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How Cuba Street became the heart of Wellington's bohemia

The Bucket Fountain adds more than a splash of colour to Cuba St.

A once-seedy precinct has become an eclectic mix of cafes and hip retailing, its history celebrated in a new book.

Cuba St is the soulful, grimy heart of the capital’s bohemia. Running 1km from the old shoreline to the Brooklyn foothills, it’s a vivid promenade, scented with curries and noisy with buskers and the hiss of espresso machines.

Home to tattooed baristas and laptop-lugging architecture students, this was once a precinct of seedy pubs, soldiers' cottages, rickety boarding houses, brothels (some operating as cigar stores), billiard halls, shooting galleries and music halls. Then, as now, there were all-night coffee shops.

Read more in The Cuba Street Project, an atmospheric, beautifully crafted book, soon to be published by Random House. It’s a celebration of the numberless cafes; stellar restaurants like Loretta, Rasa and my daughter’s favourite, Ombra; the off-beat record shops; book and fashion outlets and vegan “unbakeries”.

Author and blogger Beth Brash, especially, underlines the street’s long love affair with coffee, a ritual playing out daily at outlets such as Fidel's at 234 Cuba St – “workers … stopping to pick up their flat-white-to-go from Fidel’s street-facing window with the speed and ease of a marathon runner swiping water bottles mid race”.

The relationship to coffee gathered pace in 1926 when Alfred Fagg started roasting New Zealand’s first beans for espresso. He sprinkled beans on to the footpath outside his shop at 60 Cuba, so when crushed by passers by, the aroma would be released.

About 200m up the road is Cuba Mall, a place crowded with life night and day. Plum Cafe, at No 103, with its outside seating and snappy service, is one of the street’s most reliable.

As you sip your latte, check out the Bucket Fountain featured in the spoof TV show Wellington Paramormal, the sculpture covering up “a gateway to hell”. Elijah Wood famously urinated into its splashy coloured buckets while here for the filming of The Lord of the Rings.

Cafe culture took hold here in 1940, when refugees from Europe sailed in and insisted on real coffee. It was reinforced by the coffee-sipping American forces, who came in their thousands during World War II.

But if you want to understand the legends of Cuba St, call into Midnight Espresso at No 178 (open until 3am). The cafe that began pouring seriously strong coffee into the capital’s bloodstream opened in 1989 and still offers a killer Havana brew.

Midnight’s former owners, Tim Rose and Geoff Marsland, helped revitalise the street, creating its cool identity. Midnight Espresso became an essential late-night 1990s destination for visiting Christchurch hipsters such as Jeremy Taylor. He stayed, and you’ll still find him behind the counter at Slowboat Records at 183 Cuba St, a great place to rummage.

Brash’s photographer sister, Alice Lloyd, snapped Taylor for The Cuba Street Project, vinyl albums stacked behind him.

He says of the street: “It is so much my world that if I head to Lambton Quay or The Terrace, I feel like I am in another city.”

This article is sponsored by Wellington Tourism.