Footloose in Wellington

A Beautiful Harbor--and Clean Air

June 15, 1986|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — When the wind is blowing in this town, which is more or less constantly, you can forget your hat and hang on for dear life to your shoes, socks and shirt. They don't call it Windy Wellington for nothing.

All this turbulence is caused by air masses whistling through Cook Strait between New Zealand's North and South islands. Wellington also gets its full share of rain. Yet locals claim that all this wind and water keeps the air cleaner than that of any other city on earth.

Wellington's architecture somehow doesn't inflame the imagination. The singular building in town is the Beehive, home of the country's parliament. It not only looks like a beehive but some citizens joke that it's filled with drones.

But with one of the world's loveliest harbors, green hills chock-a-block with cozy frame houses and miles of magnificent Cook Strait coastline to explore, Wellington is worth a stopover.

Here to there: Air New Zealand will fly you here via Auckland, Continental and United to Auckland for a change to Air New Zealand.

How long/how much? Lodging prices are moderate, and almost all have weekend rates that drop a bit. Dining is also moderate; the non-licensed BYOs can be just as good and sometimes more expensive.

A few fast facts: The New Zealand dollar was recently valued at 58 cents. Seasons are upside down, lows in the 40s June through September, highs in the 60s and 70s October until May. October through April are the rainiest months.

Getting settled in: Terrace Regency (345 The Terrace; $64 double) overlooks the town and harbor from a hillside street just a short cab ride from city center. Contemporary, indoor pool, fitness center and a flowery green restaurant with one of the best views in town. They also have van pickups from the airport; a most enjoyable place to stay.

James Cook Hotel (The Terrace; $73) is on the same street but down in the center of things. It's the best mid-city hotel. All of the big-hotel amenities, rather business oriented and the Whitby Room restaurant serves good food in one of the coldest-looking dining rooms we've seen recently.

Travelodge (40 Oriental Parade; $58) is considerably warmer if not exactly at town center, good restaurant, on street rimming the bay. West Plaza (110 Wakefield St.; $46) puts you back in the middle near shopping and lots of restaurants.

Regional food and drink: Seafood gets the call here, with plenty of mussels, oysters, scallops, scads of fish, including the favored New Zealand baby salmon, whitebait and John Dory. About the only culinary disappointment we had was the workaday treatment of the country's abundant lamb, causing us to long for a French chef who knew how to prepare it.

Desserts are imaginative and plentiful. The wines are first rate, and if you buy beforehand and lug them into a BYO, more than reasonably priced.

Moderate-cost dining: Skyline restaurant (1 Upland Road, top of mid-city cable-car line) has been there in one form or another for 80 years. The latest version is a delightful place to dine, bright, cheerful, with main courses in the $7.50 to $10 range in the evening, half that at lunch. Fish of the day and baby salmon, grilled venison with Cumberland sauce, veal, beef, superlative view.

Romney Arms (Williams City Centre) is a relaxed, pub-like place where you choose from a showcase of meats and seafood, all price-tagged like a butcher shop, then tell the chef how you'd like it grilled. Move to the wine and salad bars for your selections, pick a table within the brick walls and feast like a Breughel peasant in the picture hanging above. Your grill tab will be less than $5.

A couple of the best spots for seafood are the Shorebird (301 Evans Bay Parade) and Gretna Point Tavern (467 same street), both in Gretna Point, both licensed to sell liquor. The Shorebird has its own trawler hauling the freshest catch to its tables, a rustic, timbered restaurant where you're sure to be happy with the fare. The Tavern is all nautical decor, friendly prices and daily specials that include roasts. Both places overlook Evans Bay near airport, 10 minutes by cab, or take bus 24 from city center.

Pierre's (342 Tinakori Road), in a tiny green clapboard building, has just won an award for being the city's best BYO, French cuisine, dinner will run about $18 each. Il Casino (108 Tory St.) a fine choice for Italian, Orsini's (201 Cuba St.) favored by locals for the best in continental.

On your own: Take the cable car up for an overview of Wellington and the water. Then come back down for a visit to Old St. Paul's Church on Mulgrave Street, a study of native New Zealand timbers used to beam and truss the delightful nave.

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