Food, Culture, Burlesque, and a Girlfriend Named Itchy – the Joys of Wellington

After spending the morning padding around a perfect black sand beach in the entertainingly named town of Whanganui, we felt that we were missing something.

On the black sand beach at Whanganui

On the black sand beach at Whanganui

The sand was amazingly fine - like powdered sugar, but black.

The sand was amazingly fine – like powdered sugar, but black.

Where are all the sword swallowers, we thought?

Okay, we didn’t think that, but we were ready for a little city life to balance all this fresh air. We were pointed toward Wellington, which people say reminds them of San Francisco. We were hoping for a little culture, maybe a nice meal. Oh, and while we’re at it, maybe we’ll take in a burlesque show.

Okay, that’s not what we were thinking, but how do you pass up the chance to see a Kiwi burlesque show? It turns out that there are countercultural hipstery types wherever you go, and New Zealand is no exception. As anybody who’s been to Brooklyn in the past decade knows, there has been a revival of semi-ironic versions of old burlesque. On the last Saturday night of the month, Wellington puts on its version, which may not put it in the big leagues, but which was worth an evening just for the cultural weirdness of it all.

The evening was hosted by a British woman who called herself Miss Behave, and she got the festivities going by shoving the stem of a fake rose through a hole in her tongue and twisting it about. She followed that by swallowing a sword (although the retired burlesque performer seated next to us said that Miss Behave once swallowed a table leg with the table still attached). Later in the show, she set a man’s head on fire.

She tossed it to a petrified close-up magician, whose hands shook so much he almost dropped his playing cards. After him was a woman folksinger who looked like she got cold feet in the middle of her last haircut – only half her head had been attended to. She proceeded to warble a song of love and loss that was clearly about a former lost love – a girl called Itchy, which sent the mind spinning in deeply unfortunate directions. At least she wasn’t called Stinky. Then came the David Lynch moment when Voluptuous Twinkle took the stage. VT did her best to keep step to Barry Manilow’s Copacabana up to the moment when she revealed what may be among the world’s largest pasties.

Next was the most unfunny standup comic I’ve ever been subjected to, a woman from our own San Francisco. To say that she died onstage would be unfair to the dead.

The hero of the night was a scatological poet. With his beautifully sculpted Smith Brothers beard, suspenders, and touring cap, this guy riffed on New Zealand niceness, men who fancy his girlfriend, and he concluded with the funniest dirty poem I’ve ever heard, whose topic I’ll only reveal in person.

It was funky, weird, and like any funhouse, lots of fun if you don’t expect the comics to be funny, the strippers to be sexy, or the magicians to be magical. Keep up the good work, Kiwis!

Wellington is a fantastic city. For starters, it’s a fine place to park your RV. The city council, in its wisdom, runs an RV park right on the waterfront within easy walking distance to almost everything you want to see. The waterfront is full of restaurants, bars with beanbag chairs, and really terrific museums.

The Wellington waterfront ain't beanbag - wait, yes it is.

The Wellington waterfront ain’t beanbag – wait, yes it is.

The Te Papa Museum is the national museum of New Zealand and has sections on natural history, social history, modern art, among others. And it’s free! So is the Museum of the City of Wellington, which had a fascinating film on the sinking of a ferry between the islands (which we’d be taking the next day!), and a year by year history of the city. The City Gallery museum (also free!) featured a retrospective on the work of Yvonne Todd, New Zealand’s version of Cindy Sherman. We just stumbled in, not knowing what the place was, and were delighted.

On to the food!

Our first stop in Wellington was the Mt. Vic Chippery, the best fish and chips place I’ve ever been to. You have a choice of four or five different fishes, a bunch of frying styles (tempura, beer battered, panko coated and a few others), and a choice of fries. They also have a bunch of dipping sauces. People who have difficulty making decisions should stay far away. As it was, we turned to the tatted fellow manning the fryer who recommended the gurnard (also known as the sea robin), a bottom feeding fish with a skull and wings (seriously) cooked tempura style, and holy christmas if it wasn’t the best damned fish and chips I’ll ever eat. The fry guy told me about the fish’s taste for what he called “apex crustaceans” and pantomimed how it flaps its wings. How can you not love a place like this? We ordered two pieces, which turned out to each be the size of a surfboard, and made quick work of them. If they sold beer it would be one of the world’s great meals.

Breakfast in Wellington is similarly exciting. The food was as good as the service was bad at Duke Carvell’s, but I didn’t care. I had a dish of baked eggs, cherry tomatoes, roast red pepper, black pudding, chorizo and mozzarella, with the fruitiest, hoppiest beer I’ve had since New York and I didn’t care if the server never came back with the bill. The next day we went to the breakfast place next door, Floriditas, which was just as good, except with nice, smiling waitstaff. In two days we had two better breakfasts than we had in eleven years in Palo Alto. Sigh.

We had a smashing three course bistro menu at Logan Brown, which is housed in a converted 1920s bank. There was a perfectly cured salmon appetizer with a horseradish panna cotta, of all things, and a lamb entrée that was good because it was great, but bad because it’s hard to imagine that we’ll have a better one while we’re here. On our last night, we had the Sunday Roast dinner at the Boulcott Street Bistro. It was a perfect porchetta-like roast pork, with a crackling, sticky pork skin and a fatty, juicy inside. Bring on the Lipitor.

Porky, fatty, crispy, yummy.

Porky, fatty, crispy, yummy.

The short of it is that they can cook here, and how.

Oh, and the glorious thing about English-speaking countries is that they show English-speaking movies! We stumbled into the Embassy Theater, a 20’s movie palace that has two cocktail bars and will bring a cheese plate to your seat. Why, oh, why does one have to travel to New Zealand to get a decent moviegoing experience? Oh, we saw Birdman and The Imitation Game. Liked ‘em both.

There’s Wellington for you – funky, weird, yummy. They know how to show a movie, how to make breakfast, and how to fry fish. They’re still working on the burlesque, though.