High Tea, Craft Beer & Wild Wellington

After primarily staying in small towns all across the North Island, I was ready for a change of pace in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital and second-biggest city after Auckland. In short: it has a reputation for cool shit, and I was here for it.

The drive from Napier to Wellington was about 4 hours, in which I managed to get sunburnt despite sitting in a vehicle. I did make a quick pit stop at Manawatu Gorge, which has short and long(ish) walking routes.

Driving into Wellington I could feel the “big city” energy (even if it’s a comparatively small city with half a million people on a good day). I pulled up to The Dwellington, a more upscale hostel which offers private rooms and dorms. Slightly pricier but totally worth it, the hostel’s about a 25-minute walk from the city centre, away from the hustle and bustle in a charming neighborhood called Thorndon.

Some upsides of The Dwellington: beautiful facilities, a solid community, and full breakfast included. Freshly made-to-order omelettes on Saturday and Sunday mornings. Is this love?

I checked in, set down my bags and set off walking into the city. I wanted to exercise my bum ankle, and I had a mad hankering for a piece of pizza. The walk into town was pleasant with perfect early-evening sunlight.

At a large cross-section in the CBD sits Tommy Millions, a pizza joint with $6 pepperoni slice. All things considered, it settled my craving as I sat on a bench and journaled.

It happened to be Waitangi Day, an NZ holiday commemorating the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (New Zealand’s founding document). Many businesses were closed, but a lot of people still milled about.

And then out of the corner of my eye, I noticed someone standing and staring at me — Tobi! My German friend I’d reunited with in Rotorua and Napier. After he assured me he wasn’t, in fact, stalking me, we agreed to explore the famed Cuba Street together in search of an excellent beer.

But first, coffee: we discovered Midnight Espresso, one of my favorite joints in all of Wellington. It’s a rare NZ cafe that stays open late — like, past midnight, hence the name. A barista standing outside told us it was the second-cheapest coffee in Wellington at $3.50 for an Americano and $4 for a flat white. Along with the kitschy interior, I was absolutely sold.

With a little caffeine pick-me-up, Tobi and I walked to Golding’s Free Dive, an unassuming back-alley bar that ended up being my beautiful introduction to Wellington’s craft beer culture. I ordered something called the Garage Project Cereal Milk Stout and fell in love. Absolutely in love.

I expressed my passion for this beer to Tobi, and as someone who prefers a simple lager he sort of played along. He couldn’t deny the appeal of the bar’s cozy interior and excellent back patio.

We ordered another round, where I opted for another Garage Project brew: a 180 degree turn to Shinrin Yoku, a cherry blossom/green tea sour that nearly made me weep with joy. I imagined my life in Wellington: get a job at Garage Project despite knowing nothing about breweries. Come to Golding’s every day. Never doubt for a second that I’ve done The Right Thing.

Figuring we should head to another bar before I just camped at Golding’s overnight, we walked to Little Beer Quarter in search of more Garage Project brews. LBQ has a side room outfitted with antique chairs and patchy rugs, reminding you of any good auntie’s living room. I saddled up and ordered a pint of Garage Project’s Party & Bullshit, an East Coast IPA filled with deliciousness. Another Garage win.

From there, we continued to hop (heh, heh): this time to The Rogue and Vagabond, a music venue that happened to be celebrating its birthday! We ordered more beer — I found another Garage Project hit called 4 to the Floor, a solid West Coast IPA. After spending so long pretending to like the craft beer in NZ, you can understand how relieved I felt in Wellington.

Finally sorta tired after our beer extravaganza, Tobi and I soaked up the alcohol with a kebab from Camel Grill, one of the only open kebab places we could find at midnight. Early NZ closing times strike again!

Back at the Dwellington, I sat at the kitchen table eating my kebab and admiring the rose centerpiece. Then I was happily off to bed.

The next morning I found myself at the kitchen table once again, eating hostel-provided breakfast of egg and toast with jam and honey. Coffee with almond milk, as always. The morning light was perfect. I paged through The Cuba Street Project, an informative picture book about the history of ole Cuba Street. Worth a look if you find a copy!

I met Jenn, an American from Virginia, and a German woman named Andrea. We all wanted to walk into town, along the bustling waterfront with its pop-up market.

We visited the Te Papa Museum, a giant free museum with lots of Māori and natural history exhibits. We only walked through a few exhibits, including one with an earthquake simulator. I haven’t experienced an earthquake firsthand yet, so it was an eye-opening experience.

