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A Weekend in Whanganui

Normally I write about tech issues here, but this last weekend my wife and I were tourists, for a get-away without the kids. A tourist’s view of a location is important – in this on-line age word of mouth is probably the most important influencer of opinion about where to holiday – especially with review sites likes Trip Advisor.

With this in mind, this is my review of our weekend away in Whanganui.
First Impressions
We drove into town from State Highway 4, over the bridge and up Victoria Avenue. First impressions are important, and what a first impression! A lot of work has obviously been put into the tree-lined main street, and I found out later that local businesses pay a levy which funds various initiatives.
The mature trees, footpath paving, hanging baskets and wrought iron fittings create a cohesive and inviting feel, and during our stay we walked the length of Victoria Avenue several times. We enjoyed looking at the old buildings and reading about the history (where there were plaques). Some of these were are bit old and hard to read. Please update them!
Shopping
There was shopping. There is always shopping.
The thing that struck us was how universally friendly shop staff were. We were greeted when we went into shops, and thanked when we left. This is quite common in small towns, where tourists are obvious, but in a town the size of Whanganui this was a pleasant surprise.

There was a nice little gift shop near the information centre on Taupo Quay. Not over-priced like so many shops and pretty

The Galleries

Caroline is an artist, so we visit galleries. I am a willing participant in this and fortunately out tastes overlap.

We visited the Sarjeant Gallery and some smaller places dotted around the edges of Queens Park. I was not at all concerned by the earthquake notice at Sarjeant, but more concerned about what might happen to this amazing space.

Both of us enjoyed Joe Sheehan’s stone work, and the showcase of “Artists working in Wanganui, 1910 – 2012”.

Eating Out

One of the best parts of going away is eating out and our first meal out was at the Angora Cafe and Restaurant. Upon being shown to our table we asked to be moved because the main dining area was far too hot. We were reseated in an area that is open to the street. The waitress was very good, and the food excellent.
Two things detracted from the visit. The first was a girl working behind the counter wearing sports shorts, and with white ear-buds on, in direct view from where I was sitting. When paying, I didn’t appreciate seeing the same person preparing deserts, and rearranging the food with her fingers. Call me old-fashioned, but I want my food prepared in the kitchen by professionals.
The second was the poor attitude of the woman on the desk. No “thank you for eating here, did you enjoy the meal”. When my wife mentioned that there was some shards of broken glass by our table, rather than apologising, she said “it must of been from yesterday”. This is a shame because a local recommended we eat there, and as I said the food was excellent.
Our second evening meal was at Element Cafe and Restaurant, situated in an old bank building, and having an outside dining area. 
As it happens, we also had lunch here the day before. Both times we were looking at the menu at the door and a waitress came up to explain the different options. Both were very friendly, but not pushy, and in both cases this swayed us to stay.
The food was excellent, and I want to note the freshness of the fish-of-the-day (snapper) and the Blackcurrant, Black Dorris & Marzipan Pie I had for desert. My wife had the Caesar Salad, and the egg was cooked perfectly, with very fresh salad greens. The service was relaxed but attentive. We moved between our main and desert because our street site-side table was getting a little cool. Not a problem. We ordered mains off the cafe menu and desert off the bistro menu. Not a problem. We move inside for our coffee. Not a problem (and our waitress raced over to wipe down the table in the lounge area because of one small piece of cream). Going back? Definitely.

Bushy Park



Bushy Park must be one of the North-Island’s best kept secrets. The manager of the Park’s homestead (above) told me that few locals visit, and there were about 5 cars there when we visited on Sunday, their busiest day.

The park itself is a 245 acre remnant of low-land native rainforest, surrounded by a predator-proof fence and managed by a trust. The story of the estate is fascinating, and well worth reading.

Access is drive-in via a series of special gates, and there are a range of walks. If we’d had more time, we would have done them all. The forest is so peaceful, apart from the call of native birds. If you are quiet, the birds seem to find you, and the Robin (at right, taken by Caroline) was just a few metres away and seemed quite inquisitive.

As a size comparison, the park is just over half the size of Wellington’s Zealandia. Entry is $6 a head, kids for free. They have basic lunch available, made on-demand; we had a toasted sandwich, chips, and devonshire tea, served with silver tea-ware and china, taken on the front veranda of the homestead.

If you are in Whanganui, as a resident or visitor, this is a must see.

They also operate a bed-and-breakfast where you can stay in the homestead’s historic rooms.

The Steamer
We were on our way out of town at 10:45 am and saw the river steamer smoking up. We’d wanted to go, but missed out on Saturday.

During the trip an on-board speaker system gave us information about local landmarks and history, with occasional live announcements. The drinks and scones we had were very reasonably priced for an attraction of this type – so often prices go up because of the captive audience. And the scones were very fresh. “Come back for more jam, or cream, if you need it”, we were told. I really appreciate small touches like this.

We had a look in the boiler room, where were we told about the boiler and steam engines (two at 86 horse power each with lots of torque), and how they maintain pressure – it’s a mix of air control and coal.

A very positive end to an enjoyable weekend.

Other Highlights
We had a chat with one of the volunteers at the Tram Shed about the history of trams in Whanganui, and their plans for future developments. I was astounded to find that the building is only a few years old, built from mostly recycled building parts. From the outside it looks 100 years-old. It was built with PD (periodic detention) labour, and we were told that some of the crew who worked on it still visit to see their handy-work. 
We stayed at the Sienna Motor Lodge and the rooms were outstanding. (Because of us booking so late we changed rooms once, by choice, to get the facilities we wanted). The rooms were spotless. Really spotless. I have stayed in many motels and hotels and the rooms were the among the cleanest I have stayed in. It is inevitable that you find things broken or not working in motel rooms – it must be near-impossible to keep on top of maintenance – but not in this case. On the last morning we ordered breakfast. Motel breakfasts can be indifferent, but in this case I wish I had taken a photo as a lot of care had been put into cooking and presenting what was a simple meal for two. 
We will certainly be going back to Whanganui.

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