SPECIAL REPORT

wellington-wide
Beautiful beaches, hobbits and a winning formula for food and wine - Wellington and its surrounds have it all.

Wellington

It's not all hobbits and Hollywood film production, although that has made this tiny capital of just 380,000 souls hum. On a good day, Wellington is one of the prettiest cities in the world, a slip of a metropolis squeezed between vertiginous hills and a long, deep harbour. Wooden houses cling to seemingly impossible slopes, while the approach over the water into the city's airport is both beautiful and frightening. On a bad day? The wind that comes off Cook Strait is bracing, umbrellas go flying, and the rain seems to come at you horizontally. Good thing there is some excellent eating to do - Wellingtonians like to tell you the place has more restaurants, bars and cafes per capita than New York, and most of those can be found, conveniently, downtown.

It's where New Zealand's laws are made, of course, and it's also the bureaucratic centre, even though most corporations have moved to Auckland. But the place also has a reputation for being New Zealand's creative capital - comedians, actors, film directors and musicians call it home. It's densely, almost frighteningly connected: everyone knows everyone in this city of 500,000-odd people.

Nowhere is this more obvious than Cuba Street, which runs from downtown up to Aro Valley and is lined with vintage stores and cafes. It has one of the country's best record stores, Slow Boat Records, which would feel a little like walking into the set of High Fidelity, only Jeremy Taylor (who also, befittingly, blogs about food for stuff.co.nz), who has worked there for years and is a familiar face on Cuba Street, is a lot friendlier. Honest.

Wellington city at night

Photo: The city of Wellington.

The eating's good, too. Here, you'll find Floriditas, which operates as a good cafe during the day and then turns into a candlelit bistro by night. Nearby, you'll find Logan Brown, another of Wellington's top-rated restaurants, in a beautifully converted former bank, all soaring ceilings and splendour. The food, from head chef Steve Logan, is extraordinary. And a little further up the street is the Matterhorn, a Wellington fixture. At this half bar, half restaurant, the food is ingredient-driven and casual, with a menu tending to small plates.

For somewhere more formal, book a table at Martin Bosley's Yacht Club Restaurant - the avuncular Bosley has won every award going, with food that is deft, intelligent and creative, and yet it is still food, carefully sourced and presented. The view out over the harbour is beautiful, too, especially by night. On Sundays, meanwhile, you can catch Bosley cooking fish burgers or whitebait patties (in season) at his City Market, along with other Wellington providores. Not to be missed.
And as you might expect, the drinking in the central city is brilliant, and mainly because of the city's craft-beer scene - look out for Garage Project beers, which are brewed in a former service station in Aro Valley. Be sure to drop in on Mighty Mighty - part bar, part Carnival and where you might spot a hobbit or a Conchord. Nearby, the lush Hashigo Zake, which describes itself as a "cult beer bar", serves up brilliant craft brews, and is a must. For late-night cocktails, head to the Hawthorn Lounge.

But there is more to this city than its centre and it's well worth a drive out to the east, since Wellington has a wild, unruly coast and some stunning beaches. Oriental Bay is closest to the city and still pretty tame, and then there's Evans Bay, where the wind howls in past the Meridian Energy Sculpture Walk, where Akau Tangi - a work by the brilliant New Zealand sound artist Phil Dadson that plays on the idea of windsocks - sits happily beside Andrew Drummond's Tower of Light.

Then you go across to the Miramar Peninsula and around through pretty, sheltered inlets of Scorching and Karaka bays, with views across to Eastbourne on the other side of the harbour. Then through Seatoun to Lyall Bay and Island Bay - unprotected from the full impact of Cook Strait and popular with surfers, it is the kind of coast that reminds you what wind is all about. You'll be hungry after all that: head to the Maranui Cafe on the top floor of the Maranui Surf Club, all portholes and surfboards and hearty food with brilliant coffee.

And, while you're in the area, head to Miramar. The nondescript suburb, one of the few flat areas in Wellington, is home to Sir Peter Jackson's Park Road Post, Stone Street Studios and Weta Workshop. Movie fans will want to check out the Weta Cave, with real and replica props from films including The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, or drop in on the recently renovated Roxy Cinema, with interiors designed and built by Weta, which also has an impressive tapas restaurant, Coco at the Roxy.

Serious eaters, meanwhile, will make sure they're in the area in time for dinner at The Larder, a restaurant owned by chef Jacob Brown, known for his commitment to nose-to-tail culinary experiences. It's small and plain, on a quiet suburban corner, but the food is exceptional, with a focus on ingredients and artisan producers. If it's on the menu, you can't go past the rolled pig's head. It's remarkable that it exists in a city this small, but you'll be glad it does.
Don't miss: Zest Food Tours. These walking food tours showcase the capital city's best eating options, featuring everything from coffee to chocolate and fine-dining haunts. They'll also organise bespoke tours if you want to cover Wairarapa as well. Recommended.

Local tip: Head to Nikau, an airy space inside the City Gallery for lunch. The kedgeree has cult status along with the grilled asparagus with local Zany Zeus haloumi.

