I settled into my seat on my Air New Zealand flight and realized just how little I knew about the self-proclaimed youngest country on Earth. I had a moment of panic until the flight attendant offered me a Bellini. While I took a sip, the image of the country came up on the flat-screen in front of me. I booked this trip with the intent of shaking things up, stepping out of my life, to allow myself the room to take a risk and experience all the things I never thought I’d do. There was a spunky woman sitting across from me on the plane—mid-50s, with dreadlocks and hot-pink capris. She raised her glass of champagne at me, introduced herself as Misty and asked if this was my first time to New Zealand. When I told her it was, she let me know I was heading to the “Adventure Capital of the World.” This sank in. What was I getting myself into?
ONE of the first things to catch my eye on my way into Wellington was the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. I dropped my bags off at the Quality Hotel on Cuba Street, surrounded by the best bohemian shops, restaurants and bars in town. I passed the eclectic stores and the loud and splashy bucket fountain on Cuba Street as I headed to the waterfront to check out the museum. At Te Papa, I learned that the Maori people were the first to settle New Zealand some 1,000 years ago. They were warriors, hunters and skilled artisans; their spirit is reflected across New Zealand and celebrated in Te Papa exhibitions like Signs Of A Nation, Kura Pounamu and Mana Whenua, featuring elaborately designed canoes, treasured New Zealand greenstone, contemporary Maori artwork, the meeting house Te Hau ki Turanga and a replica of the Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document). After I got my culture on, I spotted a beefy muscleman dangling from an open capsule in the air. Naturally, this piqued my interest, and as I got closer, he let out a joyful scream as he leaped up, flew down to Taranaki Street and bounced back up. My adrenaline kicked in as I went to the base of the jump—Bungy Extreme was the name of the company. As I pulled out my wallet, my heart began racing. “I never do things like this,” I said as I handed over $40 and made the commitment to jump. I stood on the ledge, closed my eyes and realized, “My New Zealand adventure starts here.”
That night I met a fabulous pair of local Kiwis, Rachel and Andrew, at Matterhorn near my hotel on Cuba Street. Rachel told me Viggo Mortensen frequented this crowded Wellington favorite. I pictured heads turning and the clank of silverware as he and Orlando Bloom rolled into the bar after a long day on the set. My fantasy was interrupted when the second bottle of Martinborough Sauvignon Blanc was finished, and I set off with my new friends on a barhopping adventure. We hit the popular Mighty Mighty for live music and an abundance of kitsch. The sassy bartender rang a cowbell when I came in. Apparently, I was their lucky customer of the evening, so she handed me a stiff 42 Below martini. I took two sips before she ordered me to get out on the dance floor. Electronic music was blasting, and a handsome Flight Of The Conchords-esque singer seduced the crowd with his voice. After his set, we followed the stream of Kiwis to a flurry of eccentric (and costume-themed) bars. I learned the Wellington scene is mixed, funky and glamorous. Barhopping is a way of life, and my favorites were Motel, a low-key 1970s-inspired cocktail lounge (I swear I saw an Al Parker look-alike sipping a dirty martini at the bar), and Hawthorn Lounge, a slick lounge bar that feels more like a 1920s gentlemen’s club. To cap off the night, I ended up dancing to Kylie Minogue remixes at Club Ivy, Wellington’s top gay club.
The next morning I decided to get my taste of what the locals call “Wellywood.” I booked a Lord Of The Rings tour with Flat Earth New Zealand Experiences. I imagined Orlando Bloom riding in to pick me up at the Quality and taking me up Mt. Victoria. Unfortunately, my guide was slightly more like a female version of Ian McKellen, but we still had a good time. She snapped a dozen goofy pictures of me on the set, with Gollum and on the outskirts of the Shire.
Afterwards, I did a little shopping down Cuba Street (don’t get too close to the bucket fountain; it’s like standing on the bridge by a water ride at Six Flags) and then took a taxi out to Zealandia for the Karori Sanctuary experience. There’s a big movement to restore New Zealand back to the way it once was, and Zealandia is a forest haven, surrounded by a unique predator-proof fence that protects endangered birds and wildlife. Their Sanctuary by Night Tour is an opportunity to venture out into the wilderness, spot glowworms, saddleback and tuatara (don’t ask) and get a glimpse of the wary, nocturnal kiwi in their natural environment. We walked through the night for a couple of hours, and near the end of the tour there was a rustle in the bushes—an adorable kiwi slid down the hill in front of us and waddled back into the night. I had a nightcap at S&M’s, Wellington’s popular bar, and then Skyped with my boyfriend from my room. I was a little tipsy, so I took down this huge feathery Maori headdress that hung on the wall above my bed and wore it as a crown as we talked and laughed thousands of miles apart. The next morning I decided to head south for more adventure, so I took an early flight over the Cook Strait and Marlborough Sounds on my way to Nelson.
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