It’s spring at last. A cluster of commuters troop across the busy intersection from the railway station, holding onto jacket hoods, intent on taking the waterfront route to work despite the chilly winds coming off the harbour. Waiting for the cross-now light, a woman with a take-away coffee is caught off balance by a gale-force gust. She steadies herself and plants her feet on the footpath in case of another equinoxal squall. The Korean couple being buffeted about nearby give smiles of delight at the unexpected drama.
On days like this in Wellington, you know you’re alive. When you step out the door, there’s the wind on your face and the tang of ozone in the air. It can be exhilarating – or just miserable. Only those who like to live dangerously head outdoors without an extra layer. Except on the occasional perfect day when the harbour sparkles, the houses stand proud, and the hills beckon.
In September, in spring, the magnolia branches in the Botanic Gardens, lift and stretch in sculptured magnificence. Their flowers stand poised, not yet open. The paths wander by beds of tulip, clumps of daffodils, and a grassy hillside dotted with wild flowers. Even on a bleak day it’s worth wrapping up and donning stout walking shoes to roam the bush trails. The uphill tracks eventually reward you with a wide vista over the city and across the harbour, and an up-close look at Wellington’s cable car as it trundles up and down from the city centre. Carrying on, you may stumble across New Zealand’s only Henry Moore sculpture, the form of a woman in bronze, one of six sculptures in the gardens.
From the Botanic Gardens, a wander down Tinakori Road is to browse amongst the antiques, arts, books and designer second-hand clothes shops in the village, before meandering on into Katherine Mansfield country. Here in Thorndon, the celebrated writer grew up and went to school – and set some of her stories. At the house in which she was born where, in spring, the cottage garden is as delightful as the surrounding streets of well-maintained heritage houses. This is quintessential Wellington. Here, it’s easy to imagine the muddy streets, top hats, horses and drays of the early residents of Victorian times.
You get a sense of the real residential Wellington if you head to some of the other villages dotted between the hills: the affluent suburbs of Karori, Kelburn and Khandallah with their English-style homes; the more funky, eclectic mix of people and places in Aro Valley, Newtown, and Brooklyn. Thankfully, good coffee is never far away – its almost a religion in this city – even on the wild south coast. Just bundle up and expect a bracing walk!
Along with blossom and the delicate green of unfurled leaves, WOW (World of Wearable Art) comes to Wellington in spring. It culminates in a lavish, colourful and spectacular multimedia show that draws to it talented designers from overseas – as well as and groups of women from the provinces who are easily identified, trooping the city streets in packs with clusters of clothing store bags looped over their arms. It’s a roaring time for the local retailers and restaurants. You don’t need to be a fan of Cirque-de-Soleil-style extravaganzas to enjoy the theatrics. Along Lambton Quay, window dressers are let loose to create arresting still-lives, outfitting mannequins in phantasmagorical costumes, and the downtown area buzzes with street life for a couple of weeks.
In the ten years since I moved here, I’ve come to love Wellington like a local, wryly accepting the vagaries of the weather. It could be warmer like Nelson and it could less windy than just about anywhere, but it’s beautiful, it’s full of charm, and I’m not sure I’ll ever want to leave.