They also had the world’s largest preserved giant squid, and a sea spider specimen. I’m sold.

After touring Te Papa, Jenn and I walked down to Cuba Street, grabbing a deliciously cheap lunch at Aunty Mena’s, which specializes in vegetarian Vietnamese and Chinese dishes. I got a dumpling soup, which I believe was $11 NZ for five dumplings and a heap of vegetables.

We continued on to grab flat whites at Fidel’s, a cherished Cuba Street institution inspired by the revolutionary himself. They serve great coffee and manage to avoid having the stereotypical “college dude” vibes that a Fidel Castro-themed cafe might have.

Jenn had just been to Colombia before heading to NZ, and she was off to visit the Philippines with a friend at the end of the week. We talked about different lengths of travel — she’d once met a woman who took half the year off to travel and worked the other half. Let’s just say it gave me some interesting ideas for my own future.

Jenn’s also a craft beer lover, and I told her about the Garage Project. In my excitement, I’d discovered that Garage Project has a cellar door with free tastings, along with a killer taproom. All of this is located mere blocks away from Cuba Street. Thankfully, Jenn was down for any and all of these shenanigans, ready to get our afternoon buzz on.

We went to the cellar door first, where we tried all 8 beers currently brewing, equating to about one full beer (all free of charge). My personal favorite was the Electric Dry Hop Acid Test, a hoppy sour that hit all the spots. Jenn and I were both big fans of Fresh, the monthly hazy IPA.

To my delight, our wonderful bartender also pulled out a bottle of Shinrin Yoku he was offering for another group’s tasting. He let us try a sample, too. Life is grand. We walked across Aro Street to the Garage Project Taproom, a separate building with a proper bar and 18 different beers on tap. Bartender #2 convinced me to get an IPA called Pernicious Weed, strong and grapefruity and absolutely perfect.

Exhausted from our adventures in dumplings, coffee and beer, we walked across town in search of dinner. We found Thorndon Chippery, a fish ‘n’ chips place right by the Dwellington with prices on the cheaper side. I opted for baked fish with a lemony squeeze — and some mean chips.

Back at the Dwellington, we both collapsed into bed and wordlessly agreed to fall asleep embarrassingly early.

The next morning, I awoke to find a French man in the hostel kitchen, offering to make omelettes that looked like a Michelangelo painting. I chose tomatoes, spinach, feta and a little sprig of basil. Like wow.

Jenn and I sat around the hostel for the morning, reveling in omelette glory and general sluggishness. We agreed to make reservations for high tea at Martha’s Pantry, a well-known bakery and popular spot for high tea.

I thought I knew what high tea was, or at least what it meant in its British origin, but I’m still not so sure. Regardless, at Martha’s it meant an afternoon meal served with unlimited tea and three tiers of food — literally, food on tiers. We dressed up (sort of) for the occasion, seated by some little girls who were having a birthday party.

I chose a masala chai, and the server brought out our tiers of food, explaining the bountiful array of savories and sweets we’d been presented. Here’s what I can remember about the day’s menu.

  • Bottom tier, with a savory focus: crustless egg salad sandwiches, vegan slider with incredible yet mysterious purple fluff, caprese skewer, cheesy tiny meat pie, and small but mighty salmon pancake with cream cheese
  • Middle tier: perfect scones with whipped cream and raspberry and passionfruit jams
  • Top tier: blueberry macaron (a godsend), mini choco cupcake, mango purée with strawberry and mint garnish

Everything was perfect. I still don’t know what high tea is supposed to be, but I can see a group of girlfriends grabbing a table at Martha’s on a Sunday afternoon as a sort of social club. Just remember to make reservations! $35 NZ per person.

Afterward, we took full advantage of “casual Saturday afternoon window shopping” time. Cuba Street’s full of goodies, with many shops featuring sustainable and locally sourced goods. At a place called Good Housekeeping, I picked up a bar of coconut soap for $3. A steal!

We drove over to the Underground Market, a collection of artisan booths and food vendors on the waterfront, only open on Saturdays. We picked up dumplings (well, I bought a pork bun) at a little stand.

I also met Ollie and Kata, two wonderful humans who run a zine called Sisterhood and had a booth at the market. I told them I was headed to the South Island in a couple days, and I arranged to meet with Ollie the next day to scheme on helping distribute zines across NZ while I’m traveling. Sisterhood focuses on intersectional feminism and gender identity, among many other topics, and I was keen to help in any way I could.

