How to spend a weekend in Wellington

She arrives in heavy rain, but writer Emma Clifton isn’t going to let that dampen her spirits as she eats, cycles and bird-watches up a storm in Wellington.

“It’s always sunny in Wellington.” When I tell my two Wellington friends that’s what I’m planning on calling this travel story, their faces darken. I’ve been to Wellington about 20 times in my life and on only two of those occasions was there bad weather.

So in my mind, Wellington = sunny, easy, breezy weather. So it’s a surprise to me – and absolutely, positively no one else – when my Friday-night flight arrives to driving sideways rain and violent wind.

Luckily, my first port of call is Loretta, a Scandi-style eatery by the same foodie minds that created Floriditas. On this brisk night, the restaurant is high on hygge-style comforts and, with a focus on healthy food, it’s the perfect place to start my active weekend.

With torrential rain slamming against the windows, my survival instincts kick in and I order more than is probably necessary to fortify me for the – ahem – 30-second walk back to the CQ Quality Hotel where I’m staying. But if you’re going to over-order, this is a great place to do it.

Haloumi salad with white raddichio and persimmon, whole roasted cauliflower, sumac lamb with Jerusalem artichokes – and a humble sliver of pumpkin rosemary spice pie to finish. Like the classy lady I am, I get the remaining cauliflower in a doggy bag – because why wouldn’t you?

The storm breaks, the clouds dissipate and Saturday morning is sunny, just as I always imagine Wellington to be and will never be proved otherwise. I don my black puffer jacket like a local and walk to my first activity for the day, and one of the favourite activities of my life: Shut Up And Dance.

Even though the dance classes only started last year, they’ve become an institution in Wellington and are now available in Auckland. The idea is simple: you learn the choreography to modern pop music videos – for example Justin Bieber’s Sorry, or the Backstreet Boys’ Everybody.

Held at Whitireia studio, the vibe before the class starts is excited and energised – it feels like a birthday party, which is an impressive achievement for a Saturday morning.

The theme for this class is Beyoncé – the greatest of all time, in other words. Step by step, Clair teaches us a very sexy dance to Beyonce’s Partition, which is a sensational start to the weekend, frankly. I’m no dancer, but Clair is an expert at teaching the class, a group of women of all different ages and fitness abilities, to unleash their inner Queen B.

They should honestly teach this in schools – the female empowerment levels are off the chain as we strut out of class…

… Which is lucky, because the next activity is a real test of my sporting skill. Even though I’m a normal 31-year-old human in every other way, I only learned how to ride a bike last year, so it’s safe to say I’m still a touch wobbly.

Ryan, from Switched On Bikes, doesn’t seem at all perturbed that this will be my third ever bike ride in the history of my life – or if he is, he hides it well. Luckily, the bikes we’ll be riding today during our three-hour tour around the Wellington waterfront are electric – which means all I have to do is concentrate on not driving into oncoming traffic/Wellington harbour.

Skilled cyclists – or just slightly more experienced ones – will appreciate that the electric bikes help battle the allegedly infamous Wellington wind. Even I, the most novice of novice cyclists, am able to chill out and enjoy the trip as we weave along the waterfront towards Miramar, stopping for the requisite tourist selfie in front of the Wellywood sign before settling down for a hot chocolate at the locally famous Chocolate Fish Café.

The Wellington waterfront feels well set up for cyclists, with bike lanes rolling around its entire length. I will admit to a few terrifying moments of riding next to cars when I willed myself not to veer suddenly into the traffic, and some touch- and-go times when I almost ran down the same innocent bystander three times in the shared space. But I make it through in one piece – only to ride straight into a wall.

Ryan is very understanding: “That wall came out of nowhere.”

It’s a great way to see the city and they offer a wide range of tours, even heading up into the hills or further out to areas like the Rimutaka cycle trail. No matter which trail you pick, it’s a heck of a good time and even for a newbie like myself, super-easy to do.

After three hours of concentrating very hard on the road in front of me, I’m starving. Luckily, you only have to throw a stone to find a delicious restaurant in Wellington and tonight my Wellington friends and I are heading to Ombra, a Venetian restaurant on Cuba Street.

I celebrate my successful non-fatal bike ride by ordering traditional Italian interpretations on carbohydrates and cheese: polenta fries, baked mozzarella, goat’s cheese with truffle honey crostino, and risotto balls. And then, because everything in Wellington is a 10-minute walk away, or less, I walk literally around the corner to my hotel and roll into bed.

The next day, it’s time to see a Wellington time forgot: Zealandia, the world’s first fully fenced eco sanctuary. Just a quick bus trip from the CBD takes you back to a world teeming with native New Zealand flora, fauna and birdlife.

We’re taken on a walk and talk tour, past the tuatara research area where we see teeny-tiny tuatara eyeballing us from their enclosures, through to the feeder areas where the birds swarm around.

It’s the closest I’ve ever been to some of these native icons like korimako (bellbirds) and kākāriki (parakeets) and it’s fascinating to see, particularly as they’re losing their goddamn minds over the sugar water stored in the feeders.

Our guide Roy is possibly the first person in my life to make nature seem interesting – a bold challenge, but boy, he pulls it off. Roy knows the English, Māori and Latin names of all the plants, and points out the kawakawa leaves laced with natural opium, which make the caterpillars that nibble on them so high they hallucinate and drop off, hence the tiny bite marks on each still intact leaf. If they talked more about stoned caterpillars in high school science, I definitely would have paid more attention.

So, in summary, in Wellington you’ll find Beyoncé dances, waterfront electric bike rides, sugar-crazed tuis, hallucinating insects, a variety of Venetian cheese dishes and the best baked cauliflower of your life – most within a 10-minute walk. And, obviously, you’ll also find very good weather.

What to do and see

Shut Up And Dance: The dance class equivalent to boogieing with your besties after a few wines. Classes available in Auckland and Wellington.

Switched On Bikes: Hire bikes or do a guided tour. They host group events and day events in summer too.

Zealandia: Visit the world’s first fully-fenced eco sanctuary. You can also go on a night tour.

Loretta: A wholefoods paradise and a great breakfast spot. Elderflower lemon waffles – need we say more? 181 Cuba Street.

Leeds St Bakery: The salted caramel cookie alone is worth a day trip to Wellington. 6G/14 Hannah Factory Laneway.

PreFab: This café and coffee roastery is super-popular and close to Whitireia studio, so a great post-dance class stop. 14 Jessie Street.

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