New Zealand is dotted with little townships that we usually drive straight through on the way to our next adventure. But in doing so, we’re often bypassing some of our greatest treasures. In our new Tiny Towns series, we visit some of Aotearoa’s small towns so you can plan a stop, show them your support, and discover their hidden gems. This month, we’re stopping in Foxton.
Over the past few years, the small Manawatū township of Foxton has been quietly reinventing itself as arts and heritage destination. MCD senior writer Claire Smith heads back to her hometown and is impressed with the changes.
I have a soft spot for Foxton and its nearby beach. I spent the best years of my childhood soaking up the fresh beach air and doing all the device-free things Kiwi kids did back then. It was, and still is, one of those iconic small New Zealand communities where you knew everyone, and everyone knew your mum, so you’d better behave. We rode horses on the beach, sunbathed on the scorching concrete at the school pool, and came home with scuffed knees from roller skating in the skating rink.
We moved away when I was in my early teens, so it was quite the ‘trip’ to stop by recently and see how much had changed and, better still, how much hadn’t.
Flax-stripping and fizz-making
As a kid, I remember the town being ‘famous’ for its tasty fizzy drink, Foxton Fizz. With its distinctive recyclable glass bottles and original logo, the drink has been around since 1918. Back then, New Zealand had more than 200 independent soda factories, most of them in small towns that made their own local recipe. But there was something special about Foxton Fizz, and before long it was being snapped up by lunch bars and hotels near and far.
Although Foxton Fizz is now produced in Putaruru, the old factory remains as the distribution centre. Today the fizz is available in all the usual favourites. My recommendation is the creaming soda – ideally in a big glass with a generous scoop of vanilla ice cream.
While the fizz definitely put Foxton on the map, going back a century or so it was better known as the flax capital of New Zealand. In the mid-19th century, there were around 50 flax mills in the region, each providing employment for up to 50 workers.
Flax was grown along the swampy riverbank of the local Manawatū River. The leaves were cut by hand, tied in bundles and taken to the mills. Here, they’d be processed into fibre to be exported to Australia, Britain, and North America where it was used to make rope and twine. You can learn more about Foxton’s flax-stripping history at the Flax Stripper Museum. The museum, located on Harbour Street, is home to working machinery, Māori flax crafts, and photos that offer a fascinating look back at some small-town New Zealand history. Definitely worth a look.
A celebration of heritage
Like many small towns, the niche industry that was once Foxton’s lifeblood became redundant many years ago. Others too have come and gone, such as the Feltex Carpet factory that sustained a strong workforce for decades, closing in 2009.
So, in true Kiwi fashion, the township has adapted and, by embracing its unique history, is becoming a characterful arts and heritage destination. This has been helped in a large part by a heritage restoration effort spearheaded by local restoration and history enthusiasts, Jim and Sarah Harper and Charlie and Chrissy Pedersen.
Jim and his wife Sarah have lovingly restored three heritage buildings in the township, and it all started in a most serendipitous way with the Foxton Racing Club, which Jim and his wife Sarah now call home. Jim and Sarah had noticed the derelict building while at a café across the road. They were living in Wellington at the time but were planning a move to Foxton. “We saw it, and both agreed it would be great if it was for sale,” says Jim. Fate was listening in, and the next day the building went up for sale for the first time since 1881.
The couple immediately snapped it up and got to work restoring the building and making it their new home. Since then, they’ve also purchased and restored the derelict building next door: a former 1870s print shop. “We figured if we bought it and restored it, we could use the building to store our collection of mechanical musical instruments – wind up music boxes, organs, and all sorts of unusual musical devices. It’s become a bit like a private museum that we open to groups occasionally.”
Most recently, Jim and Sarah purchased Sunnyside Cottage, the oldest surviving house in the Manawatū. The 1869 cottage – reputedly built from a single totara log retrieved from the Manawatū River – was originally located on a local farm. Before restoration, Jim and Sarah had it relocated to Harbour Street beside the Foxton Loop waterway. The couple has worked tirelessly to revitalise the cottage which is now known as Nye Cottage, and is a museum and gallery that pays homage to the region’s fascinating history. Plans are underway to add a Victorian garden and separate visitor accommodation.
Each of Jim and Sarah’s restorations has been for the love of local heritage. “I feel a bit like a social worker,” laughs Jim. “I love each of the buildings, and it’s been very satisfying to see them restored to their former glory.”
Charlie and Chrissy Pedersen also saw the potential in the main street’s neglected buildings. The couple had plans to build a modern three-storey home in the town but were drawn to the old 1913 BNZ building. They made an offer to the owners which was accepted, and they restored the building, returning the exterior to its former glory while transforming the interior into a modern and beautiful home. The Pedersens have also restored many other historic buildings in Main Street, including the Frasers, Perreau & Sons, and E Ball Saddler buildings.
For me, it was heartening to see the revitalisation of these historic buildings in my childhood home. Restorations like these are a wonderful way to honour and preserve the character and heritage of small towns like Foxton. As well as adding to our country’s history, they add vibrancy and a sense of pride and community for those that live there. And for that, I’m sure the locals are very grateful to the efforts of the Harpers and Pedersens.
