Whanganui is a favourite weekend getaway destination for people from all over the country. The river city is an easily accessible two-and-a-half hour’s drive from Wellington, an hour from Palmerston North, and just over two hours from New Plymouth.
Escape for a long weekend, visit the city, and be delighted with the friendly atmosphere, places to see, and plenty of things to do. A favourite for many is the Whanganui River Traders market. Beautiful displays of fresh, locally grown fruit and vegetables, goat cheese, hangi, puha pesto, and local art and craft entice you to buy as you wander along the waterfront soaking up the scene. You can even get a chic, Russian-style possum fur hat or a colourful hand-made flax hat (potae). The market is just the right size according to both visitors and locals. People have time to talk and help you out. Everything is so affordable and such good quality.
Just around the corner is the newly re-opened NZ Glassworks with open kilns and glass art. Stunning art statements and glass pieces evoke the appreciation of Whanganui’s glass artists in all the different styles. It’s not hard to while away an hour just watching these talented and highly skilled artists creating delicate beauty as they labour at the hot kilns.
With more than 400 resident artists and the largest group of glass artists living and working in Whanganui, art in all its forms is easily found. Galleries and studios feature glass, painting, sculpture, photography, ceramics, textiles, and indigenous arts and crafts. Among them, Space Gallery on Taupo Quay showcases many of the artists who make Whanganui one of New Zealand’s creative hubs.
“We exhibit a great range of exciting and innovative works,” owner/curator Sarah Williams says. “Since opening our doors in 2012, we have been heavily booked with shows, demonstrating the sheer strength of the arts community in Whanganui.” Artists also love sharing their skills and passion for the medium they specialise in.
Sarah is also the event co-ordinator for the Artist Open Studios event taking place from 25 March to 2 April this year. With a combination of workshops during the week and open galleries and studios on the weekend, this is a rare opportunity to see the inner work places of more than 70 artists.
Art workshops are also offered throughout the year by locally based, nationally, and internationally recognised artists. If you fancy a taster in kiln glass creations, David Traub takes one-day workshops where eight participants make a coloured glass tile, two slumped glass bowls, and glass brooches. “I cut up glass components, melt them in a kiln, fuse them, and make something from that fused piece of glass. It’s a process that, with a ceramic kiln and some other equipment, you could do at home in a garage,” David says.
For the mosaically minded, Louise Herdmann runs popular workshops and Marty Vreede’s paper-making courses bring a whole new dimension to corporate team building. Marty’s cottage industry sends paper made from harakeke (flax) all over the world. He says it’s a contemporary and sustainable use of traditional materials.
“People work with an indigenous material that’s part of what makes us New Zealanders and is part of Te Ao Maori (the Maori world). We use everything the weavers (of harakeke) don’t—the tip, the butt, the spine of the plant, and all the dead, old or spotted leaves.” Along with paper making, Vreede says they teach history, tikanga (customs), and how Maori and European perspectives fit into the modern world.
Visitor numbers in Whanganui are increasing as people learn more about the city that was once the fourth largest in New Zealand. With such an extensive heritage from both the Whanganui River iwi and early European settlement, the history of the region blends seamlessly with modern cafes, a vibrant shopping centre and beautiful scenery.
The Sarjeant Gallery building sits majestically at the peak of Queens Park while undergoing earthquake strengthening and potential extensions. Meanwhile, Whanganui’s contemporary art collection is displayed in changing exhibitions in a temporary location down by the i-SITE.
Walking the main street, Victoria Avenue, you’ll see and experience some great boutique shopping. Don’t forget to look up and see the wonderful building facades and heritage reminding you of Whanganui’s great history in New Zealand.
Remember to get outside to see the best of this wonderful place. Stretch your limbs and challenge yourself, whatever your abilities, with cycling paths, the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, mountain biking, scenic and tranquil walking paths, and of course, all the Whanganui River attractions.
Take a jet boat journey with the traditional riverboats including New Zealand’s only coal-fired paddle steamer, the PS Waimarie, or book a canoe or kayak trip. The motor vessel Wairua is a smaller craft compared to the paddle steamer and gives a more intimate experience.
For those who don’t want too much adventure, a stroll along the boardwalks and paths of the Whanganui River will take you past loved public art each with a story to tell. Giant-sized striped HB pencils, a brick train on end, a bronze kereru, and a favourite, ‘Mountains to the Sea’, donated in recognition of the Whanganui Maori Wardens. With three main camping grounds, people are spoilt for choice. The Whanganui River Top 10 Holiday Park is spacious with lots of green open space. Situated not far from the town, the park nestles on the bank of the Whanganui River and also offers bike and kayak hire for those that want to do a little rather than a lot.
The Whanganui Seaside Holiday Park is also a big favourite with a hop, skip, and a jump to Castlecliff Beach. Beautiful sunsets and early morning walks with Ivan Vostinar’s expansive pottery and ceramics studio just up the road and coffee at The Citadel cafe.
Ten minutes out of the city is Mowhanau Holiday Park at Kai Iwi Beach, billed as one of the best west coast beaches in the region. Safe swimming, good fishing, picnic areas, and barbecues—stay a while and unwind. Visit the many parks and gardens at this end of the city. The simple serenity, variety, and range of trees, flowers, and shrubs manages to energise and relax at the same time.
There is always something new to discover when visiting Whanganui—for a small place, there is a lot packed in.
The people here love their home, their river, and the life they lead in the city, in the country, and in the river valleys and marae. There’s a certain bliss in Whanganui.