While you’re here, you won’t want to miss –
The picturesque Wanganui area is famous for its wide, slow flowing Wanganui River – flowing from the Central Plateau of the North Island out to the lower east coast. Wanganui township lies on its banks next to the sea, and is the largest town in the region.
Not surprisingly, water activities feature heavily in this area all year round, with cruises, kayaking and jet boating among the most popular.
Wanganui means ‘Big River’ in Māori and like many of New Zealand’s landscape features, it is strongly connected with Māori spiritual beliefs and culture. For people who love history and old world charm, the Wanganui region is the perfect place to go with the flow.
The delightful town of Wanganui is a good place to start your journey into the past.
It has a collection of well-preserved heritage buildings from the late 1800s and early 1900s, including the Wanganui Opera House and the neo-classical Sarjeant Art Gallery.
Victoria Avenue is also considered one of New Zealand’s most picturesque colonial-style main streets, with its pretty hanging flower baskets, wide paved footpaths, gaslights and wrought iron garden seats. To learn about the city’s past, there are two self-directed heritage walks you can do:
- The Central City Heritage Walk which starts from Victoria Avenue and
- The Old Town Heritage Walk which takes you down near the river.
Pick up the pamphlets for these from the i-Site information center.
Virginia Lake, situated slightly northwest of the town in the suburb of St John’s Hill, is another lovely place to visit to get a sense of Wanganui in yesteryear. The lake’s grounds feature an Art Deco façade, woodland walk, rose gardens, band rotunda and a fountain. Stop by Reflections Café for their delicious lunch menu or stroll the lakeside at dusk for a beautiful colored lighting display.
The Wanganui River is a historical draw card with all the stories of its own. In the late 19th century, it was known as the ‘Riviera of the South Pacific.’
Remnants of this era remain with the restored paddle steamer, P.S Waimarie. You can step back in time with one of the daily cruises up the river on this old beauty, or on Sundays, enjoy a Picnic Cruise with on-board jazz by local musicians.
The banks of the Wanganui River are no less lively. Check out the Saturday morning River Traders Market, which harks back to the days when Māori came to trade their produce. Today, you can still buy fresh fruit and vegetables, as well as browse the numerous stalls of preserves, products, home-baking and arts & crafts.
Durie Hill Elevator
Wanganui has some unusual attractions, one of which is the historic Durie Hill elevator built in 1919. This is New Zealand’s only underground elevator. It was constructed to provide public access to the new borough of Durie Hill.
To get to the elevator, cross the river at City Bridge and enter the pedestrianized underground tunnel which leads into the hillside. At the end of this, the earthbound elevator will take you to the top of the hill. If you’re feeling fit, you can bypass the elevator and use the 191 step walkway which runs alongside.
The adjacent War Memorial Tower, is made of fossilized shell rock. If you climb to the top when the weather is clear, you can see Mt Taranaki and Mt Ruapehu.
Another unusual attraction is the town’s penchant for glass art. It has the only Glass School in New Zealand. Over 30 full-time glass artists, many of whom exhibit internationally, work in the community. For a look at glass blowing in action, visit the Chronicle Glass Studio in the Old Town.
Glass pieces can be purchased here as well. If you’re really keen, you might like to visit in October for the Wanganui Festival of Glass, which has glass blowing demonstrations, glass exhibits and glass workshops.
Wanganui National Park
A popular day trip from Wanganui is the Bridge to Nowhere in the Wanganui National Park. This bridge was constructed in 1936 to provide access to farms in the Mangapurua Valley – but only used for six years.
As the name suggests, it’s a bit of a Kiwi icon and probably the fanciest bridge you’ll see on a hiking track in New Zealand. To see the bridge, drive the scenic Wanganui River Road to Pipiriki, then jump on a jet boat to Mangapurua Landing. From there, it’s an easy 40 minute walk to the Bridge to Nowhere. It might be a small adventure to get there, but well worth the effort for the outstanding river and forest views.
Wanganui is a region with much to offer visitors who are game for a bit of exploring. Creative types will love the town’s vibrant art scene and quirky local characters, and will find much to inspire them.
The beauty of Wanganui, though, is its array of river activities. Whether you want a tranquil riverside walk, a gentle chug in a paddle steamer, or something more active like a jet boat ride, it’s all there for you to take your pick.