Wellington is home to vibrant waterfront cafés, New Zealand’s iconic parliament building, known as the Beehive, and the studio behind the now-classic Lord of the Rings film series. But alongside the cultural and political highlights of the capital are natural treasures that beckon to be explored and offer a glimpse into the country’s unique history and ecological diversity.
Stroll through the forest god’s garden
In the heart of the city is Zealandia, the world’s only fully fenced eco-sanctuary. It feels like Jurassic Park, except the terrifying dinosaurs are replaced by curious native birds.
Getting to the sanctuary is easy; you can take a free shuttle from the downtown visitor centre, hop on a public bus or, if you have access to your own vehicle, make the short, scenic drive.
The park’s Māori name, Te Māra a Tāne (“garden of the forest and bird god”) is fitting. A five-minute wander into the park and you’ll forget you’re in the city.
The main path winds around a central lake, through native forest and along a dam. It offers easy viewing of bird species including the world’s largest parrot, the kākā, or the colourful, chicken-like takahē. Guides along the path can also point out ancient tuatara (an endemic lizard-like reptile), the closest you’ll get to seeing a dinosaur in real life.
The real magic, however, lies off the loop track on the more rugged side trails. For the adventurous, there’s a day hike that circles the entire 225-hectare reserve. My trek along the Fantail Track was guided by several inquisitive robins, which flitted from branch to branch in front of me. The daring can crawl into one of the caves to see spindly, cricket-like wētā clinging to walls.
To date, the sanctuary has reintroduced 18 native species to the area, a third of which haven’t been seen on the mainland for more than a century. If you want to fully immerse yourself in New Zealand’s past, visit the interactive exhibit at the park’s entrance.
The $19.50 NZD entrance ticket is a bargain and is good for a free return trip the next day.
Escape to an inner-harbour island
Leave Wellington behind and take a ferry to Matiu/Somes Island in the middle of the city’s expansive harbour.
Getting to the island takes a little planning because the East by West ferry only has a few sailings during the day. You can get return tickets for $23 NZD.
The small, 24.9 hectare island was formerly a quarantine facility for people and animals coming into New Zealand but has been transformed into a predator-free scientific reserve with gorgeous vistas.
To keep the island pest-free, a ranger will lead you through a quick quarantine procedure on arrival and help you search your bags for anything that shouldn’t be there.
The main visitors centre, about a 20-minute walk from the jetty where the ferry drops you, tells the story of the island’s many different lives.
Pack a picnic on a hot day and enjoy a lunch near gun emplacements at the top of the island. It offers great views of Wellington harbour and a herd of local sheep might pay you a visit.
A round track circles the island’s shoreline and is the best way to see the natural side of things. You can catch a glimpse of kākāriki (green parrots) darting between trees or a skink rustling in the tussock grass. For tree nerds, the island is full of native New Zealand plants like harakeke flax or the crimson-flowered rata.
Book an overnight stay in the lodge, cabin or cottage and you’re likely to see wētā and tuatara. To really experience the island at night, camping is also an option.
Trek along the edge of Aotearoa (New Zealand)
Despite what Google Maps may say, it is not possible to drive to Red Rocks Reserve on Wellington’s rugged coast without a sturdy four-wheel-drive vehicle that can take a beating—my little Toyota wouldn’t have sufficed.
The best way to access the rocks, turned red by the area’s volcanic past, is to travel to Owhiri Bay. The area is a favourite of freedom campers who spend the night in their vehicles on the beach. From the bay, walk the stony path along the coastline.
For the hour-long walk, you’ll see and hear the waves crashing on ebony-coloured rocks, and eroded cliffs will hang over you. There isn’t much shade from the sun, so be sure to cover up.
Once you’re on the path, there isn’t any signage indicating when you’ve reached the rocks — something I discovered after walking an extra hour past the site. About three bays in, you’ll discover rust-coloured boulders that get their distinct hue from iron oxide or, if you prefer the more whimsical local explanation, from the blood of the famous Polynesian explorer Kupe, who cut his hand while gathering shellfish.
If you venture another half-hour along the trail, you’ll reach Sinclair Head, where from May to October it’s possible to see a fur seal colony.
This stretch of shoreline is too rough for swimming, so it’s best enjoyed if you want to fish, collect pāua (shellfish) or stroll with a partner in the setting sun.