There are underrated towns and cities in New Zealand and then there’s Whanganui. Part of the entire reason for the existence of the Roxborogh Report is to highlight the overlooked and the underrated, but I’m not sure I’ve ever written about a destination quite as misjudged as this city of 45,000 in the western lower North Island of New Zealand.
I loved it. I didn’t just like it and I certainly wasn’t reduced to mere tolerance; I genuinely had a great time in Whanganui and had that feeling like you’ve just discovered a rip-roaring secret and you can’t wait to let the cat out of the bag to anyone and everyone with a set of ears.
Only not everyone seemed quite ready to listen. “Why would you want to go there?” was a repeated question I got, with more than one person suggesting it was a “hole”. This despite the fact they’d never been there.
So why the disconnect between the image of this genuinely beautiful, historic, artistic town and the reality? Perhaps a certain high profile former mayor who may’ve talked tough on things like gangs and the letter ‘h’ was bad for nationwide PR irrespective of whether he was good at the time for his local constituents.
Then there’s the small matter of well-publicised decades of economic doldrums that hit Whanganui post WW2. Older generations of Kiwis remember this, while their children mainly recall that perma-angry mayor constantly battling gangs, talkback callers and the alphabet. From the outside looking in, it didn’t matter what age bracket you were in: Whanganui was in the economic poo, it was riddled with crime and was a community whose spirit was so fragile it could be decimated by a solitary letter.
None of which could be regarded as anything resembling accurate in 2019. Given Whanganui isn’t a part of the main Auckland-Wellington trunkline, you have to make a point of going there. Another reason all those misconceptions were able to flourish. So what can you expect if you do decide to make that point?
Some of the best heritage architecture in New Zealand. Wide beaches with dramatic cliffs. A thriving art and cultural scene with some sensational new street art. Outstanding riverside walking, running and cycling tracks. Proximity to primeval bush, including what is reportedly the country’s largest rata tree. An enormous partly fairytale-themed children’s playground, long regarded as up there with anything Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch (or anywhere else in New Zealand for that matter) has to offer. A collection of excellent restaurants and cafes. A crazy century-old pedestrian tunnel and underground elevator. Fractionally more annual sunshine hours than Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and a whopping 400 more than nearby Palmerston North (2100 vs 1700).
It’s not hyperbole to say that the Whanganui CBD on a blue sky day resembles a kind of idyllic American movie set. Ironically, those tough economic times – now long in the past – meant Whanganui’s glorious old buildings survived the wrecking balls that hit other, more prosperous parts of the country. From the gorgeous 850-seat Opera House (opened in 1900) to the famed Sarjeant Gallery (as pictured with the snow-capped Mt Ruapehu in the distance, built 1912), Whanganui gives more than a few clues that it was once among the more significant cities in New Zealand.
Indeed, if you go back long enough, Whanganui was the country’s fifth-largest urban area, with a busy port, multiple industries and with strong ties to the surrounding Maori communities. Those ties remain today and this multicultural city and her river are still of significant spiritual importance to many. An artist I met spoke of that spiritual connection and told me there’s something about Whanganui that gets under your skin: “If you don’t feel it you’d have to have a pretty hardened heart”.
I had two nights at the Rutland Arms Inn, a hotel with a history going all the way back to the mid 1800s. Right in the CBD, close to the river, above a memorabilia-drenched pub and restaurant (those big bacon and eggs breakfasts come highly recommended) and with some smartly refurbished rooms, this is another landmark of the city. Ask for a room overlooking the square and a view of one of the brand new street art murals that popped up at the beginning of the year.
The Rutland Arms Wanganui Restaurant does excellent pub fare, but there are several other options in the central city to be sampled, namely Frank, a fine-dining operation in an old bank building with a sizable cocktail menu too.
See & Do:
- Take a riverside loop walk from the city, crossing over the Dublin Street Bridge, walking back towards town through Kowhai Park. The playground – complete with Humpty Dumpty, Goldilocks, several dinosaurs, a flying fox and miniature railway – is worth the hype, and the setting by the river with all the huge trees is fantastic.
- Before returning to the CBD over the Whanganui City Bridge, walk through the surreal, century-old, 213-metre long Durie Hill Tunnel and catch the underground lift to the top of the hill. If those views aren’t enough, climb the 176 steps of the nearby war memorial tower for the best lookout of the city.
- Check out the street art and all the galleries (walking maps available at the i-Site), including the relocated Sarjeant Gallery while the original building undergoes earthquake strengthening. To get the best photos of the original Sarjeant Gallery, walk up the slopes of Cooks Gardens (where Peter Snell broke the world mile record in 1962) where if you’re lucky, you’ll get that unbeatable backdrop of the snowy slopes of Mt Ruapehu.
- See if there’s a show or concert on at the Opera House. I stopped by one night and saw about 20-minutes of an orchestra and loved the design, the acoustics and the history.
- Cruise upriver on the Waimarie Paddle Steamer, designed and built in 1902, damaged by an accident and then a flood in 1952, decades spent derelict before being salvaged in the 90s and relaunched as a popular tourist attraction in the year 2000.
- Take a drive along the stunning Whanganui River Road that runs adjacent to the river and takes you through small Maori settlements and offers lookouts like the Aramoana Viewpoint (as seen in the first photo in this article).
- For a beach with waves for surfing, an expanse of flat sand for walking and spectacular cliffs for your Instagram page, Castlecliff Beach is just a short drive from the city centre.
- The aptly named Bushy Park is 100-hectares of fenced-off, predator-free forest. There are 3.4-kilometres of walking trails and the highlight is undoubtedly the 43-metre high ‘Ratanui’ tree – said to be the largest rata in New Zealand. While at Bushy Park, do pop your head inside the lovely old Bushy Park Homestead – a luxury mansion dating back to the early 1900s. Accommodation is available at a very reasonable price.
- The further you drive along the Whanganui River Road the more wild the bush becomes and the options for hugely rewarding bush walks are extensive. If you’re just after something relatively quick but still substantial enough to burn some calories, try the Atene Viewpoint Walk (about 90-minutes return from the carpark). For something bigger there’s the full Atene Skyline Track which is more in the ballpark of 6-8 hours return.
- Whanganui National Park is 742-square kilometres of wild New Zealand forest. One of New Zealand’s least accessible national parks is also one of the most adventuresome, most commonly done by doing a several day canoe trip from Tauramanui towards Whanganui city. One day!
So there we go! Definitely underrated and definitely worthy of you making a point of going there. Enjoy the photos, happy planning and may your misconceptions of Whanganui soon be a thing of the past.