Capital Gains in Courtenay Place27/03/2020
Capital Gains in Courtenay Place
By Ewan McDonald
Wellington likes to see itself as a little different – pushing the boundaries as the nation’s café, cultural, dining, events and oh, if you’re interested, political capital.
Fair enough. For here’s another reason that it’s an outlier on our tourism scene. While it’s not the biggest draw for overseas visitors – Stats NZ figures show its international guest nights fell 6.5% to 853,990 in the year to June 2019 – Kiwis can’t get enough of the place. Stats says 1.9 million locals visited in the same period, a 7.3% increase.
That’s good news for the local economy. While major tourism centres Auckland, Christchurch, Queenstown and Rotorua welcomed fewer guests, Wellington hotel occupancy rates edged up to 80%.
As Auckland – ahead of the 2021 America’s Cup – and other centres invest in high-end hotels, Wellington prefers to shore up its numbers of beds with properties catering to New Zealanders heading there for concerts, sports and events or corporate (think: government) business.
In recent years, led by the Chow brothers, the business plan has been to convert unused office blocks into new accommodation. There have been good reasons for this: ringed by hills and the harbour, land is in short supply and seismic issues drive up construction costs.
The new Oaks Wellington hotel has found a neat way around these issues. The 226-room, 4.5-star property is a multi-million-dollar conversion of the former Colonial Motor Company headquarters in Courtenay Place.
For many decades the capital’s tallest building, the nine-storey tower was a pioneering vertical factory where New Zealand’s Ford cars were assembled from knocked-down packs from 1922-36. The crates were opened on level 7 and finished vehicles were driven out the ground floor by my dad and his older brother.
Seismic issues nil, location perfect. Culture vultures will appreciate that Te Papa, the Opera House and National War Museum are minutes walking away.
You could call it the newest attraction in Wellington and you could call it the oldest – and you’d be right both times. Zealandia is an extraordinary vision: to restore a city valley, once the capital’s water supply, to the forest, bird, fish and animal life of 700 years ago – before humans arrived. And they are prepared to take 500 years to do it. The 225ha, world-first conservation project has reintroduced over 20 species of native wildlife back into the area, some of which were absent from our mainland for over 100 years. With its 8.6km fence keeping out introduced predators like cats, dogs, stoats and possums, birds such as tūī, kākā and kererū are now common around central Wellington. Inside the sanctuary, little spotted kiwi, takahe and tuatara thrive. Hint: take a twilight or evening tour. Our birds are shy.
Attractions such as the waterfront museums, parks and eateries, Harbourside Market, Embassy Theatre, the weekend farmers’ market and boho Cuba Mall are in the ‘hood’. St. James Theatre (currently under reconstruction), home of the Royal NZ Ballet and Courtenay Place’s restaurants and bars are literally on its doorstep.
The new hotel’s much-travelled General Manager, Jamie O’Donnell, describes his baby as offering genuine hospitality. “It’s going to be very authentic. The team is going to be bringing experiences from all walks of life and culture.
“We will very much embrace Wellington and the location. We bring a whole new flavour to this part of town.
“We’re not quite up at the 5-star luxury experience which I think is a good thing. We’re a very solid value proposition for the various clients that we’ll have, whether it be sports events, conferencing, working with Te Papa or the Opera House.”
The Airporter bus stops at the front door or it’s a 15-minute taxi ride round the bays if traffic obliges. You enter the tower, its industrial façade now covered in mirror-glass, through a reception area featuring photos of its early car-plant life (I looked but didn’t see dad or Uncle Mac).
The one and two-bedroom rooms and apartments come in more than 30 different configurations. All feature Smart TVs (guests can stream directly from mobile devices); keyless entry via smartphones; and free high-speed Wi-Fi. Apartments have modern kitchenettes.
Interior rooms are 25sq m; executive rooms 4sq m larger. Rooms have city, harbour or Mt. Victoria views; corner rooms on the top floor have wraparound balconies. The largest is a generous 42sq m plus balcony.
In keeping with O’Donnell’s ‘very solid value proposition’, you’d describe the rooms as contemporary business style rather than, say, chic resort.
Décor is clean and modern; furniture and tones in greys, black and white. The bathroom, with rainfall shower, is a good size and well-lit (a personal bugbear when shaving without one’s glasses) though I’m not sure all room-sharers would appreciate the floor-to-ceiling glass partition. The frosting covers only certain intimate areas.
Full marks for the superb bed, quality linen and pillows, matched in the towels and bathroom necessities though.
O’Donnell selected local fair-traders Flight coffee and Antipodes amenities, though he wants to move up to more eco-friendly dispensers as soon as possible. Customers are requesting hoteliers to get rid of those small, one-time-only plastic tubes.
For business visitors, there are four conference rooms from 24-68sq m (guess why they’re called Cortina, Fairlane, Falcon and Mustang) and a small gym.
It might be a brave move in this neighbourhood but the hotel has invested heavily in its first-floor restaurant and bar, Oak & Vine, overlooking Courtenay Place.
Executive Chef, Kit Foe, whose reputation in Wellington stretches back 20 years, bolstered at high-end resorts in Australia and the Pacific, cleverly references his Samoan heritage, Mediterranean influences and the region’s land, sea and garden produce into fresh and modern dishes.
Craft beer fan O’Donnell has made sure that some local brews are on tap. Don’t be surprised if the food and coffee offering expands as ground-floor shops beside the reception area become available.
My verdict? This is a superbly sited, well-pitched and highly attractive addition to the capital’s accommodation options. If I were heading to Wellington for a match at the Cake Tin, a concert or a business trip, it’d be top of my list.
Oaks Wellington Hotel
89 Courtenay Place, Wellington 6011
Reservations: 0800 004 285
Reception: +64 4 801 0390
When I rule the world – or just our country – anyone wanting a NZ passport or citizenship will have to prove they have spent at least a day in our national museum. Since its 1998 opening, Te Papa has been the Big Mama of the Kiwi experience. Absorb Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War, where Weta Workshop immerses visitors in the Anzac campaign through eight ordinary New Zealanders, frozen in a moment of time and history. Younger visitors will appreciate Wonderland, an interactive exhibition that celebrates Lewis Carroll’s stories of Alice and the Looking Glass through picture books, magic lanterns, films and TV programmes, ending in a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party that comes alive with digital wizardry.