By Mark Bradley
When I awoke the next morning at Villa Margarita I was treated to a panoramic view of Pauatahanui Inlet from my bedroom window. The native pupeke bird’s gentle warble had provided my wakeup call and the pastoral setting only encouraged me to get up and explore what lay on the other side of the hill—New Zealand’s capital city—Wellington.
Mark had cooked up some Kiwi-style crepes with maple syrup for breakfast and then we were off to tour Wellington. Wellington is located at the southern tip of the North Island and one can take a three hour ferry ride across the Cook Straits to the South Island if you wish.
The two main islands of New Zealand are each about 600 miles long and offer modern, paved roads that are well marked and easy to navigate as long as you remember to drive on the left hand side.
But our goal today was to see as much of this hilly, harbor city as possible. Windy Wellington reminded me of the bay area near San Francisco and, in fact, one of the first things you should do when you arrive is take the Wellington Cable Car to the City Cable Car Lookout for a spectacular view of the harbor.
We had chosen to first visit the downtown district where we walked the beautiful rose gardens surrounding the Beehive, New Zealand’s unique, circular government building where their Parliament meets. It was Sunday and we were not allowed inside but just around the corner past the historic district lay the Wellington Botanic Garden, the perfect place for a leisurely stroll.
The Garden was established in 1868 and was ablaze in color with native species in full bloom as well as plants and trees from around the world. The Treehouse Visitor Centre is set on a hillside allowing guests a bird’s eye view of the Garden and a chance to observe the treetop canopy at arm’s length. Free outdoor concerts are offered on the lawn near the Sound Shell in the Gardens each week during the summer reminding me of our own summer band concerts.
But for the best view of Wellington take the short drive to Mt. Victoria. This windswept hilltop was of prime strategic importance to the early colonists and cannon remain firmly entrenched as if still protecting the harbor.
Next it was back down the winding road for a short trip to Te Papa, the national museum of New Zealand. Te Papa, meaning “Our Place” in the native Maori language is a must see. This contemporary museum is free to all and offers an excellent introduction to the people and geography of New Zealand from its volcanic creation in the Pacific Rim of Fire to its current status in the world. Don’t miss the interactive earthquake exhibit where the floor and walls beneath you rock and roll simulating an actual seismic event.
Our next objective was the trendy seaside suburb of Seatoun near the entrance to Wellington harbor where Mark had grown up and en route we breezed by Miramar Movie Studios where noted NZ director Peter Jackson produced Lord of the Rings and King Kong among others. Jackson’s exclusive beachside home lay just around the bend and then Mark suggested we stop for lunch. A piping hot bowl of soup and a panini sandwich with the invigorating sea breeze in our face provided the energy for our trip down memory lane and Mark’s childhood haunts.
As we left the car park and struck out on foot via a sandy trail, we observed the ultra modern, glass and metal homes being constructed but after squeezing through a narrow passage between some rocks we emerged on a narrow strip of secluded beach with craggy cliffs shielding it from view.
“This was where I spent my childhood days snorkeling and spearfishing,” Mark explained as we knelt down and observed the hundreds of blue mussels which magically appeared attached to the black volcanic rocks as the tide receded.
I reflected back on my own childhood growing up on the Illinois River and thought that this South Pacific version must have provided the same escape to him as my strolls under the cottonwood trees and willows along the riverbank did to me.
As we scrambled up a large rock formation which jutted into Breakers Bay Mark commented, “This place hasn’t changed since my childhood. It was always one of my favorites.”
I didn’t doubt him as he climbed effortlessly up its sheer face finding the same footholds and natural steps from rote memorization. When we reached the top, the isolated beauty of this promontory was self evident and we spent a few silent moments just gazing out across the Cook Straits towards the South Island.
It was now late afternoon and we had planned a short kayaking trip from Mark’s boat house but instead opted for a quick sampling of Tui, a popular Kiwi beer which slid down my parched throat as smoothly as a cold Budweiser.
Mark and Margarita actually lease two of these colorful little structures which stand on stilts over the water and are available to their guests for private parties.
However, I had spied an old fashioned claw foot bath tub outside my villa earlier that morning and we had determined my final mission of the day would be to fill it to the brim with hot water and reflect on my day with a cold Tui in one hand and a glass of excellent NZ wine in the other as the sun set.
As we climbed the driveway to Villa Margarita the sun began to slip near the horizon. I changed quickly into my swimsuit and put on the luxurious furnished robe to go out on the deck and hop in the tub. I pinched myself again for my good fortune in finding this little piece of paradise.
Staying here with the Owens’ was more like staying with family. Their superlative efforts in providing me with a complete tour package, luxurious lodging, and, most importantly, their genuine hospitality, gave me a special warm feeling that I will not soon forget.
We stayed up till two in the morning playing cards- Mark, Margarita, Sarah (Mark’s Sister) and young movie star Carly- and when I asked for a six am wakeup call Mark was more than happy to accommodate me and drive me to the airport for my flight back to Auckland on Air New Zealand.
I had been invited to a Super Bowl Party later that day with other members of the cast and crew of “Bridge to Terabithia” and as I took off and took once last glance at Wellington I knew this was just the beginning of my adventures in this remarkable country- New Zealand.
TO BE CONTINUED