Each time I go to Whanganui, I discover something more that I love about this quintessentially New Zealand town. It’s a flourishing city that is undoubtedly in a growth phase, not only attracting increasing numbers of tourists, but also new residents.
And it’s easy to see why. From its scenic river, parks and gardens and rugged West Coast beaches, to its thriving art scene and relaxed shopping centre, there’s much to see and do.
I love the fact that Whanganui is big enough to spend a solid week exploring, yet it’s small enough to drive from one end to the other within about 10 minutes (without ever having to worry about traffic) – a little more if you want to explore the outer reaches.
Whanganui is famous for its long and winding river, Te Awa o Whanganui, New Zealand’s third-longest. From its origins high up on Mount Tongariro, then winding south through to the Whanganui National Park, the river and its beautiful surroundings attract visitors from all over the world.
There are a number of operators who offer canoeing, kayaking and jetboating experiences on the river, and although I haven’t managed to get out on the water yet, it is firmly on my ‘to-do’ list for next summer.
During our latest visit, we headed out to the Bason Botanic Gardens (about 10km from the town centre). The gardens are popular with orchid enthusiasts, being home to the most extensive public collections in New Zealand.
There are six distinct gardens to explore, from the Exotic Conifer Arboretum to the Native Bush and Wetlands. Bring a picnic or make use of one of the well-maintained free barbecues.
The gardens also have an orienteering and a Frisbee course, and if you’re there in mid-autumn, bring a bag and forage for chestnuts! Whanganui is home to a couple of great beaches.
Kai Iwi Beach on Rapanui Road (about 14km from the centre of town) is a lovely spot for families during the summer, and equally worth a visit in winter, especially if you enjoy collecting driftwood.
There’s a children’s playground there also, plus a toilet block and barbecues. Castlecliff Beach is also a short drive from the city, with a playground, skate park, and holiday park nearby.
For a more wild and woolly experience, South Beach is well known for great fishing and surfing. Whatever time of year you visit, Virginia Lake is simply beautiful, and the perfect spot to stop and enjoy a picnic.
A stroll around the lake takes around 45 minutes; the paths are smooth and easy-going and take you through tranquil bush, over little bridges, and past pretty gardens. Next to the lake are the Winter Gardens. The
indoor Art Deco-style conservatory has regularly changing displays of colourful plants and flowers, and outside is an Art Garden where you’ll discover all sorts of quirky art and sculptures.
There’s also a cafe next door, plus a large walk-through free-flight aviary which is home to over 30 species of birds, and a children’s playground alongside. Self-contained motorhomers are able to stay overnight in the carpark.
And at night, the Higginbottom Fountain, which sits in the middle of the lake, is a beautiful sight when it puts on a dazzling display of changing colours.
Works of art
Whanganui is renowned for its glassworks, with hundreds of resident artists and several studios within the city. Head down to New Zealand Glassworks (Rutland Street), where you can take a free tour and watch glass artists at work (a truly fascinating experience), or try your hand at making your own paperweight.
Workshops are held every Saturday and take around 30 minutes. On our latest visit, I noticed new artwork popping up around the streets. As it turns out, Whanganui held its inaugural street art festival, Whanganui Walls, in March.
Local and international artists took up their paintbrushes and spray cans and began transforming walls and alleyways around the town. And the result is pretty awesome. Eight walls have been painted, each within walking distance of each other, around the city. Very well worth checking out.
Fancy a bite to eat?
When we travel, I like to keep our cafe spending to a minimum, so when we do spend, it better be good! On my first visit to Whanganui several years ago, it was challenge to find somewhere that fitted the bill, now I feel spoilt for choice. Here are some of my tried-and-true favourites:
The Springvale Café, Springvale Garden Centre, Devon Road – this cafe has won a few awards over the years, and it’s easy to see why – the menu is amazing, the coffee is excellent, and the staff are friendly. And of course, you can enjoy a wander through the great garden centre and gift shop afterwards.
Mud Ducks, Taupo Quay – located next to the river and offering lovely views from the outdoor deck, Mud Ducks does a delicious range of cabinet food and offers a great menu too. I can recommend the creamy mushrooms. They’re open until 8pm, so it’s a nice spot to call into for a late afternoon treat or a relaxed dinner.
Cinnamonui, Victoria Street – Oh. My. Gosh. I can’t explain how excited we were to find this new offering. Who doesn’t love a cinnamon scroll, after all? Cinnamonui opened in early April and is the creation of Fiona Hannah and Paula Theron.
The pair had been selling their scrolls at the Whanganui markets on Saturdays for a few months, which were hugely popular. So it was a big decision to throw in their jobs as managers at Farmers to open their new cafe. Neither had worked in a cafe before, but it seems
to be paying off as word gets about of their mouth-watering scrolls, including vegan and gluten-free options. And they are so good! Soooo good! River Traders Market, Quay Street
– If you’re in Whanganui on a Saturday morning, be sure to head to the downtown riverbank on Moutoa Quay for the weekly market to enjoy a range of artisan foods, as well as arts and crafts, and fresh fruit and vegetables.
Rainy day options
It’s always good to have a few ‘rainy day options’ up your sleeve when you travel. The Whanganui Regional Museum on Queens Park fits the bill, with two floors of history to peruse.
Particularly noteworthy is The Lindauer Gallery, which features stunning portraits of prominent Maori leaders by renowned artist Gottfried Lindauer.
Another good spot for a wander is the Sarjeant Gallery, temporarily located on Quay Street while the original building in Queens Park undergoes a massive $35 million redevelopment.
Celebrating its centenary this year, the gallery was opened in 1919 thanks to the generosity of Henry Sarjeant, who established it “as a means of inspiration for ourselves and those who come after us”.
And inspiring it certainly is. We were lucky enough to see Under the Sun, a magnificent chandelier that is a collaboration of 40
of Whanganui’s glass artists.
- As a Motorhome Friendly Town, Whanganui is a great spot for campers – both self-contained and freedom.
- You’ll find dump stations at:
- Springvale Park (London Street side)
- Wanganui East Club, 101 Wakefield Street
- Berdeck Village, 152 Taupo Quay
- Recycling and rubbish disposal is available at the Whanganui Resource Recovery Centre on Maria Place Extension.
- There are several designated ‘overnight parking only’ areas near public toilets at 71 Saint Hill Street, and 71 Victoria Avenue.
- A popular spot for freedom camping is on Anzac Parade, where new toilet facilities have just been completed.
For more information on where you can camp in Whanganui, check out visitwhanganui.nz.