Wellington, "The coolest little capital in the world"

My family lives in New Zealand's capital city of Wellington; that's why I noticed an interesting story in last week's Australian 'Huffington Post' that explored the transformation of Wellington into "the coolest little capital" - a story partly told through the eyes of local resident Lance Lones, a US scientist who had once worked at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences at UC San Diego.

New Zealand's capital city was once a place that relied heavily on government created employment. Local businessman Joseph Slater remembers it like this - 

"Wellington in the 80s and 90s was a pretty dire place. We had something of a boring capital city reputation, a seat of government and not much else"

If you were to pinpoint a person and a time that began Wellington's transformation into the most trendy, innovative and creative city in New Zealand, that person would be film maker Peter Jackson and the time would be the late 1990's.

Jackson, a proud Wellington native, had just bought an old film studio in the seaside suburb of Miramar, about 20 minutes drive from downtown Wellington.

After years of making 'splatstick' horror films, his career had taken off and with colleague Richard Taylor their studio had expanded to include what seemed most of their local suburb! It's where  they worked on The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, District 9, The Hobbit, King Kong and others.

Erik Hay, head of media and communications at Weta Workshop, the center of the special effects division based at Miramar, describes it thus - "Ideas get a lot of air here. Lord of the Rings ramped up so quickly that people were drawn here and they were people with passion, tenacity and talent"

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It was this creative hotbed that American Lance Lones encountered when he visited Wellington as part of a six-month career break in in 2010 and it made such an impact, he decided to start a new life in the city. Today, from his Wellington HQ, one of his three successful businesses, L2VR, supplies cameras and software to international companies at the very cutting edge of virtual reality production.

He's also done visual effects for the blockbuster films Avatar, X-Men and in partnership with Weka Workshop, worked on the Lord of The Rings trilogy. He talked to the Huff Post reporter in his office, part of an old military base, now home to tech startups and film production suites.

"This is what Silicon Valley felt like in the 1970s," he says. It's small. In L.A. you can go weeks without seeing someone you know. Here, you walk from one building to the next and you run into three people you know, and they say, 'You should talk to so and so about your idea'

So the seeds of an economic and cultural transformation were sown and today the city markets itself to the world under the banner of 'the coolest little capital in the world" a title bestowed on the city in 2011 by international travel giant Lonely Planet.

It has more bars, restaurants and cafes per-capita than New York City and with a population of just 204,000 it currently has around 800 start-up businesses in the pipeline!

Weta and their associated companies continue to work in film, but ideas from within the organization have spurned other exciting new ventures.

The Weta Cave Workshop tours are one such innovation. Boasting over 100,000 visitors to date, the tours are sold out 85 percent of the time. Visitors can see behind the scenes, where four tons of silicon was crafted to make the fat suits for the Hobbits, where they can hold a gun from the film 'District 9' or learn how dog hair is electrified and shot onto clothing to make hair suits.

Dave Gouge is head of marketing at the nearby Weta Digital and he makes the point that the studios have never operated in isolation."We attracted a large number of very talented people with international experience and expertise - and that vibrant attitude spilled over into the rest of the Wellington community" he says.

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Another aspect that helps makes Wellington 'the coolest little capital' is quite simply a commitment to outstanding and abundant coffee. At one point, the Huffington Post reporter Nicolette Logue stood on a busy street corner in the CBD and could see three coffee outlets - all of the same chain. "The density of cafe outlets is astonishing" she wrote; in a CBD measuring just over one square mile, there are 20 coffee outlets.

"Kiwis love the culture that has developed with great coffee" says barista John Cole. His enthusiasm is typical of the lively energy that pulses through what is now celebrated as New Zealand’s capital for the arts, film, outstanding cafes and restaurants, craft beers, fine wines, some from the adjacent Wairarapa wine region, international events, and now relegated to a passing mention - the political capital.

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The 'Olive Cafe' a favorite coffee haunt of New Zealand Vacations director Jerry Bridge.

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The arrival concourse, Wellington Airport, a reminder of how the transformation of the city 'the coolest little capital in the world" first began; Gandalf and his personal mode of transportation.

With thanks to the Australian Huffington Post for extracts from their Wellington story that we have included in this New Zealand Vacations blog.   
Lindsay Barron

Lindsay Barron • Sep 21, 2016