While you’re here, you won’t want to miss –
Driving through the Manawatu region brings into focus New Zealand’s rural life past and present. Lush, green fields dotted with cattle and sheep, small provincial towns and unspoiled native bush are what makes the Manawatu such a scenic and historically important part of New Zealand.
Intensive farming began here in the 1800s, as the early European settlers began to clear and deforest the land for wood production and sheep farming.
If agriculture is a dominating feature of the landscape, then so are the Tararua and Ruahine Ranges and Manawatu Gorge, which provide rugged relief and are steeped in Māori myth and legend. This peaceful region is waiting to be explored, so take the road less travelled for small town sustenance and souvenirs, pubs in the middle of nowhere and some of New Zealand’s best scenic walks and drives.
The North Island’s halfway point to everywhere is Taihape, located at the top of the Manawatu region.
This is where the historic Silver Fern railway used to stop for travelers, to refresh themselves with a cup of tea and a scrumptious pie.
These days, the pie business is still alive and kicking in Taihape, but you have much more choice than just humble mince. A quick forage in any of the local cafes, the Four Square supermarket or even gas stations will unearth myriad butter chicken, plum and apple or an exotic selection of savory gourmet pies.
To work it off, you can test your gumboot tossing skills in the Gumboot Throwing Lane or, for an official contest, time your visit for Gumboot Day just after Easter.
All roads in the Manawatu lead to Palmerston North, the region’s horticultural capital. Palmerston North, or ‘Palmy’ as it is nicknamed, is New Zealand’s seventh largest city but initially started out as just a clearing in a forest.
The city’s mix of provincial and cosmopolitan attractions makes it an ideal base for getting to know the region. A day out in Palmerston North might include:
- Visiting the rugby museum;
- Checking out the inner city sculptures;
- Lunching on a fresh, tasty dish at one of the excellent local cafés or
- Relaxing in The Square, New Zealand’s largest inner city park.
Two popular annual festivals hosted in Palmerston North are the Festival of Culture in March, which celebrates the food and culture of the local ethnic communities, and the Square Affair Retro Festival at Easter – a fortnight of stepping back to the 1950’s with fashion parades, vintage cars, games and high teas.
The Manawatu is dotted with small towns with their own unique identity, so head out into the countryside to explore.
The farming town of Bulls, northwest of Palmerston, pokes fun at its name by a number of bull signs – ‘Relieve-a-bull’ for the toilet, ‘Consta-bull’ for the police – among many others.
You’ll find commenda-bull a visit to the Scully’s Lavender Gift Shop, one of New Zealand’s most popular range of natural skincare and bath products. The gift shop is located on the main street of Bulls – all products are made with lavender grown on the Scully’s farm.
Another scented must-stop is The Herb Farm in Ashhurst, northeast of Palmerston North. Here you can buy lovely 100% natural hand lotions, body creams and cosmetics. After browsing the shop have a bite to eat in the adjoining café – the fresh herbs from the working herb garden are used in the menu creations.
The Herb Garden walk is also a great way to learn about the different herbs used in the products. Set on over two acres there are fourteen separate themed gardens toting names like ‘Herbitton Elf Village,’ ‘Peace Woods’ and ‘Living Magic Garden.’
Walks and Drives
For another gentle walk, take a picnic to Palmerston North’s Victoria Esplanade, for a nature trail as well as wonderful rose gardens, a miniature railway and bird aviaries.
If you’re seeking something slightly more challenging, you’ll enjoy the Manawatu Gorge Track. The track is a short distance from the city and offers spectacular views of the Manawatu River, its surrounds and nearby wind farms.
The lower North Island is a very windy place, hence why the Manawatu is home to quite a few wind farms.
In total there are 158 of these 230 foot high white windmills which, apart from their majestic claim on the landscape, provide small but significant amounts of electricity to the national grid. They are a visitor attraction so it’s possible to see the turbines up close. Head over to Te Apiti Wind Farm on the Saddle Road between Ashhurst and Woodville, or Manawatu Wind Farm in Ballance.
Scenic drives abound in the Manawatu but one of the best is the drive through the Manawatu Gorge to Woodville, incidentally known for its antiques and delicious cheesecake. Drive through the gorge for a look at the Manawatu River, New Zealand’s second largest river, and the feats of road and rail engineering that made the passage possible.
A Taste of Tui
Once you’ve braved the gorge, no trip to the Manawatu is complete without a stop off at the Tui Brewery in Mangatainoka.
For a refreshing cold beer, hearty food, a brewery tour – of the birthplace of this iconic New Zealand beer – or quintessential Kiwi souvenirs, then you can’t go past this shrine to beer without stopping.
Afterwards, continue south for a stop in Pahiatua. It’s a service town but also means ‘God’s resting place’ in Māori.
If you’re looking for a slice of real New Zealand life, then you’re sure to find it in these little farming communities. In the Manawatu, the locals are friendly, the beer is cold and visitors are always welcome.