Whanganui is a favourite weekend getaway for people from all over New Zealand.
Visitor numbers are increasing as people learn more about a place once the fourth largest city in New Zealand. History and heritage sites fit comfortably next to funky cafés and galleries. A wonderful place to relax and unwind, the beaches are open and uncrowded with the surf and black iron sands encouraging a walk along the wilder west coasts.
The town’s history is obvious – curious and traditional architecture stands out and you’re immediately aware of the old buildings lining a pretty main street. A grand old lady is the Royal Wanganui Opera House located not far from a modernist Whanganui War Memorial Centre. The Durie Hill Underground Elevator and Memorial Tower gives you a glimpse of what’s changed, and numerous marae and the taonga (treasures) in the Whanganui Regional Museum hold a unique and spiritual history of the tangata whenua (people of this land). Aspire to the stars at the Ward Observatory or be happily grounded amongst Whanganui’s sense of living history.
The Durie Hill Elevator was built in 1919 to provide residents of the hilly garden suburb an easier way home from the growing city. A long and slightly spooky pedestrian tunnel takes you to the elevator where you’re welcomed aboard for the 66 metre ride. In the early days it was just a shilling for a child and another shilling for your bicycle as well. As you shake and wobble to the top keep in mind the spectacular panoramic views you and those early residents will share, and a little relief at not having to march up the 355 steps instead.
Looking out over the city, bridge, Whanganui River and out to the sea, you feel on top of the world with Whanganui and more stretched out before you. On a crystal clear day you can see the South Island, Mount Ruapehu and Mount Taranaki and wonder at what early travellers felt. If you’re willing to tackle the task, the Memorial Tower stands adjacent with a spiral of another 176 steps giving an even greater sense of circling in the sky. This tower is a real testament to the builders of the time and is an official Wanganui Memorial to those who died in the First World War. Constructed of cemented marine sandstone containing shell fragments ( simply called shellrock) from a nearby quarry, it is a solid reminder of the hardships and tragedies experienced for early pioneers. Thirty-three metres high, the rock is estimated to be more than 2 million years old.
Further down the road you won’t regret a tour of the unique and very special St Paul’s Anglican Memorial Church in Putiki. Intricately and beautifully decorated with Māori tukutuku and lattice designs and carving, the adornment speaks of the history of the church, the people’s faith and the sharing of Māori and European spirituality. For an uplifting morning, attend the Sunday service. Local residents host guided tours from Thursday to Sunday during the summer.
Artistic and creative in all the arts from an early age, Whanganui still weaves significant ties with artists, art collections, music and performance associations and clubs. In March every year, 300 and more resident artists open over 70 studios to welcome and encourage visitors. Roam, be delighted, amazed, inspired and intrigued by the longest list of eclectic, modern and traditional mediums of painting, drawing, print making, jewellery, glass art, mixed media, sculpture, pottery and ceramics. You won’t miss out at other times of the year as several galleries and studios are always open and nicely within walking distance of the River Traders and Whanganui Farmers Market.
Every weekend our riverbank hums with people visiting the local markets. Chill out and have an easy brunch, pick up some fresh fruit and vegetables and a few of the local delicacies. Hunt for a
special memento or discover a unique piece of retro art that you didn’t know you were dying for. Rain or shine the markets are always on and buzzing with local history and stories.
You don’t have to drive far to get here: It’s an easy and pleasant drive within 3 hours for the lower North Island and if you’re coming from up north, a quick hour’s flight from Auckland. It’s actually quicker to drive from Auckland to Wellington via Ohakune and
Whanganui than it is to travel down SH1 – it's prettier, too. Get to know your way around by calling into the i-SITE Visitor Centre. Book a guided walking tour or do it yourself to really feel the flavour of Whanganui’s monuments, places and buildings. There is a story around every corner. Take your time. Relax in the river city. Amble down the boardwalks and say “Kia Ora” as you meet the passersby. Whanganui is big enough to entertain yet small enough to keep it real. We’re just waiting for you to say hello.