For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

The Pulse of Petone

Standing on the storied Petone Foreshore, Wellington Harbour was at its photogenic best, under an unblemished bluebird sky, with a gentle northerly zephyr fanning proceedings in the soft winter sunshine. Drinking in the dazzling panorama and elemental glory, adjacent to the strikingly weathered Petone Wharf, history was on my mind. I reflected on how it was on this sandy beach that our first planned European settlers came ashore in January 1840, spilling off the New Zealand Company’s Aurora.

I ventured inside the adjoining Petone Settlers Museum, a gorgeous little repository of nation-building history, ensconced within the creamy-hued grace of Petone’s former bathing pavilion. A replica of the prow of Aurora, juts out from the exterior. Officially known as the Wellington Provincial Centennial Memorial, this elegant art deco landmark was constructed as a centennial gift in 1940. Today, the building does a sterling job in collecting, caring for and sharing Petone’s social history.

I learnt about the significant Te Atiawa chiefs who presided over the area in the 1800s, including the great chief Te Puni who helped the early settlers by supplying food and building houses. I also snatched a flavour of the gruelling conditions those early settlers endured at sea, in the replica of a ship’s steerage cabin. Early setbacks such as flooding and earthquakes prompted many of those early arrivals to lay their roots in Thorndon.

What really struck me was the museum’s outstanding showcase of the multitude of factories that took shape in Petone, from car assembly plants, woollen mills and meat works to tobacco, toothpaste and soap factories – and the convulsive effect of their systematic closures in subsequent decades. The museum does a fine job in hero-worshipping Petone Rugby Club, a fertile nursery for future All Blacks – and one of the world’s leading clubs since 1885.

A recent eye-catching addition, coinciding with last year’s 145th anniversary of local Petone company Hills Hats, is the “Hatmosphere” exhibition. Powered by the factory family in Petone, Hills Hats was originally established on Lambton Quay, but the factory and shop is now under the command of Simon Smuts-Kennedy, just down the road. Their client base is staggering, including the Police, Defence Force, the All Blacks, Fat Freddy’s Drop and Ladi6. Hills Hats is firmly part of the fabric of Petone, with a hat to suit every occasion. Their fabulous Fitzherbert St store is a retail destination in its own right, just off Jackson St.

When I lived in Wellington more than 20 years ago, Petone’s historic main street looked dishevelled and down at heel, with a procession of shuttered stores – a casualty of the sinking economic fortunes from mass-closures of factories and surging unemployment. Fast forward to today and Jackson Street’s mojo has hit fever pitch in its remarkable revival. Take my word for it – you’ll struggle to find a more instantly irresistible street, throbbing with a profusion of boutique retail and dining temptations.

The beating heart of Petone village is on a roll with an unmistakeably infectious spirit, spilling out of the largely low-rise heritage buildings that flank both sides of the street. Roaming Jackson Street is like delving into a sweeping and eclectic emporium of art, eats, creativity and home comforts. You’ll be awed by the trove of independent stores touting high-end fashion, vintage gems, antiques and home wares. It’s a distinctly unique retail experience, from Hills Hats to Knocks & Knockers. But the Jackson Street Heritage Precinct is not just a tractor beam for shopaholics but foodies too, because the street boasts a gob-stopping array of 72 eateries!

Aside from the long sprawl of Ponsonby Road, no other street in New Zealand serves up quite as many eats as Jackson Street. Accentuating its allure is the fact that the spree of offerings is more tightly bound, sandwiched within an 800 metres-long stretch, compared to Ponsonby Rd which is twice as long. Catering to all budgets and tastes, it is like the world on a platter, with a giddy profusion of ethnic cuisine, including Korean, Italian, French, Vietnamese, Thai, Turkish, Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Malaysian and vegan on offer.

It’s not only eateries with an international focus. Petone’s melting pot of cultures are served by a specialist range of stores. A star specimen is On Trays, a deli-styled shop stocking and serving a tantalising range of international goodies, headlined by their specialist range of South African products. Hello biltong! Mrs Ball’s Chutney, Rooibos Tea and Ouma Rusks are all big-sellers. On Trays has been a Petone mainstay for over 20 years, with local legends, Steven and Valda Scheckter, at the helm. You’ll love trawling their shelves, drooling over the food exotica like Pashmak (fairy floss) and Rahat from Iran, and the finest Iranian Saffron.

