North Island playground
For lovers of art, culture and Maori history, Whanganui is worth a visit.
F or decades, Whanganui has been one of New Zealand’s North Island tourism playgrounds for a variety of activities given the climate, the beaches, the wonderful Whanganui River and the Whanganui National Park. Whanganui is also a beautiful place to visit for those interested in art, culture and both early European settler and Maori history as it was once the fifth largest city in NZ Tourism began in the early 1900’s as thousands of passengers travelled from Europe to take a riverboat journey up the Whanganui River into the interior of the North Island. The longest navigable river in New Zealand was famous for its picnic excursions, a floating “hotel” and a fleet of boats run by Alexander Hatrick. The “Rhine of New Zealand” became accessible to everyone: Wealthy tourists, settlers and farmers in the interior and Whanganui citizens.
The district enjoys a temperate climate with average temperatures of 9.4degC in winter and 18.2degC in summer, with an average 2100 hours of sunshine per annum – slightly above the national average. Whanganui is also very central and easily accessible for most: It is within three hours drive for the lower North Island from most cities and an hour-long flight from Auckland. There are few places where a significant river holds a number of tourism and community attractions, a selection of beaches are within a 10 to 20 minute drive and Mount Ruapehu ski field is only an hour and a half away. The heritage of Whanganui is obvious when visiting. A “must see” is the unique and very special St Paul’s Anglican Memorial Church in Putiki. Intricately and beautifully decorated with Maori tukutuku and lattice designs and carving, the adornment speaks of the history of the church and the surrounding area. Guided tours take place Thursday to Sunday during the summer and all proceeds go towards fundraising for the ongoing maintenance and upkeep of the church. The Whanganui River Road and Whanganui Regional Museum provide a unique viewpoint of early Maori settlement and their life along the river – Te Awa O Whanganui. Original pa sites, numerous marae and points of significance, battle standpoints and the shared history of the many tribes can be found. The Whanganui River is possibly the only river in the world to be granted legal status as an entity in its own right and is recognised as the home and heart of the Maori people here. The river is of huge importance: It is their ancestral river, their arterial highway and a source of physical and spiritual sustenance. With a large number of Maori in the district, Whanganui is the largest bi-cultural city in New Zealand and becoming even more diverse as migrants from around the world settle here. A visit to the Whanganui Regional Museum enables the sharing of Maori life and travel by foot and by waka (boat) throughout the seasons. Taonga (treasure) is displayed, featuring the hinaki (eel traps), tools, weapons, baskets and jewellery significant and important to life. It is not unusual to be greeted cheerfully as you wander along the river boardwalks or over sand dunes with “Kia ora” (hello) from all ages and smiling faces. Whanganui still has significant ties with artists, art collections, music and performance associations and clubs. Several galleries and studios are open and within walking distance of the River Traders and Whanganui Farmers Market held every Saturday morning rain or shine. The Whanganui Vintage weekend is held in late January with steam engines, vintage and classic cars, costume and a soap box derby over a three-day weekend. Music abounds in all forms, with several choirs, bands and the Whanganui Musicians Club – home grown music of all genres and often performed in local clubs, bars and restaurants. If you get a chance visit the Savage Club, an “out there” retro-styled funky BYO venue for musicians and visiting bands where all are welcome to join in, dance and soak up the atmosphere. It’s only open the first Friday of every month unless a touring band is coming through. Cycling trails run alongside the river, mountain bike tracks circle two coastal dune lakes and forest areas and you can visit the 100-hectare bird sanctuary protected from predators, Bushy Park. Bushy Park is also home to the Southern Hemisphere’s largest rata tree, “Ratanui”, which has a girth of 11 metres. So, if you haven’t been to Whanganui before, don’t you think it’s time to plan a visit?