Wellington styles itself as the finest little capital in the world, and the key to living in the city is to make the most of its relaxed, human-scaled environment. Most destination guides you will read focus on the city's compactness, which makes it easy to access the main tourist attractions that are clustered around the harbour. But if you make the decision to live more permanently in Wellington, and your work is located in the CBD, its relatively small scale and the close integration of domestic and business accommodation is also a big advantage.
I moved to Wellington a couple of years ago, and like most parents, the decision about where to locate my family was strongly influenced by the quality of the schools in the area. We ended up living in a suburb that gave us automatic access to an excellent boy's secondary school and great little primary school, and was also zoned for a girl's secondary school with a reputation for academic excellence, for when our daughter was older - nothing beats planning ahead!
The other key advantage of this district was that we could live close enough to the city centre to walk to work - an easy downhill stroll in the morning, and then use the cable car or bus home in the evenings. Public transport in Wellington is used by a greater percentage of the population than in any other New Zealand city. It is cheap and, though plenty of people moan about it, more reliable and friendly than the service I was used to back in the UK. A 'snapper' card system, a bit like a red plastic credit card, that you can get loaded with credit at most newsagents and supermarkets, can be used to pay for your fare, by swiping it as you get on and off the bus, instead of ordinary cash.
It was the easy availability of public transport, and the close proximity to work that made it possible for us to dispense with owning our own car. This reaped savings that we used to offset some of the costs incurred by the high rental value of property in the inner city suburbs. Property in Wellington is not cheap and this is, at first, bewildering, for, in comparison to the brick or stone solidity of the housing stock in England, the wooden dwellings with their tin rooves, perched precariously on stilts on the edge of the Wellington hills, look too temporary to be worth so many thousands of dollars.
After a living for a while in Wellington, I began to understand how appropriate these building materials are for its climate and geology. Fierce gales often whip through the Cook Strait, lashing the housing stock with eighty mile an hour winds. Earthquakes frequently rattle the glass in the windows. The houses, for the most part, simply flex like old boats, riding out the storm or the tremor, and seem to incur little in the way of structural damage. Be warned though, these same building materials are frequently uninsulated. Very few homes have any kind of central heating or double glazing and so the winter months can be uncomfortably cold. It pays to stock up on woolen blankets to drape round you as you watch DVDs in the evening and to budget for some high energy bills that might be incurred by inefficient oil-filled radiators - often the only source of heating.
City centre living and working also eliminates the need to commute. I really appreciate not having to spend the equivalent of a working day a week sitting behind the wheel of a car. Plenty of people do choose to live out of the city, at the top of the harbour in the Hutt Valley, or in one of the pretty suburbs along the Kapiti coast where property is significantly cheaper, but traffic volumes to both these areas are high at peak times and there is only one main road in and out of the city. If there is an accident and, sadly, this does seem to happen quite frequently, the traffic backs up quickly and you might be stuck in a queue for hours.
Because it is easy to walk down to the harbour side at the weekends, as city dwellers we can also take advantage of the range of civic attractions and events that are free or very cheap to access. The City library, like most libraries n New Zealand is excellent, and very well used by all ages, cultures and social groups. Te Papa, on the waterfront, is a world-class facility with a changing programme of exhibits. There are vibrant Sunday markets, galleries and several good quality second-hand bookshops to while away leisure time. But the most distinctive feature of Wellington has to be its cafe society - over 400 restaurants and cafes in all, ranging from the arty and eclectic to those providing haute cuisine. Some are have their own bakery, many are French or German, most serve utterly delicious food and the finest coffee in the world.
The weather is at best unpredictable, but when the sun does shine, there is nowhere better to be and so there is a "seize the day" mentality that informs the way people use the city. Oriental Parade on any sunny weekend is alive with joggers, cyclists and skateboarders. The key to living in Wellington is to relax, and savour its simple pleasures.