● Slow Boat Records, slowboatrecords.co.nz
● Floriditas, floriditas.co.nz
● Matterhorn, matterhorn.co.nz
● Martin Bosley's, martin-bosley.com
● City Market, citymarket.co.nz
● Garage Project, garageproject.co.nz
● Mighty Mighty, mightymighty.co.nz
● Hashigo Zake, hashigozake.co.nz
● Hawthorn Lounge, hawthornlounge.co.nz
● Maranui Cafe, maranuicafe.co.nz
● Weta Cave, wetanz.com/cave
● Roxy Cinema, roxycinema.co.nz
● The Larder, thelarder.co.nz
● Zest Food Tours, zestfoodtours.co.nz
● Nikau Cafe, nikaucafe.co.nz


Wairarapa

Slightly more than an hour north of Wellington, in the middle of the North Island, Wairarapa wine country centres on the country towns of Greytown and Martinborough - two small, wooden towns that until 15 years ago were sleepy and forgotten. That's no longer the case. They've been growing pinot noir here for 30-odd years and word got out a while back. That experience shows in the wines: elegant, restrained, not the blockbusters of fruit and fragrance you might expect from New Zealand pinot. A 1978 study showed that Martinborough, in particular, had stony soils and a microclimate close to those of Burgundy. This goes darn well with lamb, which the surrounding stations happen to raise well.

For a taste, head for Ata Rangi,producer of one of New Zealand's most iconic pinots - the cellar door is a gorgeous timber building surrounded by mature trees - and Palliser, just outside of Martinborough.

Wairarapa is a big flat plain where in summer there's an incredible wind that dries the landscape out and turns it into the colour of straw. From Wellington you drive over the Rimutaka Range , a tortuous, steep piece of road leading to a great wide bowl.

Because of its proximity to Wellington, the area has begun to spawn high-quality producers, and the Wairarapa Farmers' Market (Saturdays at the Solway Showgrounds) is a great way to discover these. Look out for Kingsmeade Cheese, which has a small shop in Masterton.

Owners Janet and Miles King were among the first to start milking sheep in New Zealand, and now make sheep's milk cheese of incomparable quality, including New Zealand's only locally produced manchego.

Similarly, look for Mary Biggs's Lavender's Green. Mary and a couple of other local women work with lemons grown on the property to produce preserved lemons, chutneys and her iconic lemon cordial.

Don't miss: Toast Martinborough. Each year, hordes descend on Wairarapa to drink among the vines, eat and listen to music. In the most tasteful way possible, of course. A glorious event that should be experienced.

● Ata Rangi, atarangi.co.nz
● Palliser Estate, palliserestate.co.nz
● Kingsmeade Cheese, kingsmeade.co.nz
● Lavender's Green, lavendersgreen.co.nz
● Toast Martinborough, toastmartinborough.co.nz

Hawke's Bay
New Zealand's oldest wine region, and still the second largest in terms of production, certainly has the goods. Long, hot summers and gentle rolling valleys make it idyllic in January and February, and produce some remarkable wine.

Hawke's Bay itself is a long, open curve on the Pacific Ocean, lined with stunning beaches, backed by flat plains and rolling valleys and ringed by the Ruahine Range.

There is a scattering of small towns and cities, with Napier the biggest area. It was destroyed in the 1930s by an earthquake and rebuilt in the art deco style, most of which still exists and which makes for a beautiful walk along the waterfront, where it can be gentle on a good day and wild on a bad one. Also be sure to drop in on the Hawke's Bay Museum.

Inland from there you'll find some spectacular wine. The area is best known for its syrah: it's full-bodied by New Zealand standards, drier and more earthy if you're used to Australian shiraz.

Cycling through Hawkes Bay vines

As well as enjoying many hours of sunshine, the area is criss-crossed with ancient former riverbeds that provide a constant temperature and give the wine its character.

All Hawke's Bay syrah is good, but that from the Gimblett Gravels (a wine-growing district within Hawke's Bay) is better. Until the 1970s, the land was considered worthless, so much so that the local council tried to dig it all up for the gravel but was stopped only by a small group of winemakers. Here, Trinity Hill is among the best, with an impressive tasting room.

Further away, near the Tukituki River - locals call it the Tuki-tuk - you'll find Black Barn Vineyards, all black-stained timber buildings with white windows, where there is an excellent casual bistro as well as an art gallery selling, among other things, the work of local artist Martin Poppelwell. The winery also has several cottages - yes, black - for rent, which make for a perfect base for a few days. Down the road, you'll find Craggy Range, which is sheltered by Te Mata peak and is a fine place for lunch.

Lunch at Craggy Range

Be sure to head for the coast, too, for it is wild. Haumoanais a long stretch of grey stones - houses here are fighting a losing battle against the sea. All of which is enough to make you hungry, and conveniently nearby is Clearview Estate, a casual, cobbled-together restaurant shaded by trees and vines. Last summer, on a perfect January day, we ate a goat's cheese souffle that has come to define all souffles. Further up the coast, Waimarama is a stunning white-sand beach loved by surfers and backed by steep, stark hills, and Cape Kidnappers is worth the drive, with white cliffs falling into the sea and nothing between you and Argentina.

Don't miss: Farmers' markets. Black Barn holds a superb summer market on Saturday mornings in a gentle bowl of land near the bistro. The Hawke's Bay Farmers' Market is held every weekend - in Napier on Saturdays and in Hastings on Sundays. Local favourites include Origin Earth, with superb cow and sheep's cheese from local farms, as well as yoghurt and unhomogenised milk; and Ti Kouka Farm: Andy Tait-Jamieson and Sophie Siers sell organic beef and lamb from their steep coastal property up the hill from Waimarama.

● Hawke's Bay Museum, hbmag.co.nz
● Trinity Hill, trinityhill.com
● Black Barn Vineyards, blackbarn.com
● Craggy Range, craggyrange.co.nz
● Clearview Estate, clearviewestate.co.nz
● Hawke's Bay Farmers Market, hawkesbayfarmersmarket.co.nz
● Origina Earth, originearth.co.nz
● Ti Kouka, theorganicfarm.co.nz

Getting there

It is only a three-hour flight to Wellington with Air New Zealand and each region is easy to access from there, either by driving, on short flights or even travelling across the Cook Straight on the Interislander ferry. You can discover and experience it your way. See newzealand.com.