Life on the edge in Wellington’s Aro Valley

For more of Cuba Street’s “cool”, but on a smaller, quieter scale, take a short walk up to the Aro Valley.

Aro Street
Aro Street

Surrounded by vertiginous hills threaded with steep, narrow, winding roads and vertical staircases that lead up to rickety old houses teetering on sunless ridges and windswept ledges, the Aro Valley seems an impossible place to live. It’s a place, you might say, for the hardy and the brave, or perhaps even for the foolhardy and the reckless. In fact, since European settlement, the Aro Valley has been centre for those often associated with life on the edge. In the  beginning it was the working class, the battlers, the poor, the fringe dwellers, the radicals and the political activists, then later, students, artists, writers, hippies, intellectuals, innovators and more radical political activists. They made the Aro Valley an interesting place.

Interesting things have happened in the Aro Valley, too, like the espionage incident in Aro Park, when writer and historian Bill Sutch was intercepted passing top secret info to a Russian Spy.  The Wellington Greens Party was formed here and still calls the Aro Valley home.  Works of art and literature, great and small, have been turned out here, among them the script for Taika Waititi’s film, Boy. Many enterprises have been launched, with varying success, in the valley, including the boutique beer Garage Project (brewed in a garage of course)

Aro Street
Aro Street

Old Aro Valley diehards lament that the place is not the same,  that it has been “yuppified”, that the life and colour have drained from it and that community is dead here now. Some of this is true. The Aro Valley now boasts  a very smart patisserie, Arobake, as well as some up market cafes, restaurants and shops. Many of its homes have been gentrified and occupied by more affluent and possibly less radical residents. Old institutions have been taken over, like the Salvation Army Training Centre which is now the School of Practical Philosophy.

Still, much of the Aro Valley remains almost exactly as it was in its radical, activist, hippy, arty intellectual heyday, except for the paint on the buildings and the cars in the streets of course.  The Aro Street Fish Supply is still serving up the best fish and chips in town. The Aro Street Video Store is still going strong, even in these days of downloads and Netflix. St Vincent’s Opportunity Shop is still the fashion store of choice for many. In those smart cafes and restaurants, there’s still a nod to hippydom  –  Haya’s laid-back ambience and colourful, wholefood menu for example. Galleries, like Ron Barber’s suggest that there still artists and innovators at work somewhere in the Aro Valley. And even though it’s bumped the Sallies,  the School of Practical Philosophy is a sign perhaps that there are still some thinkers around too.  Lastly, if you think that the life , colour and community have gone from the Aro Valley, head down to Aro Park towards the end of March, the weekend before the Cuba Street Festival in fact, for the Aro Valley Festival. Then you’ll see the Aro Valley community in all its colourful, vibrant diversity.


Cuba Street, The coolest street in the capital of cool

If Wellingon is the world’s coolest capital, then Cuba Street is the capital’s coolest street.

Tiger Eye Beads
Tiger Eye Beads

During that time in the second half of the 20th century, when chunks of the city were being sacrificed to motorways, Cuba Street was ear-marked for a traffic by-pass. As it awaited the wrecking ball, businesses de-camped and any upkeep on buildings was more or less abandoned. This, as it transpired, was Cuba Streets salvation. Rents plummeted and along with those seeking low cost accommodation, came others seeking alternative lifestyles – hippies, artists, innovators, visionaries and creators. Buildings were rescued and businesses were reborn. Second hand shops, bargain stores and galleries opened. Bars, cafes and restaurants set up alongside them. Colourful graffiti art colonised blank walls and alleys. Cuba Street was alive again. Cool and rather chic, in shabby kind of way, it was a distinctive part of the cityscape. Cuba Street became Wellington’s Bohemian Precinct.

The by-pass plan was dumped. In 1969, Cuba Mall was established. Buskers and street performers moved in, the famous Bucket Fountain was built and Cuba Street became a playground, a favourite meeting spot and one of Wellington’s most visited and vibrant quarters.  Finally, in 1995, Cuba Street was preserved forever under the Historic Places Act, as a registered Historic Area.

In essence, Cuba Street is still the same as it was when those hippies, artists, innovators and creators moved in, back in the sixties.  Most of the buildings are as they were then – the narrow wooden houses, the shop-fronts with their recessed doors, ornate lead-light windows and tiles still remain. So does the grand old Salvation Army’s Peoples’ Palace, now a Quality Inn. Colourful street art weaves around them on walls and in alleys.  Second hand and bargain stores survive and thrive, many with a 21st century vintage or retro twist. Bars, cafes and restaurants still abound, but among them now are award winners, like Matterhorn and the fine dining house, Logan Brown. Buskers and street performers still hold the floor in Cuba Mall, at any hour of the day or night and crowds gather to watch them, while the Bucket Fountain splashes away in the background. Cuba Mall is still a great place to hang out and one of the city’s most lively areas. And most importantly, that Bohemian spirit not only endures but flourishes.

