Whanganui is an attractive city on the west coast of New Zealand’s north island.
It’s not always discovered by visitors, as it requires a detour from the main north-south state highway. But it’s well worth the effort. There’s lots to enjoy in the city itself and in the surrounding countryside. Home to many artists, Whanganui gained official status as New Zealand’s only international UNESCO city of design in November 2021.
This post was originally published in September 2019 and has been updated.
Full disclosure: I’m biased. I happen to be married to a Whanganui man. We visit the city regularly and it’s always a pleasure. The countryside, wide open spaces, the grapefruit and quinces growing in my mother-in-law’s garden and the glimpses of snow-capped Mount Ruapehu, have created many precious memories over the years. That said, I’m certain I would love the place even without the personal connection.
Whanganui extends over the hills surrounding the river of the same name, and spreads along the flood plains to the coast. The river tends to be very calm at this point, and its reflections of the city are picturesque both day and night.
1. The Whanganui River – Te awa tupua
The Whanganui River is one of the great rivers of New Zealand, and the third longest in the country. It rises on the northern slopes of Mount Tongariro and flows some 290 kilometres before reaching the sea at Whanganui. The upper reaches of the river lie within the Whanganui National Park. Visitors can enjoy walking, hiking, cycling, canoeing and in some parts, jet boating.
In pre-European times, there were many Maori villages dotted along the river. It is therefore of special historical and spiritual significance to Maori, and in 2017 was given special status as a legal entity in its own right.
The river is a key feature of the displays at the New Zealand Pavilion at Expo in Dubai, which is taking place over 6 months in 2021 and 2022. A small group from the local Whanganui iwi (tribes) invited Emirati officials to join them for a dawn ritual to bless the pavilion.
2. vintage transport
The paddle steamer PS Waimarie first operated on the river in 1891, carrying passengers, mail and cargo. Today, you can visit the Waimarie museum to learn more about its history. You can also take a cruise on the restored vessel, which is the only coal-fired paddle steamer in New Zealand.
The cruise takes about 2 hours and is a very pleasant way to enjoy the scenery along the Whanganui river. There’s commentary to tell you about the significant sights, and you can buy food and beverages on board. The cruise season runs from October until May.
Another cool vintage transport experience is provided by Whanganui Tramways. On certain days and times, you can take a ride on their fabulously restored vintage tram, Mable – also known as the no. 12 tram – along the riverbank tracks.
Whanganui was the first provincial town to have its own tramway network, which operated from 1908 until the 1950s. Mable was built by Boon and Co, Christchurch, in around 1911, and is thought to have operated on the no. 12 route between the central city and the outer seaside suburb of Castlecliff.
The Tramways trust also owns a 1950s vintage double decker London bus. They sometimes offer a combination ticket featuring rides on the bus and the tram. Keep an eye on their Facebook page for current offers and ride times. Meanwhile, you can get a little glimpse of the tram and the Waimarie from this wee video by Discover Whanganui.
3. Blue duck station
Blue Duck Station is a sheep and beef station on the Whanganui River in the region known as the King Country, a rustic and beautiful area. The enterprising and environmentally-conscious owner has developed an eco-tourism business on site. This allows visitors to experience adventurous outdoor activities, get close to wildlife and enjoy fresh produce from the farm.
Various conservation projects are under way, including habitat restoration to help preserve blue ducks and kiwis. The Chef’s Table, a popup fine dining restaurant featuring local ingredients, was such a success that a permanent version was built. Since opening in early 2021 it has been fully booked, resulting in the season being extended by 2 weeks.
After winter closure for maintenance and improvements, the Chef’s Table is open once again. Reservations can be made via their website.
I had the good fortune to try the food at a catered event, and it was outstanding.
4. Heritage buildings
One aspect of Whanganui which makes it stand out from other cities is its historical buildings, particularly in the elegant Victoria Avenue, the main shopping street and the heart of the city. The most attractive architecture, in my opinion, is from Victorian times, but there are also some interesting brutalist 1960s buildings.
5. Durie Hill tunnel and elevator
Durie Hill is an attractive suburb overlooking the river and the city. In 1919, the elevator and subway tunnel were built to allow residents easier access to and from the city.
The elevator is the only one of its kind in New Zealand. The shaft is 66 metres deep, and the pedestrian tunnel leading to it is 213 metres long. It is still in regular use today.
If you take the elevator to the top of the hill, you can visit the nearby Memorial Tower, which was built to commemorate the 513 locals who died in the First World War.
