Sorry that you cannot go to Wellington, so here is my impression of it

CoNZealand has announced that the 2020 Worldcon will be virtual:

A very understandable decision. I think this could be an exciting and maybe even a positive step forward. The big challenge will be keeping the essence of the event while making it virtual. I don’t know if that is possible but that’s one of the challenges that 2020 is bringing.

CoNZealand haven’t announced any details of what this virtual version will be. There will be a host of challenges from choices of software to bandwidth to pushing beyond just talking heads and chat rooms. Getting participants to feel that they part of a single entertaining group event is the essence of the challenge.

What people will definitely be missing though, is a chance to visit Wellington. There’s no way of avoiding that with New Zealand essentially closed to travel until the pandemic has peaked. That is sad because Wellington is one of my favourite cities. I don’t say that lightly. I have visited many cities in my life and while not a connoisseur of metropolitan areas, I think I’ve visited a sufficient variety around the world (except for Africa and North America) to have an informed but not exhaustive opinion.

So here is my impression of Wellington as best as I can manage as a substitute for visiting there. I’ve never lived in the city and I’m sure actual Kiwis can give a more inside picture. In particular, the city has a rich Maori heritage that dates back beyond Britain’s invasion of the area that I can’t do justice to. However, I can talk about what it is like to be a stranger visiting and wandering through it.

The first impression is the very different sense of scale there is to the city. Big cities swallow you up and engulf you. Wellington is a small city but it is also physically dwarfed by the huge harbour it sits next to. Cities tend to dampen their physical environment (flatten hills, bridge or enclose rivers) but Wellington sits between steep hills and deep water and has a more self-deprecating relationship with its physical geography. It’s not hard as a visitor to physically orientate yourself: harbour is on one side, steep hills on the other which forces a semi-linear structure to the inner city.

View over Wellington

The architecture is also relatively low-key as well. There is the Beehive – the odd Dalek-shaped national parliament building but otherwise the more interesting buildings are smaller ones. Victorian retail buildings, 1970’s office buildings, the more modern Te Papa national museum (I’m not writing a tourist guide here but this is an absolutely top-notch museum) aren’t the main visual motif of the cities buildings. Instead the numerous brightly painted weatherboard cottages clinging to the hillsides are the most striking buildings. Small, cozy looking and presumably more earthquake proof than some of the taller buildings.

It is a town of earthquakes. I’ve never been to San Francisco but I imagine there are similarities. There are road markings as you head up into the hills that show the point at which you might be high enough to avoid a tsunami. In offices, there are guides on what to do in an earthquake and civil defence equipment. I guess there is always some chance that a big enough earthquake could devastate the city in the way Christchurch was devastated in 2011 but the air of the town is preparedness rather than doom or pessimism. Knowing and understanding risk and planning for what can’t be controlled.

Despite the hills, the inner city is largely flat and walkable. There’s a sharp difference in altitude between the shopping area of Lambton Quay and the next road over The Terrace such that you can enter the ground floor of one shop, go up a couple of stories and exit at the ‘ground floor’ of a building on the terrace. In a weird little arcade off Lambton Quay, there is a tiny pair of lifts that take you up to the ground floor of a hotel on The Terrace. The lift has its own commuter rush hours in the morning and afternoon, as city workers use it to shift between levels. It feels like a shortcut added as a puzzle element in a video game that somehow has been transported to reality. I haven’t played Pokemon Go in Wellington but I would imagine it would be an ideal city to create the feeling that you were immersed in a town lifted from one of the more RPG style Pokemon games.

The view is much better on the other side of this unearthly portal

Speaking of which, go into a different arcade on Lambton Quay and you find a funicular railway aka a pair of cable cars. They take you up 100 metres to a hilltop suburb with a lovely botanical garden and an observatory that for some reason is shut every time I visit. It being shut only adds to my feeling that I’m actually in a highly immersive RPG video game and that there’s some task I haven’t completed on a lower level yet. Amazing views from up there and a great place to get a sense of the overall size and shape of the city.

There’s at least one side quest still to do…

Being relatively small and having most of the CBD in a flat area means you can walk most of it fairly comfortably if you stick to the flat parts. There are lots pedestrianised or semi-pedestrianised streets. The Cuba Street area has lots of nice places to eat and smaller shops. Overall, there are book shops and there are lots of places to drink and eat. For UK visitors the city will feel sort of oddly familiar like it is a small British city or a big British town, (particularly the mix of 1970’s and Victorian buildings) but with unfamiliar names and a landscape that is more Scotland than England but also neither.

