Unfurl the sails in Wellington

"LIFE'S too short not to put an umbrella in it." Wise words. The quote is written on the blackboard menu of Wellington's quirky waterfront bar, Cuckoo. It seems a good way to sum up a summer weekend in the nation's capital, which surely has more excellent cocktail bars than anywhere else in the country.

But while weekends in Wellington can be happily spent drenched in cocktails, I've decided to try drenching it in something else as well - the sea.

The old briny of Wellington's picturesque harbour is its raison d'etre, earning the city its central place in the country's history.

It's a fitting time to plan a salty holiday in Wellington, too, with the arrival at Queens Wharf of the Velux 5 Oceans solo yacht race skippers after 30-plus days at sea on sprint two from Cape Town. While it's fair to assume the skippers were sick of the sight of the sea by the time they hauled themselves ashore last week, the race village makes a good place to start a wander about Wellington's waterfront.

The sleek racing yachts are moored together at Queens Wharf and opposite them in Shed 6 there'll be, from the end of this week, all sorts of activities on offer for kids of all ages. Try your hand at grinding or learn just how devoid of luxuries life on-board is for the solo sailors - think tiny hammocks, no shower and a "bucket and chuck it" toilet facility.

No thank you.

If all that sailing talk has you desperate to get out on the water, Ferg's Kayaks is also at Shed 6, so you can hire one and hit the waves under your own steam. On my visit, however, with Wellington's most invigorating accessory - a tree-levelling northerly - in full flight, I opt to keep my watery interactions more theoretical and head next door to the Museum of Wellington, City & Sea.

Its flashier sister further around the waterfront, Te Papa, gets the attention, but this fascinating small museum housed in the historic Bond Store is definitely worth a look.

It covers all aspects of life in Wellington throughout its history, but gives a particularly colourful and informative picture of just how the harbour has shaped the city - from first settlements, through wars, strikes and tragedies.

One of the highlights is a detailed and moving exhibition devoted to the sinking of the Wahine inter-island ferry in 1968.

Back outside, I head past Frank Kitts Park, where the playground is teeming with kids - many pretending to be ocean-going sailors having just watched one of the Velux skippers battle the blustery winds in to dock.

As you pass the raised park, it's worth pausing to read some of the memorials which line the concrete retaining wall. They offer yet another snapshot of the capital's maritime history, with tributes to ships, settlers and sailors who have all dropped anchor in this harbour, from refugees and merchants, to others lost at sea.

Further along the waterfront, pausing for coffee at the bustling Harbourside market, I watch ferries pressing toward Cook Strait, yachts swaying out of Chaffers Marina and a team of teens jogging past with a kayak. This harbour is still very much the heart of what has become a vibrant city.

In the Museum of Wellington, there is a quote from one of its famous residents, Alexander Turnbull: "Surely this is the dreariest place on God's earth." Not any more. Perhaps he should have put an umbrella in it.


What to see and do:

The Velux 5 Oceans yachties depart Wellington on February 6 for sprint three, around Cape Horn to Punta del Este, Uruguay. The sprint starts inside Wellington Harbour and will be easily visible from the waterfront. The yachts are moored at Queen's Wharf until then.

Try windsurfing with Wild Winds at Chaffers Marina. Or The Sailing Academy in Oriental Bay runs weekend harbour sails for $40 per person. No experience needed.

Where to eat:

Since we're all about the sea, try Ortega Fish Shack on Majoribanks St for incredibly good seafood in a relaxed, eclectic atmosphere.

For something posher, you can't beat Martin Bosley's, upstairs at the Royal Port Nicholson Yacht Club in Oriental Bay. It offers the best seafood you'll find anywhere, plus stunning views over the harbour.

Where to stay:

Wellington's landmark Duxton Hotel, in Wakefield St, has had a major refurbishment and name change to the Amora Hotel. It is perfectly located for Wellington's inner-city and waterfront. The new-look brand, which has included a makeover of all rooms, re-launches at the end of this month.

For links and more information on what to do in the capital, visit wellingtonnz.com.

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