Movie nights at MAVtech
Adding to Foxton’s art and heritage vibe, the MAVtech audio and visual museum is home to a collection of treasures including radios, projectors, phonographs, and cameras spanning 100 years of audiovisual history.
The museum building itself, originally the town hall, was built in 1911 and rebuilt in 1926 after being burned down. By the 1970s the building was rarely used and became derelict. Fortunately, it was discovered by MAVtech founder Peter Edwards and restored to honour its 1930s glory days.
MAVtech also includes a 200-seat theatre, and on the last Friday of each month (December excluded), it holds a film night – all done in traditional style, including using 35mm and 16mm carbon arc projectors to show old advertisements, short films, and a vintage movie from days gone by.
Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom
The centrepiece of Te Awahou Riverside Cultural Park, this beautiful visitor centre is a celebration of diversity, bringing together a Māori Museum of Arts and Learning, the National Dutch Museum, and the Foxton Heritage and Natural Environment Centre.
Inside, the Oranjehof – the Dutch Connection Centre – is bursting with colour and quirkiness, offering many fascinating insights into the area’s Dutch immigration and settlements. The Piriharakeke Generation Inspiration Centre tells the story of the local Ngāti Raukawa iwi history, reo and taonga with the use of digital displays, soundscapes, and art. The centre has lots of great hands-on displays and a gift shop for that special souvenir.
Arts and heritage aside, Foxton has plenty more to see and do while you’re there. Here are a few highlights.
One of the first things you’re likely to notice as you drive along Main Street is the gloriously prominent windmill that towers over all else on Main Street. Located next to Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom, the impressive, and fully operational windmill is a replica of a 17th-century Dutch flour mill and was the creation of Dutch immigrants, Dirk van Til and Jan Langen.
The Foxton landscape reminded Dirk and Jan of the Netherlands with its abundant greenery surrounded by water (and plenty of wind!), and the pair began hatching a plan to build the windmill in the 1980s. Good things take time of course, and the windmill was officially opened in 2003.
Having never been inside a windmill, I was curious to know what goes on in there. For a $2 donation, visitors can wander through and discover how the mill works, chat with the friendly guides, and enjoy the fabulous views over the city. Just one thing to note, there are several sets of stairs that take you up the various levels of the mill – these are extremely steep and come with a warning to descend backwards (easier said than done!).
On the ground level of the mill, there are goodies to be had. A tasty array of Dutch delights including sweets, cakes, and grocery items. Alongside the windmill is the Cafe De Molen which offers a fusion of Kiwi and Dutch cuisine. The café was closed on our visit, but I’ve heard the pancakes are very good.
Tour the town by horse
What better way to enjoy the rich history of this small town than by horse-drawn tram? The replica 1800s tram is built on a truck chassis and is drawn by a couple of very sturdy-looking Clydesdales. The tram runs on Sundays by a team of experienced volunteers, so your donations are appreciated.
Enjoy a relaxing lunch with Mrs Nubbs
Ask anyone in town where the best eats are, and you’ll likely be directed to Mrs Nubbs Café. Located at 72 Main Street, the café has a mouthwatering menu, a welcoming ambience, friendly staff and very good coffee.
Make a splash
If museums and windmills are a bit sedate for your liking, dial up the adrenaline with a spot of wakeboarding, stand up paddleboarding or kayaking at the Off The Loop. This awesome water park is New Zealand’s premier wakeboard cable park and is designed to offer something for all ages and stages. Lessons are available: why not give something new a try?
Hit the beach
About seven minutes’ drive from Foxton is Foxton Beach. Top tip – grab some fish and chips from Mr Grumpys (on Seabury Avenue) and head down to the beach for dinner. There’s plenty of parking beside the lifeguard building. The beach is popular with swimmers, surfers, and fisherfolk. If you plan a swim, take note that the beach does have rips, so be sure to stay within the flags.
Set up camp
The Manawatū Marine Boating Club on Foxton’s Hartley Street welcomes self-contained NZMCA members to park in the designated area of the car park (maximum of five vehicles). You can also enjoy a meal at the club restaurant which is open Friday and Saturday evenings from 6-8pm.
At Foxton Beach, you can set up camp at the local TOP 10 on Pinewood Road. Like all TOP 10 holiday parks, it has great facilities. It is also pet-friendly (call first though) and about 10-minutes’ walk from the beach and just a few minutes’ walk from the Manawatū River estuary – a haven for bird watchers. The estuary is visited by around 35-plus species of migratory birds including royal spoonbills, terns, and godwits.
Foxton Flax Stripper Museum
- Harbour Street, Foxton
- Open daily, 1-3 pm and at other times by arrangement.
- Avenue Road, Foxton
- Open every weekend 2-4pm. Entry by donation
Te Awahou Nieuwe Stroom
- 92 Main Street, Foxton
- Free entry. Guided tours are available for a gold coin donation
Off The Loop Park
- 10 Stewart Street, Foxton
Foxton TOP 10 Holiday Park
Manawatū Marine Boating Club
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