Sheltered swimming beaches and bays make up the southern Hutt Valley along with a rugged and beautiful south coast with three lighthouses to explore
Māori legend says Wellington harbour used to be a lake teeming with freshwater fish and native birds, which was opened to the sea when two taniwha (mythical sea creatures) broke through the cliffs to the other side.
The coastline is still famous for its wild natural beauty and abundant wildlife, best explored on the waterfront.
The East by West Ferry for many lucky locals is their everyday commute. The views on offer of the bays and Wellington city skyline as the ferry whisks you across the harbour make it worth a trip in its own right, but it’s also the best way to explore some great spots around the harbour.
The short but sweet trip takes around 25 minutes between central Wellington and the Eastern Bays, where you’ll find sheltered beaches for swimming, some beaut bushwalks, and excellent eateries and cafes - all nestled at the bottom of lush green hills.
This ferry will also take you to Matiu/Somes Island, a small island in the centre of Wellington Harbour with a fascinating history. Kupe, who is said to be one of the first voyagers to reach New Zealand, originally named the island ‘Matiu’ after one of his daughters, and the ‘Somes’ part is from a director of The New Zealand Company, who organised the waves of British immigration to the region from the 1840s.
The island was home to two pa, or fortified Māori villages, and in 180-ish years since European arrival in Wellington it’s been used to quarantine new arrivals (of both the animal and the human sort), has hosted anti-aircraft guns, and was even a prison during wartime. These days, it’s a lot calmer than this tumultuous history suggests – Matiu/Somes Island is a valuable reserve for rare native birds and wildlife, including little blue penguins and prehistoric tuatara lizards.
Hop on the ferry over to this small island and spot the unique creatures that call it home – you’ll have to be searched upon arrival to make sure there are no stowaway pests in your gear. There are a series of small loop tracks around the island, each offering a different view around the surrounding harbour and across to the shores of Wellington City and Petone. Those who fancy an overnight adventure can camp or stay in the simple accommodation on the island for a truly peaceful retreat.
When you get off the ferry in Days Bays, wander along the seaside neighbourhoods complete with cafes and picnic spots aplenty. Hire a bike from Wildfinder Pencarrow and pedal the rugged 8km coastal track to Pencarrow Lighthouse – New Zealand’s first permanent light. If you prefer a bit of assistance, e-bikes are available.
When you see how wild the landscape is here, at the narrow entrance to the harbour, it’ll make sense that this was the first lighthouse built in New Zealand. A second was built below, having previously been home to the country’s only female lighthouse keeper (and her six children), this historic spot is now a great place to rest for a picnic. If your thighs are feeling up to it, you can continue on your bike or on foot to the wetlands of Parangarahu Lakes.
The eastern shores of Wellington Harbour is home to three lighthouses, the third at Baring Head which is an area that is often recalled as the birthplace of bouldering – a sport making the most of the steep and craggy rocks on the rugged shores. Boulders were sourced from here to help engineers reclaim the sea as land for the construction of Wellington Airport.
While the raw beauty of this area might have you feeling like you’re in the isolated back-country, you’re not far from the luxuries of the city, craft beer bars to relaxing accommodation where you can have a well-earned rest after a day of exploring.