog demonstrations. Enjoy lunch with wine at Boomrock Lodge before playing a couple holes of extreme golf or trying your luck at clay bird shooting.
Staying in Touch
To make international calls, buy a phone card. They're available at post offices, visitor centers and convenience stores. For e-mail, the Aotea Quay cruise terminal has six Internet stations. The iPlay Cafe behind the Opera House at 40 Manners Mall is open 24/7. The i-SITE Visitor Center in Civic Square has an Internet cafe. Open weekdays 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.; weekends 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
For More Information
Call Tourism New Zealand at 866-639-9325
On the Web: www.wellingtonnz.com and www.newzealand.com
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--by Ginger Dingus. San Francisco-based Dingus is a cruise and train journalist, whose work has appeared in a myriad of outlets, including Cruise Travel Magazine and The New York Daily News. Her contributions to Cruise Critic include ship reviews, port profiles and destination features.
All photos appear courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.