There’s pomegranate molasses, rose and orange water from Lebanon and Dulce de Lece from Argentina. On Trays claim to stock the widest range of local and imported cheeses in New Zealand. An essential experience is to order up some goodies from Scheckter’s Deli, where the star of the show is the Reuben, a grand assembly of New York pastrami, sauerkraut, swiss cheese, piccalilli, duck fat spread, toasted Sourdough Caraway Rye and a sour pickle. It was the best sandwich of my life. While you’re at the deli, order up some boerewors sausage. Your tastebuds will sing.

Window-browsing in Jackson Street is a formidable battle of the wills, with enticements aplenty testing your self-control. The Chocolate Story is hard to pass by, where fine chocolates and macarons are made by hand, utilising French and European inspired recipes.  Another destination store is The Dutch Shop for the best biscotti. It’s sold alongside a spoil of delights like salty liquorice, crunchy speculaas (spiced Dutch biscuits) and Gouda with nettle, cumin and pepper.

An ebullient venue that personifies the spirit of the street is Queen of Jackson, a quirky craft beer bar and eatery with an East London design aesthetic. Sidle into one of the large comfortable booths or long leaners and soak up the sociable vibe, while snacking on the sharing plates or downing a dessert cocktail. In a street loaded with coffee roasters, Origin is my pick of the bunch.

Heritage nuggets abound along Jackson Street, from the clocktower and Lighthouse Cinema to the Old Police Station & Jail Museum. As a heritage-listed precinct, the colour palette of buildings is heavily restricted. Then there’s the wonderful spring water fountain, Te Puna Wai Ora, where an urn-like cascading sculpture by Louise Purvis marks the site. You’ll regularly see people from around the region filling containers with free, untreated, artesian water from the spring, which began its life in the Tararua Mountain Range, filtering through gravels and sand under Taita Gorge into the Waiwhetu Aquifer, taking up to 200 years to emerge out the natural spring. Like Jackson Street itself – it tastes so good!

Back on the foreshore at Petone, there’s a lot of buzz about another Wellington seaside café. Courtesy of the same folk who conceived the celebrated Maranui Surf Lifesaving Café, there’s a Petone sibling within its stable. Seashore Cabaret is a café housed in the Petone Rowing Club. Its name pays homage to its previous life as a dance hall. Not dissimilar to its Maranui sister, Seashore Cabaret is a playful fiesta of colour and vitality. The café is decked out with colourful tiled walls, vintage-style signage, industrial style lighting and booths that have been painted to look like rugged seaside bach walls. But best of all, the space is packed out with old school pinball machines. That’s if you can tear yourself away from those dreamy harbour and city vistas!

After filling my belly far too generously, I feasted my eyes on some compelling artworks at The Dowse Art Museum, just up the road in central Lower Hutt. Celebrating its 50th anniversary year, this free-to-enter contemporary art gallery has fostered an international reputation for edgy and high-quality visitor experiences. The regularly changing exhibition programme features contemporary visual art, fashion, jewellery, multi-media and ceramics. “The Dowse” is no stranger to courting controversy. A decade ago, protests were sparked by the museum’s women-only exhibition, that depicted Muslim women preparing for a wedding without wearing their head scarves. It has one of New Zealand’s largest and significant public art collections, numbering over 2000 items. One of the current exhibitions on display is called Candy Coated.

From skull lollipops to disaster-inflected dessert commercials, the exhibition features a thought-provoking pick ‘n mix of artworks exploring our addiction to sugar and how it permeates every aspect of our lives. It’s thoroughly stimulating. Dark and unsettling things that lurk beneath the candy-coated surface! Also at The Dowse, see the first-ever major survey of jewellery by Dunedin artist, Jane Dodd, whose body of work examines our impact on the natural world.

And definitely check out the techni-coloured exhibition on homegrown graffiti, which tells the story of TMD (The Most Dedicated) Crew, our most renowned international street art collective. Featuring the work of over 20 of its members, the exhibition delves into the origins and evolution of this graffiti super group and showcases some of their incredible contemporary works. The exhibition drew some local backlash with concerns that it glorifies vandalism – something The Dowse adamantly rejects.

Treat yourself to a wild and wonderful break in the Wellington region this winter. Make your first port of call the official website, chock-full with constantly updated trip inspiration.

I tripped around the Lower North Island in an Avis rental car. Avis has just been named New Zealand’s most trusted rental car brand, for the fourth year in a row, by Reader’s Digest. Alongside great deals, enjoy Digital Check-in to minimise physical contact with rental staff and Risk Free Bookings allowing you to change or cancel reservations, without fees, for rentals due to start before 19 December 2021.