The river city of Whanganui is awash with artistic endeavours. Lucy Corry takes a look.
If you’re the sort of traveller who likes to tick boxes, Whanganui has a lot to offer. It’s well-located (tick), blessed with gorgeous natural features (tick), benefits from a temperate climate and has been recognised for its built heritage (tick). But if you’re the sort of traveller who lives for the thrill of the unexpected and beautiful, and the joys of art and design, the River City can satisfy all those needs too.
Let’s start with the box-ticking first. In 2019, Whanganui was named New Zealand’s ‘Most Beautiful City’ at the annual Keep New Zealand Beautiful Awards. The city’s Ridgway Street, which features heritage buildings dating between 1860 and 1960, a park, a community garden, flower beds, a three-storey mural and a live music stage, also won the award for Best Street. Then in late 2021, Whanganui was named New Zealand’s only ‘City of Design’ and added to the UNESCO Creative Cities Network. This endorsement recognises the city’s commitment to placing culture and creativity at the heart of its development and to sharing knowledge and good practices.
While it’s been no secret among New Zealand’s artistic community that the city is a great place to live, lovers of art are slowly realising that this also makes it a brilliant place to visit. Here’s how to make the most of an art-filled sojourn.
I am the river, the river is me
Whanganui’s greatest work of art is the river, Te Awa O Whanganui, which starts high up on the slopes of Mount Ngauruhoe. The river, which in 2017 was granted the same legal status as a person in recognition of its importance to local Māori, winds through the Whanganui National Park on its way to the Tasman Sea. At 290km, it is the longest navigable river in New Zealand. The river is intrinsic to Whanganui’s history, especially for the Te Ātihaunui-a-Papārangi iwi, who have lived along its shores for more than 40 generations. The relationship between local Māori and the river is summed up by this whakatauki (proverb):
“E rere kau mai te awanui, mai te kahui maunga ki Tangaroa, Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au.”
“The great river flows from the mountains to the sea, I am the river, the river is me.”
European settlers first came to the area in the 1840s, adding to the river’s importance as a trading route.
While it’s possible to drive along the river from Whanganui to the tiny settlement of Pipiriki, passing through the even smaller Jerusalem (home to writer James K Baxter and notable French nun Mother Suzanne Aubert at different periods), this journey is not recommended for large vehicles. However, you can get a taste of the past (and amazing views) by taking a trip on the Waimarie, New Zealand’s only remaining coal-fired paddle steamer. The Waimarie operates between October and May, with regular themed sailings and event cruises.
If you prefer to drive across the river, it’s bisected by three bridges in the city itself (Dublin Street Bridge, Whanganui City Bridge and Cobham Bridge) which are all easily navigable.
Art for art’s sake
Don’t know much about art but know what you like? The region’s newly-created Coastal Art Trail is a great way to dip in and out of the local scene, showing you how to create a self-guided map of more than 20 local galleries that you can visit any time. Some of these galleries are venerable stalwarts of the local scene (like the The Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua Whanganui, or the Whanganui Regional Museum); others are box-fresh showcases for work so contemporary the paint has barely had time to dry. And while visitors are still expected to respect the artworks, there are lots of chances to experience art in different ways. At NZ Glassworks, for example, visitors can watch glass artists at work and make their own glass paperweights (this is hugely popular, so be sure to book first). At Paloma Gardens, just a short drive out of town, you can wander the ‘rooms’ of Nicki and Clive Higgie’s extraordinarily beautiful and surprising garden. Here, ‘plant-based’ works of art are joined by ceramics and sculptures.
If you’re travelling with an art-averse companion who complains that galleries make them sleepy, introduce them to art by stealth in the city’s art precinct. Here, the regular Whanganui Walls festival turns blank spaces into public art murals that remain open to view.
If you’d like to meet the names behind the work, head to Whanganui in March for the annual Artists Open Studios event. As the name suggests, more than 150 local artists working in glass, furniture, printmaking, ceramics, jewellery and painting will be opening the doors to their studios over two weekends.
And if you prefer art on the page or the stage, the Whanganui Fringe Festival and Whanganui Literary Festival will be happening in mid-February 2022.
If you find that viewing art stimulates the appetite as well as the mind, rest assured that Whanganui scores highly on the edible art scale too.
Article is a one-stop shop for lovers of coffee, small bites, records, curated vintage clothing and locally produced artworks. Fun fact: Article sources its coffee from The Devil’s Cup, a boutique coffee roastery down the road in Patea (home to the iconic Patea Maori Club).
If you’re out at the beach at Castlecliff, don’t miss Citadel café. This community hub serves up locally-legendary burgers, gorgeous salads and great coffee. Back in the city, the excellently-named Porridge Watson is a defiantly independent craft beer bar with a relaxed vibe.
For a classic Kiwi pie (no road trip is complete without one), head to Butchart’s Home Cookery in Gonville. Don’t be fooled by the old-fashioned decor, this bakery is up with all the trends. While they do an excellent job of traditional pie favourites, Butchart’s also turn out award-winning vegetarian pies.
Where To Stay
The city environs are home to three well-equipped camping grounds in charming locations. If you do like to be beside the seaside, head to either The Whanganui Seaside Holiday Park (near Castlecliff beach) or Kai Iwi Beach Holiday Park at charming Kai Iwi.
Active visitors, especially lovers of swimming, kayaking, fishing and biking, will enjoy Lakelands Holiday Park (near both Lake Wiritoa and Araheke Mountain Bike Park). If you like to be away from it all, Bushy Park offers campervan sites within the grounds of the historic homestead.
Where to stay
- Bushy Park, 791 Rangitatau East Road, Kai Iwi bushypark.nz/homestead
- Kai Iwi Beach Holiday Park, 66 Mowhanau Drive, Kai Iwi Beach. kaiiwibeach.co.nz
- Lakelands Holiday Park, 316 Kaitoke Rd, Kaitoke lakelands.co.nz
- Whanganui Seaside Holiday Park, 1A Rangiora St, Castlecliff whanganuiholiday.co.nz
Freedom camping is also welcome in defined locations around the city. Locations include:
- Durie Hill Elevator (Blyth St)
- Moutoa Quay (between i-site and Whanganui Riverboat Centre) – excluding Fridays
- Babbage Place car park (near Virginia Lake)
- Kowhai Park (near Riverland Family Park)
- RSA (170 Saint Hill Street)
- Springvale Park (entrance near London Street)
- Wanganui East Club (101 Wakefield Street)
- Taupo Quay between Wilson St & Heads Rd
What to do
- Coastal Arts Trail: coastalartstrail.nz
- Open Studios: openstudios.co.nz
- Waimarie: Whanganui Riverboat Center 1A Taupo Quay waimarie.co.nz
- Whanganui Fringe Festival: writersfest.co.nz
- Whanganui Literary Festival: writersfest.co.nz/
Eat & drink
- Article: 20 Drews Ave
- Butchart’s Home Cookery: 91 Tawa St, Gonville
- Citadel Cafe: 14 Rangiora St, Castlecliff
- Porridge Watson: 30 Drews Ave
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