If you feel inclined, you can climb the 176 steps to the viewing deck at the top, and enjoy the panoramic views of the city (see photo at the top of this post). On a clear day you can see Mount Ruapehu, Mount Taranaki and even the tip of the south island across the sea in the distance.
The tower is one of two that dominate the Whanganui skyline, the other being the Bastia Hill Water Tower (not open to the public).
6. Virginia Lake
Virginia Lake offers a tranquil oasis and is a lovely place to go for a Sunday afternoon stroll. The woodland walk around the lake takes just under half an hour, after which you can pop into the Funky Duck cafe for refreshments. The cafe also sells food for the ducks! There’s also a winter garden, art garden, aviary and children’s playground.
There are several beautiful beaches in the area. South Beach, near Whanganui airport, is a typical west coast beach, wild and unspoilt. Surfing and quad biking are enjoyed here, or if you’re unadventurous like me, you can take a head-clearing beach walk or do a bit of plane spotting.
Kai Iwi is a small settlement not far from Bushy Park (see no. 12 below) worth visiting for its dramatic black sand beach. Being the west coast, you get gorgeous sunsets here. If you go exploring at low tide, be careful as you can get stuck in a cove if the tide comes in and cuts you off!
8. The Literary Festival
The Whanganui Literary Festival is held over a weekend in early October. It gives readers the chance to hear New Zealand and international authors speak about their work and to ask them questions. There are also workshops, book launches and social events. A fringe festival takes place during the week before the main event.
9. Motorbike racing
A major event takes place on Boxing Day every year which draws in motorcycle racing fans from around the world. The Cemetery Circuit is a series of road races for different levels of ability. It’s a great day out for with locals and visitors alike, who can watch from the safe zones at the roadside and cheer on their favourites. Two of my family members have been regular participants over the years, and have achieved some success.
10. The arts
Whanganui is known as a hub for artists. Over 400 live in the city, working in diverse media such as glass, clay, paint, textiles and mosaics.
Every year, usually in March, many studios open their doors to visitors. Over 15 galleries are open all year round, including the prestigious Sarjeant Gallery.
The collections are currently on show at a temporary location in a riverside warehouse. The main gallery, a cultural heritage building undergoing restoration, is worth a look just to appreciate its architecture and setting. It’s located in Queens Park, which is often referred to as the cultural centre of the city as it is also home to the regional museum and the Alexander Research Library. The site is elevated so you can enjoy panoramic views.
Whanganui also has a vibrant art student community who contribute to the creative energy of the city. Art and design are taught at the city centre campus of UCOL, the Universal College of Learning. Former students like photographer Melissa Butters have gone on to greater things. (You can see Melissa’s work on her web site, Melissa Butters Photography and also my separate post on her work.)
11. Bason Botanic Gardens
This beautiful reserve with landscaped gardens is a 10 minute drive from Whanganui. It was gifted to the city by the Bason family in 1966. The gardens are stunning. You can follow the various walking paths which take you through the shady wooded areas and the more open spaces which are ideal for picnics. There are also cottage-style gardens and an orchid house, with colourful varieties on display.
12. Bushy Park sanctuary and homestead
This amazing site is about 25 kilometres from Whanganui. It’s a predator-free forest which is home to rare native birds including kiwi. We spotted a stitchbird during our most recent visit.
The walking tracks take you through the estate, passing by native tree species including the huge rata tree – Ratanui – which is thought to be hundreds of years old.
You can stay at the old homestead (centre picture, above) which has been beautifully and sympathetically refurbished. The experience is more like staying in someone’s grand old home than in a luxury hotel, as bathroom facilities are shared. There are displays of family possessions, which belonged to the original owners, and other historic items around the house which add to the authentic period feel.
Afternoon tea is available and is served in the lounge, which is very cosy. As we were attending a family reunion there, our group had dinner also, which was delicious and expertly served by friendly and professional hosts Dale and John.
If you stay at Bushy Park during the cooler months, the ambient temperature can be quite chilly so take warm clothing. There are wood-burning fires in the main public rooms and timed heaters in the bedrooms, so you don’t have to stay cold for long.
There are many more attractions in Whanganui that could have been included in my list – more parks, gardens and museums. I hope I’ve convinced readers that it’s worth taking that detour on their way north to Auckland or south to Wellington!
Photo of Virginia Lake by Michal Klajban, Wikimedia Commons – published under Attribution-share alike licence 4.0 International. Kai Iwi beach photo courtesy of 100% Pure New Zealand. Serjeant Gallery picture courtesy of Radio New Zealand.
© Coconut Lands. Not to be reproduced without permission.