Some cities shed their old skins to become shiny and new versions of themselves. New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, has long flung off its civil servant decorum, as the charms of its walkable inner neighbourhood, harbour-side plazas that stretch from one end of the city, via art gallery and museum to picturesque Oriental Parade, win over visitors.
Then there’s the food, from hole in the wall eateries on the inner lanes, seafood places in converted harbour sheds and fine dining (all those politicians have to eat somewhere), some very cool makers and crafters of fine coffee, chocolate and beer. And, of course, the movie makers have transformed their own corner of the city, welcoming international stars, directors and technical people to work in their friendly, compact neighbourhood, Miramar.
It’s not all about the inner city. Just before you reach the airport (or arrive directly from the airport), turn off to Miramar, a cool suburb that has become the heart of New Zealand’s film industry. Just ask Ray Letoa. The colourful guy (his outfits turn heads) who heads the bar at Coco at The Roxy.
Ray grew up in the next door suburb, and when he arrived back from years in London discovered that the village of his childhood, full of wide streets of 1920s and 30s bungalows, had transformed. At its heart was the 1928 deco movie theatre, a one-time shopping centre but long since boarded over. A NZ$6 million facelift by creative owners, Oscar-winning editor Jamie Selkirk and wife Ann, Weta Workshop founders Tania Rodger and Sir Richard Taylor, local foodies Valentina and Daminda Dias was bringing the old place back to life. Ray wanted to join them, helping cement the ‘burb’s movie-town reputation when the Roxy reopened in early 2011.
“Every cinema needs an ice-cream roller, and that could be me, I thought,” says Ray. “Five years on it’s ridiculous. We’ve really become a lot of self-sustaining parts. And the community knows the tourists, we’ll give you a big smile. It’s quite nostalgic to come back, but now with gravity-defying architecture. It’s a beaut story, and beaut to promote New Zealand produce.”
Ray’s done a little more than roll ice creams (though do ask for his grown-ups only Oamaru whiskey treat), scooping bartender of the year awards in New Zealand, and competing overseas.
For years dedicated The Lord of the Rings fans – and, more recently, Thunderbirds – flocked to tours of the Weta production workshops to learn how special effects, post-production, props and costumes came together for some of the world’s greatest movies. Now the film experience comes to life in the new-old art deco Roxy, in its two state-of-the-art cinemas and the glamorous Coco at the Roxy restaurant and cocktail bar in the lobby. Not surprisingly Weta’s set designers turned out authentic, opulent sculptures and finishes that recreate the golden age of cinema, winning awards for design and theatre experience.
Valentina Dias and her crew love to host walk-throughs of the building, engaging visitors with stories about the design and culture. As well as movies, there are kids’ shows, high teas, Peninsula platters that highlight local food producers and the annual Miramarvelous celebration of the local film, arts and café culture. And, during the Visa Wellington on a Plate culinary festival, there are food walking tours.
Ray and Valentina love to point visitors to their neighbourhood favourites that include cafés and bakeries. As well as Valentina’s old stomping ground of Polo, try the Park Kitchen, Alamir for its fresh Lebanese baking, fresh pasta and thin-based pizza from Merkato Fresh, the Greek deli Elysian, authentic Mexican by way of California from La Boca Loca and nose-to-tail eating at The Larder. Even the fruit and vege shop is good, Valentina says.
Ray brings his huge personality, great clothes and a raft of cocktail awards to make the Roxy Bar as one of New Zealand’s top five cocktail bars.
And, for non-food, non-filmies? Valentina points to the burgeoning vintage and crafts scene, a growing cluster of well-curated stores that give the city’s Cuba Street a run for its money. She holds a couple of summer craft markets at Roxy, and there is a self-drive Miramar Arts Trail around 16 artists and five galleries. As well as the studio tours, movie and architecture buffs can admire the striking architecture of Park Road Post.
Big young ‘un Ray heads to the local playgrounds to entertain the kids with old-school play equipment, or shows off the city from the hills of Mapua, just above Miramar. He points drivers from the city the long way around, through pretty seaside village of Seatoun (more good cafés and shops) and around the bays of Karaka and Scorching (with iconic Scorch-o-Rama café), past the old Army Base with its Chocolate Fish café (more cute playthings and stunning views back to the city from the beanbags on the lawn).
“The coastal scenery is fantastic – just watch out for the penguins,” Ray laughs. “Nothing could have aligned better to come home to.”