Books and Brulee in the Kiwi Capital

An evening of happy accidents in Wellington

At first glance the town centre is disappointing. Dull shops and fast-food outlets jammed together, charged with a neon emptyness.

But the last of the sun is dancing on the harbour and our collective hunger has us on edge. In the thick of it is a proud, columned facade concealing a small foyer and elevator. It's early, so no one stands guard, and the evening air is starting to bite. It's not a difficult decision.

The lift to the second floor is the real thing, the kind that clunks, grinds and falters, and requires some force to manually open the double doors. Alighting from the ride, I'm hearing Ella Fitzgerald, but I can't place the smell. There's food in it, and something else.

The room is heavy timbers, candles and red-wine velvet. Generous dark panelling is offset with Victorian street lanterns, which lend a celestial glow. The couches, many set back in alcoves, are deep and forgiving, and the light is low enough for those wanting to keep their secrets safe.

And books. Hundreds, probably thousands of them lining the walls, toppling over edges, stacked against doors, rising from the carpet to form irregular towers. The deal here is a book for a book, which keeps the numbers constant.

A quick scan reveals a pile of Agatha Christies, biographies of Churchill, Garbo and Glen Miller, a history of aircraft, and masses of pulp fiction. It's a delightful mess and there is a musty comfort to the room as we fall into a corner booth.

Orders are swiftly taken by a waitress who moves with effortless economy in a dress of perfectly cut gingham. The menu is tapas and we choose at random. Crumbed cheese is devoured, there's pork and fiery dips.

And churros. This Spanish cliche, saved by an exquiste chococolate sauce, is followed by creme brulee of taste and texture that leaves the preceding selections in mute protest.

The food is gone and we are restless. Our bill arrives, between the covers of Candide, and we're back on the street. It's heaving.

Groups of boys bonding aggressively over a box of wine, teenage girls squeal in a collective hysteria while adjusting impossibly short skirts, and grizzled older men, who've seen it all before, listing with a studied dignity.

Our next choice of bar could not be worse. A fearsome pulse reaches out and, crossing the threshold, I know we won't last. We seek solace in absinthe and turn as one for the exit.

Rather than consign the night to history, a taxi-ride to the lookout is agreed upon. While waiting for a car, we share a hookah pipe with three unassuming men seated outside a kebab store, Their warmth is mirrored in the smoke and shifts the evening a up a notch.

The ride is a gem. And what zest and freedom from the driver! He takes to it as though our request is the first of its kind. It is now well past midnight and the temperature has dipped to a numbing low. Winding towards the summit the city teases with a glimpse on every second or third corner.

By now the absinthe and hookah smoke have combined deliciously, and we are caring little for the meter. At the top the driver waits as we pile out and rush the stairs to the lookout. The air cuts my cheeks like a razor and works its way through every seam of my coat.

Wellington is set like a jewel between hill and harbour. The reflected skyline is framed by long piers, the water a syrupy darkness. Its suburbs cling to the bay's edge in a curve of phosphorus.

For my eyes, now streaming from the icy air, it's almost too much to absorb. I am seldom impressed by views taken in an altered state at one in the morning, but at this moment am sweetly satisfied.

The airport is visible too, runway lights like a fallen Christmas tree. I'll see it again in the sunlight as we head north from a town that asks little but delivers plenty.

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