Claphams national clock museum

Time to relax: Exploring Whangārei

As the northernmost city in New Zealand, at the centre of the ‘winterless north’, Whangārei is often fine and sunny – but not always. Heather Whelan discovers some northern activities to amuse and delight, no matter what the weather’s doing.

Whangārei is a great place to visit on any day. Known as the city with 100 beaches, there’s no shortage of excitement, even on a less than perfect day. This subtropical region is a great place to relax, and it’s particularly well known for its vibrant arts community. So even if you’re here on the drizzliest of days, there’s still plenty to do.

Spend some time at Claphams Clocks

Whangārei’s Town Basin is a great place to while away the time on a cold or damp day. With time in mind, one thing you can’t miss is the giant sundial, the largest in the southern hemisphere, outside Claphams National Clock Museum. The sundial has a clever and unique design feature that allows it to be adjusted for daylight saving.

Inside the museum there are more than 2000 clocks and mechanical contraptions: the Clock Museum has one of the largest clock collections in the southern hemisphere. There are sun, sand and water clocks, cuckoo clocks, novelty clocks, clocks that make tea and beautiful antique clocks. This fascinating collection was started by Archibald Clapham in the early twentieth century. Archie displayed them in his home until 1961 when he sold 400 of his timepieces to the council. Soon after, the clock museum was established, moving to a purpose-built home in the Town Basin in the 1990s.

Visitors can take self-guided tours around the museum – there are plenty of signs to inform and explain – but a guided tour is recommended, as staff have a wealth of knowledge and are able to give hands-on demonstrations. Claphams Clocks will be celebrating their 60th anniversary in October, tied in with the Whangārei Fringe Festival, so expect to see guides in steampunk costumes and other fun activities.

Rolling in time

Adjacent to the museum is a large glass-sided structure: the Rolling Ball Clock. This special kinetic sculpture was unveiled in April and has been a magnet for young and old ever since. The Rolling Ball Clock is the culmination of 14 years of work by the About Time Team, a group of locals inspired by a much smaller rolling ball clock that is part of Claphams Clock Museum collection.

Inside the wave-topped 6m x 4m x 2.5m construction, a metal ‘Pedal Man’ cheerfully cycles, while 35 ‘bowling balls’ run on stainless steel tracks, looping the loop, through spirals, around banked corners and setting a Newton’s Cradle in motion. There are gear wheels, time indication racks and a control system that ensures that the giant kinetic structure keeps absolutely accurate time. A mural on the door, depicting Te Ika Roa (the Milky Way) in the night sky, illustrates Māori knowledge of seasonal changes.

Galleries galore

The Hundertwasser Art Centre is Whangārei Town Basin’s most dominant tourist attraction, its gold dome visible from all directions. It’s an absolute must-visit, with galleries showcasing Hundertwasser’s life and art, as well as the Wairua Māori Art Gallery, gift shop and Aqua Café. However, there are other galleries and shops clustered nearby that are also well worth checking out. Whangārei Art Museum houses a collection of heritage and contemporary art and also hosts exhibitions by local, national and international artists.

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Burning Issues Gallery has paintings, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery and glass for sale, while in the studio at the back you can watch the glass blowing. The heat generated by the kilns makes it cosy on the viewing platform, where visitors can watch owner Keith Grinter and his chief glassblower, Brendon Sole, in action. Multi-coloured tumblers, paperweights and other forms are produced from the molten glass and can be purchased from Keith.

The BACH, Basin Arts and Crafts House, is tucked behind Burning Issues. This is Northland’s largest artisan gallery, with displays of locally made products: everything from hats to soaps, from leatherwork to wooden bowls and more. Nearby Reyburn House also features work by local artists, with exhibitions changing monthly. Reyburn House is a category two listed building and one of the oldest settler homes in Whangārei. Surrounded by an old fashioned, cottage-style garden, it’s a charming spot to visit.