My Cuba street favourites


Cuba Dupa, the Cuba Street Festival, at the end of March – for a fantastic end of summer celebration and an awesome street party  – food, bands, choirs, art, sculpture, performances, people and fun.

Cuba Dupa
Cuba Dupa

Cuba Street Friday Night Market – for all of the above, but on a Friday evening and on a smaller scale.


Madame fancy Pants – for elegant vintage classics

Tiger Eye beads for a frivolous, fanciful treasure

Arc Apparel – for a rock-bottom bargain


Midnight Espresso – for a midnight cofee and a vegan snack, also because it’s a Wellington icon.

Fidel’s – for a Cuban coffee with a Cubana (the ultimate toasted sandwich) and to re-live the revolution (Cuban, that is) through the posters and memorabilia on the walls

Breakfast, Lunch or dinner

Floridita’s Cafe and Restaurant – for good food, pleasant surroundings, quick service and leadlight windows overlooking a busy Cuba Street Corner – brilliant people-watching potential


The Ferret Bookshop – to ferret out an old favourite, or a new discovery, among their amazing collection.


Slow Boat Music – to browse their incredible merchandise, to bask in the glory reflected from illustrious international customers like Robert Plant and to maybe even catch an in-house performance?


Wellington Sea market – for fresh fish, a staggering variety of seafood and mouth-watering displays.

Fruit and flowers

Cuba Street Fruit Mart, for its abundance, its colour and its fragrance.



Play, stay, eat, drink or simply be in Wellington’s Oriental Bay

Because it’s sheltered, blessed with a beautiful beach, drop-dead gorgeous water views, countless things to do, not to mention fabulous places to stay, eat or simply be, Oriental Bay is one of the city’s great escapes.

Oriental Bay Beach
Oriental Bay Beach

First on the list of Oriental Bay’s attractions is, of course the beach. In summer, Wellingtonians are there in their thousands – swimming, sunbathing, lounging on the pontoon, or diving off it, belting balls over a net or at a wicket, strolling, running or cycling along the promenade and playing in the park. In any other season including winter they’re there too, doing the same things (except perhaps sunbathing) just in smaller numbers.

When the swimmers are not at Oriental Bay beach, you’ll find them powering up and down the lanes at the Fryberg Pool or pounding along the treadmills in its gym.

Just along from the Fryberg Pool, Oriental Bay’s  historic Port Nicholson Yacht Club, Wellington’s oldest, founded in 1902, brings salts old and young, out when the winds are fair. For those not lucky enough to get aboard, those little white sails out on the blue or those boats bobbing at their moorings in the Clyde Quay Marina is a fine sight. For aspiring yachtsmen, Port Nicolson Yacht Club also offers sailing lessons.

Of course, the seaside means ice-cream and down in Oriental Bay, you’re spoilt for choice. The world renowned Movenpick is here, along with taste of Italy at Gelissimo Gelateria. Kafee Eis, whose very name sounds deliciously cold, is famous not only for its gourmet gelati but also for its boutique coffee. At Beach Babylon, you’ll find the divine local Kapiti ice-cream which, if you’ve jetted in on Air NZ, you may have already met. Then, for a taste of old times, try the local dairy.

For dining, lunching or coffee, Oriental Bay has a wealth of restaurants and cafes. Just stroll along Oriental Parade and take your pick. Sea views are pretty much a given. However if you want to be right on the water and also steep yourself Oriental history, there are two great possibilities. Tied up, more or less alongside the Fryberg pool, is the old harbour tugboat Tapuhi II which is now dressed up and fitted out as the Tugboat on the Bay restaurant. While the menu offers a great range and the food is excellent, it’s ambience and the experience that are memorable here.  Housed in the old Band Rotunda and surrounded by the sea on three sides is the Bluewater Bar and Grill. The views here are amazing and at a window table on a cold, blustery winter’s night, you feel as if you’re at sea, (yet safe and warm behind the band rotunda’s solid concrete walls) Again, the experience does eclipse the cuisine somewhat. However, the fish was melt-in-the-mouth fresh and the salad bar offered a wide and colourful variety.