People are nice but then in most (all?) of the places I have ever visited around the world people are nice. It’s a colder and wetter place than Australian cities, so I guess people hurry a bit quicker out in the street (again, that pace will feel familiar for UK visitors) but the reputation New Zealanders have for dry humour, kindness and under statement is well earned. All of my visits to Wellington have been for work rather than tourism, so I can attest that the level of humour extends to meetings and workplaces.

Suburban Wellington and also where the Black Rider nearly catch the Hobbits

The countryside beyond is beautiful. If you visit it and go on an inevitable Lord of the Rings tour, you’ll be impressed with the very down to earth spots that were transformed into parts of Middle Earth. The more dramatic scenery is elsewhere (i.e. the huge mountains) but you can visit parts of the shire within the city limits or travel a bit further out and see the gardens of Isengard, the river Anduin or go to Rivendell. The airport has its own Smaug head as well as Gandalf on an eagle suspended from the ceiling of departure hall.

Fly! You fools! Fly business class! The leg room on an economy eagle is only enough for a hobbit!

It is a city with a strong sense of both people and place. There is a human scale to the city and also a strong sense of nature. When all this is over, I hope you all get a chance to visit.

14 thoughts on “Sorry that you cannot go to Wellington, so here is my impression of it

  1. I’ve never been to a Worldcon OR New Zealand and the fact that it was going to be held there was literally the impetus to make the decision to go this time. I respect the decision to make the Con virtual but I’m still not crazy about the idea of paying 300+ dollars to attend it. At least I was able to nominate in the Hugos this year, so YAY for that I guess.

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    1. Joe: I respect the decision to make the Con virtual but I’m still not crazy about the idea of paying 300+ dollars to attend it.

      I’m sure that CoNZealand would love to be able to give refunds to everyone who wants one — and they’ve said that they’re going to see what they can do along those lines. But the reality is that they’ve already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on arrangements, money which they may not get back for months or years, or may not ever get back.

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  2. As a native San Franciscan, the big difference I’m reminded of in your earthquake paragraph is that we don’t really have much tsunami preparation here. (With the caveat that I have never visited Wellington, although this post makes me really want to.)

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  3. One quirk of Wellington is the street layout. The streets were laid out with little or no regard for topology so you end up with streets that don’t make sense. My brother-in-law’s old place was one example: the official road his place was on didn’t have access to his house which was at the top of the cliff the road ran along. To get there you had to go down the next street and walk along a shared walkway.
    https://teara.govt.nz/en/city-history-and-people/page-5

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  4. One cancelled con here in Toronto already had a ‘virtual con’, though that was a little different because it wasn’t actually organized by the main convention committee but by a small group of people from the dealer’s room. In that case, the convention had to be cancelled with only a week’s notice, so they are definitely running into issues with funds because a lot of hotel contracts and the like want at least a month’s notice, and unlike Quebec, Ontario hadn’t actually explicitly forbidden large gatherings yet.

    With only a week’s time to plan, most of the mini-con was run over Telegram and online streaming services. And while it was obviously not a full replacement, given the short time they had to prepare, it went off pretty well. So it’s definitely doable.

    I’m already seeing other cons I was planning to attend cancelled (most of them with enough time that they don’t have to worry about hotel contracts. at least) and several others setting deadlines on when they will make the final decision on cancelling.

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  5. Yay, I also have a photo of the black rider path. And lets not forget that Peter Jackson filmed Braindead in the city too.

    Anyhow, I really liked walking around in the city. Nice and laidback. New Zealand is absolutely the country that has felt most like home of any country outside the Nordics. I’ve really liked it there.

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  6. My wife Deirdre and I were and remain crestfallen, because it’s one of our very favourite places (not to mention the now-vanished opportunity to visit friends who live there). It’s a compact city of much charm, rewarding to walk through and around. We first fell in love with it while attending the first two Au Contraire natcons held in the Quality Hotel and attached Comfort Hotel on Cuba Street, the partially pedestrianised heart of the CBD.

    It was a bit rainy and blustery (on account of wind roaring through adjoining Cook Strait) both times we were at-con there, but we didn’t mind: I just joked to Deirdre that the town is ‘well washed and blow-dried’. (Leave the brolly at home: Unless made of titanium and spun steel, it’ll get inverted and wrecked. Wear an anorak during the winter season, as the natives do.)

    Unique charms include the Te Papa Tongarewa Museum (enn-zed’s national museum) and, in the hills on the outskirts of town, Zealandia, a large fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary where NZ’s native wildlife thrive and are recovering from exotic predators.

    I wouldn’t miss it — except now we must. Bah.

    Next time for sure!

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