Out from underground, Jenn and I wandered into the Wellington Museum, focused on the city’s history. Totally free and pretty rad! We only explored a level or two, but I was impressed with the short documentary film about the Waihene disaster in which a ship sank in 1968 and caused many deaths.

We finally got back to the hostel after another hard day’s work of being tourists. Although I’d consumed more than my fair share of beer in Wellington already, we agreed to change (the weather had turned cold and rainy) and head back to Cuba Street for a few more craft good-goods.

We caught an Uber to Hey Day, a cute brewery at the end of Cuba. After sampling a few beers, Jenn and I both settled on the Berry Ice Cream NEIPA, one of the most enjoyable IPAs I’ve ever tasted. Though Garage Project still reigns supreme for overall quality, this IPA is truly a taste bud trip.

I swear Jenn and I had great conversation at Hey Day, but I can only honestly remember this IPA. It’s that good. We continued down the street to Laundry, an establishment that transforms from a daytime cafe to a dinner restaurant to a late-night dance bar. What a dream!

I ordered a beer from Funk Estate, a sour called the Jungle Boogie. Solid, but not nearly as impressive as the other beer I’ve tried in Wellington. It’s tough competition, though.

As the dancing intensified, Jenn and I decided to move on to one last bar for the night, meandering down the street to Black Dog Brewery. After climbing a quick flight of stairs with lots of Sharpie wall quotes, we entered Black Dog’s cozy taproom, full of hip people deeply invested in beer-fueled conversation. I opted for the Grapehound IPA, ever the safe bet. Deliciousness.

And yet again, Molly’s found herself happily inebriated thanks to the undeniably lovely Wellington craft beer scene. We grabbed kebabs from the first place we could find and booked an Uber home, once again falling into bed with the exhaustion of a day well-spent.

The next morning I took a nice, long shower and a Dwellington mirror selfie, knowing I’d miss this place. I still had another night in Wellington, but this hostel was all booked out so I’d be moving to a Base hostel downtown. More on that later.

I walked to the Wellington Botanic Garden, a somewhat quick jaunt from Thorndon. Though I hate to say it, the gardens are nothing spectacular, but they’re pleasant enough to stroll through. Many people ride the famous cable car to the top of the gardens, but I figured I could use the exercise on foot.

I also used this as an opportunity to take more photos on my Fujifilm, as I really love photographing flowers — this trip, I’ve just found that I use my “proper” camera less, and 99% of the time I capture sites with my iPhone. It lessens the pressure to take gorgeous photos all the time, and I mostly feel like my phone camera captures the moment in a more authentic way, at least for my life right now. In any case: I did use the cool camera for flower pics.

I walked back down Tinakori Road (a lovely stroll), stopping at Goods Cafe & Manufactory for a coffee sit. It was one of the first proper filter coffees I’d had in ages, served in a mug American-style. I felt known.

Soon after, I checked into my hostel at Base Wellington — to be honest it’s a pretty crappy hostel, but the view of downtown Wellington from six floors up is a big plus.

I met my new friend Ollie (from Sisterhood Mag) to discuss distributing the zine across the South Island. We stopped at Kikki K, an adorable stationary shop, to get fancy notebooks and pens, and then we grabbed some mango eggplant in a hotel restaurant in which Ollie used to work. We talked business, but I also got to know some of Ollie’s life and how they ended up in Wellington after starting Sisterhood.

We picked up some Garage Project beer at the grocery store (I KNOW, I’m obsessed) and ordered pizza back at Ollie’s apartment from a place called Hell Pizza. It’s made with all free-range ingredients — Ollie even ordered fried Camembert on the side. Once more, life is grand. We watched YouTube videos and talked business, but mostly Youtube. I agreed to plant copies of Sisterhood around cafes on my route, excited to see Ollie’s efforts flourish.

To learn more about Sisterhood, head to sisterhoodnz.com and explore their mission, current issues and subscription options. It’s only $89.95 NZ (about $60 USD) for a 12-month subscription to excellent content. The best part: Ollie ships internationally!

Seeing as I had to wake up for a ferry ride to the South Island the next morning, I bid Ollie farewell and drove back to Base, where I tried to fall asleep despite impossibly loud party noises. Youth hostels, amiright?

All in all, Wellington was a wicked stop on my NZ journey. As a city with great beer and even better people, it was a wonderful bookend to my North Island adventures.

Now, onto a couple months spent in New Zealand’s South Island. So many more posts to come.

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