While there are several accommodation options in Oriental Bay, nothing compares, in my opinion to the unique boutique Ohtel. Tiny, arty and totally different, it occupies one of those iconic wooden Wellington villas that spill down the hills here.  The front bedrooms have views to die for with two man balconies overhanging Oriental Parade. The decor is pure kiwiana. The throws and bedcovers are in the traditional colours of Maori Art, red, black and white on grey army blankets. A feature photo on the wall shows waist-down shot of a piupiu (flax skirt) a pair of fabulous legs and an equally fabulous pair of red high heels. The ground floor lobby has a cosy fire, armchairs that invite you to curl up, a pile of magazines and window onto the parade and the sea.

Just to be in Oriental Bay, rain, wind or shine, is great for the soul. Sit on a bench or lean on the sea wall. Enjoy!

Oriental Bay is just short stroll from the city. It’s also en route from the airport!


Oriental Bay, French Riviera or absolutely positively Wellington?

Oriental Bay is often called the Riviera of Wellington and, indeed, there is something of that famous stretch of French coastline about it. There’s a suggestion of Juan Les pins in the sweep of beautiful beach, the pontoon and the pines. There’s a little of Nice’s Promenade des Anglais in the sea wall, the benches and the wide footpath.  There’s a touch of St Tropez in the yachts moored at Clyde Quay Marina and the flotilla of white sails out on the harbour. There’s a hint of Cannes, too, in the gleaming white apartment buildings along Oriental Parade.

The Band Rotunda
The Band Rotunda

Most of Oriental Bay, however, is absolutely, positively and uniquely Wellington. The Freyberg pool is a local architectural icon as well as a memorial to champion swimmer, World War II General and NZ Governor General Bernard Cyril Freyberg. The Carter Fountain, which plays off shore, wind permitting, four times a day, remembers its donor, prominent Wellingtonian, Hugh Carter, who, tragically, was drowned two days after its inauguration. The Band Rotunda, built in 1936, now a restaurant, is a piece Wellington history, a monument to the days when the Municipal Orchestra entertained holiday crowds. St Gerard’s Monastery, overlooking the bay from high on the cliffs, is an unmissable Wellington landmark. The little wooden houses stoically standing their ground between the 21st century giants and clinging tenaciously to the hillside, are unmistakeably Wellington.  The solid white ferries that glide past, on the way to and from the South Island, are a part of every day in the capital and of life in Aotearoa New Zealand.

A short history of Wellington’s Oriental Bay

With its beautiful, sunny sheltered beach, amazing architecture, million dollar views and its wealth of cafes and restaurants, Oriental Bay is one of Wellington’s most desirable suburbs and popular city escapes. But it wasn’t always that way.

Oriental Bay today
Oriental Bay today

Oriental bay was originally named Duppa, after George Duppa who settled there in 1840. In its early days it was an unprepossessing spot, with a pervasive stench from the blubber boiled up on the narrow rocky beach by sealers and whalers. Later, Duppa renamed  it Oriental Bay, after the ship which had brought him to New Zealand. Perhaps he thought that a hint of the exotic East would lure more settlers but for years Duppa lived alone in the miserable little house dubbed Castle Doleful by people of Wellington. His only neighbours were the doctor, the nurse and the handful of inmates in the beachside quarantine tent.

Settlers did eventually trickle into Oriental Bay and by the end of the 1800s there was scattering of wooden villas along the beach front and on the hills. In 1908, the Redemptorist Fathers established the first church, St Gerard’s, on the hilltop. Now a respectable, established and god-fearing suburb, the bay attracted more settlers.  Development continued apace. Business and houses, bigger and grander, spread along the Parade and up the hillside. In 1932, surrounding and absorbing the church, and dominating the skyline, St Gerard’s Monastery was built. It soon became the crowning feature of Oriental Bay and one of Wellington’s most distinctive landmarks. On Oriental Parade, apartment buildings, shops, restaurants and hotels shouldered in alongside the old wooden villas. Real estate values soared and Oriental Bay began to draw in rich and famous residents.