Relax in a café

When taking a break from the Town Basin’s galleries and shops and looking for refreshment, you’ll be spoilt for choice, as there are plenty of cafés and restaurants to choose from. The cafés have outdoor heaters and blankets to keep chills at bay, and one is bordered by pohutukawa swathed with twinkling fairy lights. There’s something wonderful about sitting snugly while enjoying lunch or dinner, whether it’s Spanish style tapas with cocktails or locally caught fish. The marina views are an added bonus.

Living Māori culture

Close to the Town Basin, along the Hātea Loop Walk, you’ll find the Hihiaua Māori Cultural Centre. This award-winning building houses workshop and exhibition space, aiming to create, display, preserve and promote Māori arts and culture. The gallery has featured works by weavers, painters and printmakers, jewellery makers and tā moko artists. A recent workshop celebrated mahinga kai (traditional food resources) and saw the building of an atamira kai (food platform) piled high with food baskets. Traditionally huge atamira kai were constructed for feasts; on this occasion workshop guests brought food to gift to one another.

Visitors to the Hihiaua Centre can view a carved waka in the adjacent whare waka (canoe shelter) and buy artwork and t-shirts made by local Māori artisans in the shop.

Hihiaua Māori Cultural Centre
Visit the award-winning Hihiaua Māori Cultural Centre

Tee off at Extreme Mini Golf

If you’re looking for something for the children, or the young at heart, head to Esports Gaming and try the extreme mini golf. This indoor venue has 18 holes, which take players through six themed, glow-in-the-dark areas. As you try to hit your luminous ball up slopes, round corners, past moveable paddles (think pinball) and into tubes, the scenes change from aliens to Alice in Wonderland, the circus, skeletons, fish and cartoon characters. A round for one to six players takes about an hour and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Journey To The Centre

For plant lovers

outdoor sculpture
The Quarry Gardens has a huge variety of plants

Botanica Whangārei is a little oasis near the town centre. It’s made up of a fernery, cactus house, Japanese garden and conservatory. On a chilly day the heat in the conservatory is as welcome to visitors as it is to the colourful, exotic plants. Palms, orchids and tropical plants flourish here, while a water feature and birdsong add to the ambience. In an adjacent room tall and unusual cacti mix with succulents and sculpture. As a contrast, the lush fernery has an otherworldly, primeval feel. It houses New Zealand’s largest collection of native ferns and contains a courtyard area with a waterfall and ponds, the largest of which is home to three eels. Botanica’s Japanese garden features a gingko tree and a big magnolia. Made to replicate a tea garden, it’s a peaceful spot to sit and admire the plants.

If it’s cold but sunny, the Whangārei Quarry Gardens showcases a huge variety of native and exotic subtropical plants. In what was once an industrial quarry site there’s now a flourishing network of gardens with a lake and waterfalls. Over the last twenty years volunteers have established collections of bromeliads and camellia, planted sensory and arid gardens and increased native bush on the steep slopes. Tracks and paths weave around the quarry floor and up the hillsides, giving different views at every turn. Quail Café at the Quarry Gardens is open 9.00am-3.00pm, Wednesday to Sunday for breakfast, lunch, coffee and tea. It’s a great place to relax after walking around the gardens or if the weather takes a turn for the worse.

Other options

If museums are your thing there’s plenty to see at Kiwi North Museum and Kiwi House. Just north of Whangārei there’s Hikurangi Museum (open Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday 10.00am-11.30am) and the Jack Morgan Museum at Hukerenui. Motorhomes can park overnight at Kiwi North and at the Jack Morgan Museum.

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If the weather cooperates there are always new things to see on the Hātea Loop Walk from Whangārei’s Town Basin. There’s Pūtahi Park beside the Hundertwasser Centre, landscaped with plantings, sculpture, mini trampolines and a water feature with lights and fountains. Close to the Bascule Bridge you’ll find a giraglob, a blue sphere that’s part of a global project to provide meeting places, and across the river there’s a camera obscura building.

Find more great Northland travel destination stories here.

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