With hairy-toed Hobbits about to re-infest our cinema screens, travellers will be fantasizing anew about vacationing in Middle-earth, or at least its New Zealand stand-in. But you don’t have to be a Tolkien nut to hangout with the Kiwis. Capital city Wellington, home of Peter Jackson’s movie fiefdom, has plenty of non-imaginary action for visitors who don’t know Bag End from a hole in the ground.
First, though, you’ll need to get there and back again without blowing too much Elven gold.
At time of writing, springtime mid-September Air New Zealand flights from Toronto, typically via Los Angeles and Auckland, were $2,550 return (taxes included) – but signing up for their e-newsletter at www.airnewzealand.ca promised late-breaking deals. Routing through Vancouver and Sydney, Air Canada services were $2,700 (join its @ACwebSaver Twitter feed for discount codes). Longer routings on Qantas or American Airlines at www.kayak.com were up to $600 less.
Read The Lord of the Rings cover-to-cover on your minimum 23-hour flight and you’ll soon be blinking outside in the sun at wind-whipped Wellington Airport. It’s only 8km from the city, but swap the $30 cab fare for a door-to-door Super Shuttle (one-way for two people $20;www.supershuttle.co.nz). Aim to stay near central Lambton Quay and you’ll be within strolling distance of hotspot sites and eateries: Welly – as locals call it – is compact and, despite its hills, mostly walkable.
Compare deals at www.hotels.co.nz with budget favourites like the giant YHA Wellington City (doubles from $55) and spartan Ibis Hotel ($68). Recommended mid-rangers include Gourmet Stay ($101) and harbour-view Copthorne Oriental Bay Hotel ($104). Alternatively, swank it up at the heritage Wellesley Boutique Hotel ($161). For self-caterers, the charming City Cottages off Cuba Street ($137), with kitchens and laundry facilities, are ideal.
Once unpacked, explore with a free Welly Walks app from Apple’s App Store then dive into downtown’s iconic Te Papa national museum. Keep your plastic NZ dollars in your pocket; admission is free here (and also at the Museum of Wellington City & Sea). But while it’s $2.50 to take the red-painted cable car up to hilltop Kelburn, the panoramas are worth it – and you can stroll back down via the gratis Cable Car Museum and verdant Botanic Garden (Begonia House recommended).
Tours are also free at the historic Parliament Buildings – including its quirky 1970s beehive-shaped extension. But if you’d rather bike around town, rentals start at $16 per half-day at On Yer Bike (www.onyerbikeavantiplus.co.nz), a Wellington favourite. For company-cravers, they run free Tuesday evening group rides for all skill levels, from late September.
New Zealand’s cultural capital is also a hub of artsy shenanigans. Peruse the Capital Times for listings – including live music at the Bodega (or “the Bodge” as locals it) – then dip into the city’s thriving theatre scene: the tourist information centre at the corner of Victoria and Wakefield Streets is your best bet for half-price show tickets.
But if those movies remain precious to you, hit the Weta Cave in edge-of-town Miramar (via bus number 2) for a taste of “Wellywood.” The special effects studio’s small, admission-free museum illuminates its work on Jackson’s flicks and other films – and there’s a shop for that essential $3,300 replica ring purchase. Continue your wizardly wander with a four-hour Wellington Movie Tour ($36;www.movietours.co.nz), exploring set locations across the region.
If you’re down to your last crumbs of Elven bread, fuel-up at the steaming stalls lining Friday’s Wellington Night Market, near Cuba Street – where you’re also never far from a fortifying flat white coffee. Tipping is not expected in New Zealand and you can keep your dining costs down even further at well-priced cafés like Simply Paris and the ever-popular Fidel’s (breakfast recommended).
Seafood-wise, consider the delightful Ortega Fish Shack or add an own-made Hop Rocker pilsner to your fish and chips at Mac’s Brewbar. But when it’s time to splurge, take in the $32 two-course prix fixe at romantic Boulcott Street Bistro – it’s better than anything Gandalf could conjure up.
Vancouverite John Lee will be back in New Zealand this fall. Follow him further atwww.johnleewriter.com.
Sidebar: Top value sleepovers
YHA Wellington City (www.yha.co.nz)
Ibis Hotel (www.ibishotel.com)
Gourmet Stay (www.gourmetstay.co.nz)
Copthorne Oriental Bay Hotel (www.millenniumhotels.co.nz)
Wellesley Boutique Hotel (www.wellesleyboutiquehotel.co.nz)
City Cottages (www.citybedandbreakfast.co.nz)
Sidebar: Top value dining
Wellington Night Market (www.wellington-nightmarket.co.nz)
Simply Paris (www.simplyparis.co.nz)
Fidel’s Cafe (www.fidelscafe.com)
Mac’s Brewbar (www.macsbrewbar.co.nz)
Ortega Fish Shack (www.ortega.co.nz)
Boulcott Street Bistro (www.boulcottstreetbistro.co.nz)
Sidebar: Budget for two (travelling in mid-September):
7 days on $6,000
Return airfare (Toronto-Dallas-Sydney-Brisbane-Wellington): $4,010 (American Airlines and Qantas, via www.kayak.com)
Double-occupancy room for 6 nights: $599 (Ibis Hotel, via www.ibis.com)
Food & drink: $1,300
Transport: $40 (for return SuperShuttle airport transfers)
7 days on $7,500
Return airfare (Toronto-Los Angeles-Auckland-Wellington): $5,100 (Air Zealand, viawww.airnewzealand.ca)
Double-occupancy hotel room for 6 nights, breakfast included: $816 (Copthorne Oriental Bay Hotel, via www.millenniumhotels.co.nz)
Food and drink: $1,400
Transport & Attractions: $112 (includes $40 for return SuperShuttle airport transfers and $72 for two Wellington Movie Tours)