Meanwhile, down by the sea, a different kind of development had been in steady progress. Oriental Bay was becoming a 20th century leisure spot.  Te Aro Baths had opened at the turn of the century offering bathing for ladies between 9.00am and 4.00pm and for gentlemen before 9.a.m and after 4p.m. In 1902, the Royal Port Nicholson, Yacht Club moved in, setting up its clubhouse and mooring its boats at Clyde Quay. Soon Oriental Bay was dotted with white sails. Regattas were underway. When, in 1914, the Oriental Bay Tea Kiosk appeared, it was the place to be seen. Then, when the adjoining private hotel was added in 1920, it was the place to stay. 1919 saw the opening of the Band Rotunda, where on Sundays and public holidays, the Municipal Orchestra entertained growing crowds with “good orchestral music”. In 1963, Te Aro Baths were re-born in a modernist building with a butterfly roof and glass walls modelled on Brazilian Oscar Niemeyer’s 1942 Pampulha Yacht Club. It was named the Freyberg Pool after World War II General,  ex Governor General and National swimming champion Bernard Cyril Freyberg. In 1973, local resident, Hugh Carter donated the Oriental Bay fountain. When Carter was tragically drowned two days after the launch, it was re-named the Carter Fountain. Finally, in 2003, the City Council dumped tonnes of sand from Nelson’s golden sand on the beach at Oriental Bay.

The rocky, smelly, lonely bay of George Duppa’s days, was now the Riviera of Wellington.


Miramar, the heart of Wellywood

When I first knew Wellington’s Miramar, way back in the 1980s, it was a sleepy suburb.

The Roxy
The Roxy

Miramar was a place where ordinary kiwi families lived, down on the flat enjoying sunny, sheltered pohutukawa-lined streets, or up in the hills drinking in the million dollar sea views which inspired that fanciful Spanish name. In the back streets, a bit of light industry whirred away and on the main drag, there was a straggle of service shops, a modest mall in a disused cinema and a library. Trolley buses whirled in and out carrying kids backwards and forwards from school and their parents to and from work. If you didn’t live or work in Miramar, you might well by-pass it.

But not anymore! Miramar is the epi-centre of Wellywood, the engine room of Aotearoa New Zealand’s film industry and the heart of the Middle Earth Empire.

The giant complex where Peter Jackson, Richard Taylor and Jamie Selkirk brought Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit to life dominates the old industrial area of Miramar.  The site of the former National Film Unit in Park Road is Park Road Post, a state of the art post production studio.  Eight acres of Stone Street are given over to the Stone Street sound studios. Just nearby, in Camperdown Road, there’s Weta Digital and in Manuka Street, is Weta Workshop, where all those magical special effects, masks and props are dreamed up and realised. It’s worthwhile taking a cruise around Park Road, Stone Street, Camperdown Road and Manuka Street to check the sheer scale of it all. Perhaps you’ll catch a glimpse of a distant set, a star or one of the big three. As Wellywood’s reach now extends across the globe, you might even spot some international movie mogul.

For dedicated LOTR and Hobbit fans, though, a visit to the Weta Cave in Weka Street is an absolute imperative.  The Cave, which is really a museum, backs onto the Weta Workshop, so you can see the team at work. You’ll hear about the creative process from crew members, using props, models and weapons they made. You’ll watch a behind the scenes video, featuring interviews with the Weta Workshop founders. Finally, they’ll let you loose in the Weta Cave shop, “a cavern of creativity” with the most amazing collection of LOTR and Hobbit memorabilia.

If you’re over Tolkien, but still into cinema, drop into the Roxy, if not to catch a film, then to steep yourself in movie world glamour. This Art Dec beauty first opened in 1928, as the Capitol. In the 60s it was converted into the Miramar shopping mall. Then, in 2011, Richard Taylor and friends reinvented it as the Roxy, with two theatres and an exhibition space.

The Roxy is also home to Coco licensed restaurant and a cocktail lounge, where, after your tour of Wellywood, you might want to sink into a vintage armchair with a Tom Collins, a Pims or some other fabulously refreshing concoction.

These days, there’s no way that anyone would by-pass Miramar


Fusion Virtuoso, very cool, very Zen, very different

I discovered Fusion Virtuoso quite by chance. As I made my way back along Wellington’s Manners Street to my hotel one Friday night a few weeks ago, this pavement blackboard  stopped me in my tracks.

Fusion Diversity
Fusion Diversity

Fusion  Diversity?  The art of thinking independently together?   – Interesting!

I followed the arrow.   Fusion Virtuoso Bar Restaurant!  The name suggested exotic dishes, unexpected blends of flavours,  imagination, creativity and flair. I glanced back at the blackboard. There were no menu specials, no prices, just that fragment of philosophy – very cool, very zen, very different.

Fusion Virtuoso is very cool, very zen and very different. It is a calm and restful place with lots of space, lots of black, lots of white and very gentle light. Pots of plants provide splashes colour.  At the front is a lounge area with comfortable chairs and low tables. To the rear there is a bar, lit with blue neon strips (Fusion Virtuoso’s colour, as it happens) and a dining area, with simple black tables and chairs.

