Wellington

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People are finding their way to Wellington, and not merely because it's the sailing point for ferries heading south. From the windswept green heights overlooking New Zealand's capital, a crystal-clear winter morning reveals stunning views over the deceptively quiet waters of Cook Strait stretching to the snowcapped mountains of the South Island; and it's sheer heaven on a mild summer night when a silver medallion of moon tops mysterious misty hillsides.

Wellington has developed a lively, friendly, and infectious spirit of a city coming into its own. Pleasant and compact enough to be a good walking city, you might find yourself content to laze around the harbour, perhaps sipping a chilled glass of chardonnay from a nearby vineyard. The burgeoning film industry—thanks to the Lord of the Rings (LOTR) extravaganzas—has injected life into the local arts scene. Ardent film fans can still visit the many LOTR sites around the region, but everyone benefits from the lively cafés and the rapidly expanding restaurant culture. On the waterfront the first-class Te Papa Tongarewa-Museum of New Zealand has many hands-on exhibits equally fascinating for children and adults, and the Museum of City and Sea is dedicated to the history of Wellington.

Wellington and the adjacent Hutt Valley are the southern gateway to the Wairarapa, a region whose name has become synonymous with wine. Journey over the hills and meander along quiet byways from vineyard to vineyard for a day—or two, or three—of wine tasting. If wine isn't your thing, the Wairarapa is still worth an excursion for its gardens, fishing, walks, and even hot-air ballooning. Head for the coast, too, where waves crash against craggy, windswept beaches, and the dramatic sunsets intoxicate you with their beauty.

The Wairarapa

To cross the Rimutaka Ranges, which form a natural barrier between Wellington and the Wairarapa, you climb a twisting snake of a road known locally as "The Hill." Near a small plateau at the road's peak, at a height of about 1,800 feet, a footpath leads to even higher ground and spectacular views on all sides. Heading down from the summit, the road plunges through a series of hairpin turns to reach the plain that the Maori called "Land of Glistening Water."

For some years, the rather-daunting access road gave a sense of isolation to the Wairarapa, which was essentially a farming area. But the emergence of the wine industry has triggered a tourism boom in the region. Red grape varieties flourish in the local soil (the pinot noir is particularly notable), and Wairarapa wines, produced in small quantities, are sought after in New Zealand and overseas. These days, vineyards, wine tasting, olive farms, and the twice-yearly Martinborough Fair are firmly established attractions. Hot-air ballooning, sea-and-freshwater fishing, walking, the "Golden Shears" shearing competition, and other outdoor activities have also brought visitors over "The Hill."