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NEW ZEALAND'S Rising Star

Taking a shine to Wellington, where Kiwi culture and cuisine have come into their own

October 22, 2000|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — What have movie stars like Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett been doing in this windy little city at the bottom of New Zealand's North Island? Did they take a wrong turn on the way to Cannes or New York? Don't they know it's no place to have their pictures snapped?

Still, they and other movie people from around the globe have been converging on Wellington since late last year to make a trilogy of fantasy films based on J. R. R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." The three widely anticipated special-effects extravaganzas, slated to premiere in December 2001, are being shot around New Zealand by Kiwi director Peter Jackson. As the production headquarters, Wellington is at the center of the action.

The idea that the limelight could find unassuming, unexciting Wellington would have been laughable a few years ago. In those days, a sort of earnest frumpiness prevailed in a city that has long been upstaged by Auckland, the country's transportation and finance center, on the north coast. But now it's a whole new cricket match in New Zealand, and Wellington's at the wicket.

Actually, the city, New Zealand's capital and artistic center, started preparing for the spotlight before Jackson and company moved in. It spruced up its winsome waterfront, added a terminal to its airport (though the runways are still too short to accommodate jumbo jets) and gave its cricket- and rugby-mad fans a 40,000-seat bay-side stadium with an eye-popping cantilevered roof. Te Papa, a museum-cum-amusement park that tries to tell the whole story of New Zealand, from earthquakes to Maori meetinghouses to sheep, opened on a prime harbor-front site in late 1998. At $150 million, it is Wellington's piece de resistance.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday October 29, 2000 Home Edition Travel Part L Page 6 Travel Desk 2 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Wellington, New Zealand--A Travel section story ("New Zealand's Rising Star," Oct. 22) incorrectly reported that the average winter temperature in Wellington is 35 degrees. Temperatures range from 43 to 54 degrees in the winter months of June, July and August.

I was the perfect test tourist to Wellington last spring. I'd visited the city, which is tucked away from the stormy strait that separates New Zealand's North and South islands, in 1994, before the new developments got underway. Even then I preferred it to sprawling Auckland, which I found heartless, while Wellington seemed to have a discernible pulse.

New Zealand is known for big, breathtaking scenery and outdoors adventure, so cities hardly seem the point. That may be partly why visitors have tended to fly into Auckland (which has an international airport) and head straight for the mountains or the shore, bypassing Wellington altogether. It's an hourlong flight or a 420-mile drive from Auckland to the capital, but the trip is well worth making. This is a manageable town of 157,000, but it has big-city sophistication, cultural diversity and lively fine arts--everything you want in an urban area with none of the hassle.

People often compare it to San Francisco. It climbs the flanks of glistening Port Nicholson and is built to human scale, with a walkable, livable downtown. It has a cable car, colorfully painted Victorians lining the hills and valleys around downtown, and a chip on its shoulder about Auckland, not unlike the one San Francisco bears about L.A.

But the similarities end there. No matter how flashy the Tolkien movies may have made it, Wellington will always be Wellington, I suspect, a little piece of comfy, cozy New Zealand, where dowagers in the Botanic Gardens look like porcelain dolls, money goes a long way and you wouldn't hesitate to use the public toilets.

The exchange rate is about $1 US to $2.50 NZ, but that doesn't fully explain why parting with cash isn't painful in Wellington. The economy here, as in the rest of New Zealand, resembles that of America around 1960, when, as my father would say, people knew the value of a dollar and you got what you paid for. In restaurants, portions are large; hotel rooms are full of unexpected amenities; tipping isn't required; and the work force seems glad to be of service, not snide and recalcitrant in that big-city way.

Take the hotels I tried. They're actually serviced apartments favored by business travelers (for long- or short-term stays) and new since my last visit. They looked more interesting than the city's fairly standard crop of chain hotels. At the Terrace Villas, which occupy a handful of Victorian houses perched above downtown near the spires of Victoria University, I stayed for two nights at $50 each. My room was a studio with a full kitchen, bath, sitting area, king-size bed and washer-dryer combo. The bathroom had a heated towel rack; there was a special wool cycle on the washing machine ("Approved by the New Zealand Wool Board," the sticker said); and the kitchen was equipped with a hot pot, coffee, tea, milk and little packets of Milo (a ubiquitous drink that tastes a little like Ovaltine).

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