Fusion Virtuoso
Fusion Virtuoso

Jordan was behind the bar when I arrived. His warm and friendly welcome made me feel instantly at home. He  found me the perfect table, at the back, against the wall, with a great view through the restaurant, to the street. Then he withdrew, leaving me to the menu.

The Fusion Vituoso menu is everything that the name suggests. With tastes from Europe, Asia, South America, the West Indies, the Pacific as well as Aotearoa New Zealand, it’s a mouth- watering read.  There some fabulous combinations – imagine caramelised kimchi, French duck and kumara noodles!

It took me quite some time to make my choices but Jordan did not hover or hurry me. I decided finally on the Lite Fish Salad entree. This subtle, melt-in-the-mouth tuna infused cottage cheese and tomato dish, on its bed of crisp lettuce, cucumber and soy beans, was the ideal starter. Not too little, not too much, with just enough flavour to sharpen the appetite.

Sautéed Pork, inspired by the bright lights of Tokyo
Sautéed Pork, inspired by the bright lights of Tokyo

It was an extremely hard decision but after dithering for ages between the Kimchi Duck and the Sauteed Pork, I settled on the latter. “Inspired by the bright lights of Tokyo”, this dish brings together  an amazing palette of tastes and textures – salty, juicy, tender marinated pork strips, sharp, tangy spinach, beans with the perfect crunch factor, delicately flavoured rice (two types) and, best of all, sweet Turkish apple tea sauce.  Everything had that fresh, just out of the pan, home-cooked (but in a good way!) flavour.  Not only was this dish absolutely delicious, it looked like a work of art.

I read the dessert menu avidly and was seriously tempted by the Hazlenut chocolate rolls. The crispy, sweet, spring rolls filled with hazelnut and chocolate, accompanied by ice-cream flavoured with Aotearoa’s own invention, pineapple lumps, sounded like a slice of heaven. Sadly, I could eat no more. But then, Fusion Virtuoso’s operations manager, Becky Chin, brought out two dishes filled with what looked like tiny, gleaming gold and jade jewels. They were in fact, little drops of frozen fruit juice. Although usually served as a palate cleanser, they are the perfect dessert solution for the person who is looking for a sweet, but also small, light and healthy finale.

The perfect dessert solution
The perfect dessert solution

I rarely dine alone, so when I do I want to luxuriate in the experience. Everything matters – environment, service and of course cuisine.  Fusion Virtuoso ticked the all top boxes on my solo dining list. The restaurant environment was relaxing and attractive. The service was exemplary; Jordan and Becky were friendly but not invasive, attentive but not overbearing, gracious, but not effusive and most of all, thoughtful and intuitive. The Fusion Virtuoso cuisine was a totally new, delightfully different taste experience and it was evident that thought, care and imagination had gone into sourcing, preparing and presenting it.

My one regret that night was that I didn’t sample a Fusion Virtuoso cocktail, but I think a dedicated  session might be required to fully appreciate these.

Check out and read all about the people, the philosophy and the commitments that underpin this very cool, very zen, very different Wellington restaurant.

Fusion Virtuoso, 2 Manners Street, Te Aro, Wellington 6011,

Phone 04 801 6611, Mobile 021 516 889

R.I.P. Ben E King

I was so sad to hear today that the great Ben E. King had passed away.

42nd Street
42nd Street

I feel incredibly thankful that I had the good fortune to see Ben E King perform with The Drifters and Darlene Love at his 70th birthday bash at BB King’s Bar and Grill, on 42nd Street in New York.

Our table was right at the back of the room  and my seat was facing the door, but did I care? Hell no! For The Drifters, Darlene Love and most of all for Ben E King , I’d have sat under the table, facing a row of kneecaps!

I forced my neck through impossible contortions to scan the rest of the crowd. It was dotted with faces that I felt I knew, or should have known. Who was that guy in the pork pie hat? Who was that lady in the red dress?

There was a hush, then a cheer as the King family, including Ben E.’s 90 year old mother, filed in through a side entrance. They filled one side of the room.   Then the show began.

Age had not wearied The Drifters; those harmonies were just as slick and those moves just as sharp as they ever were. Darlene Love   had the room rocking.  When at last, backed by his nieces, Ben E. King, took the stage to sing, I was blinking back tears. Yes, Ben E King was still the King of the twist!

It was an unforgettable  evening and a memory I will cherish for ever.

May you rest in peace Ben E King and may eternal light shine upon you.