There is a bustle and a buzz to the centrepoint of Palmerston North that’s the envy of many a New Zealand city. Boasting a true town centre, framed by The Square, an afternoon stroll through Palmy’s verdant heart laid bare how embracing and embraced the city centre is. Shoppers flocked along the wide footpaths grazing from the inviting retail offerings, locals enjoyed a languid autumn picnic or indulged in games on The Square’s vast grassy carpet, while kerbside buskers revved up the ambience of Palmy’s beating heart. The Square’s seven hectares are dotted with a plethora of monuments, fountains and artful installations, ranging from the soaring lantern-crowned Hopwood Clock Tower to the glorious Carrara marble statue of Te Peeti Te Awe Awe, the Rangitaane chief who was instrumental in selling Palmerston North to the crown in 1865. That gracious statue is just one of 32 designated installations that comprise the city centre’s eye-catching Arts Trail. Don’t let the city’s brutalist building binge put you off. Mercifully, they do not get a mention on the trail map.
The city council building would have to be a top contender for New Zealand’s ugliest. Remarkably, this visual atrocity and its soulless Soviet design came up trumps in a civic building design competition in the 1970s! Grab an Arts Trail map from the i-SITE in The Square and you’ll be able to feast your eyes on this eclectic array of murals, mosaics, installations and sculptures on a leisurely 90 minute stroll. I absolutely adore Paul Dibble’s tribute to the memory of the extinct huia, Ghost of the Huia. Equally commanding is his dramatic work outside the Regent Theatre, where a dainty dancer faces off against the steely gaze of a tuatara. Then there is Numbers, a whimsical, joyful piece, comprised of a series of stainless-steel cubes joined in a loop, to which random numbers in sheet bronze have been riveted on.
Phil Price’s bright blue wind activated kinetic sculpture, United Divided, is another stand-out as is his majestic bronze sculpture, Pacific Monarch. Kids love the giant beetles crawling over the walls of Te Manawa, the city’s landmark Museum of Art, Science and History. This cultural heavy-hitter is a storehouse of the region’s story and taonga, beautifully displayed in the Manawatū Journeys gallery. The adjoining Art Gallery showcases a vast stash of works, with regular visiting exhibitions and a space devoted to emerging talent from Massey University. Te Manawa is also feted for its seasonal historic display of Santa’s Cave, which began life in 1918 in the Collinson & Cunninghame Department Store.
Complementing Te Manawa’s treats is the neighbouring NZ Rugby Museum, a compelling shrine to the heritage and glory of our national religion. It was established 40 years ago as a tribute to the founding father of New Zealand rugby, Charles Monro, who is immortalised in bronze, on the outside forecourt. Home to one of the world's largest collections of rugby memorabilia spanning 40,000 items, the treasures include the first ‘fern’, the oldest All Blacks jersey, our oldest rugby ball and Dan Carter’s boots. Another star feature is the “Have a Go” area, where you can put your rugby skills to the test, from pushing in a scrum and tackling, to sprinting and kicking. Kids love it – I was pretty useless.
Also sparking a lot of buzz in the city is the new He Ara Kotahi Pathway. Primarily developed as a commuter trail, on foot or by bike, its recreational appeal is not in question. There aren’t many walkways in New Zealand where you traverse dairy farms, forests, pā sites, a military camp, streams and a river in less than nine kilometres, but that’s precisely what He Ara Kotahi weaves together. Just a few minutes from the city centre, a highlight is the 194 metre long bridge that spans Manawatū River. It’s a head-tuner come nightfall, lustily lit up by luminous spheres. Another charismatic city haunt that instantly seduced me is alluring George Street, a bastion of boutique and bohemian chic owner-operated stores, plus a slew of convivial cafes, like Cafe Cuba, Barista and Moxie's, which have underpinned its gravitational pull.
Taking its name from the city’s first mayor, George Snelson, it was recently given a touch up as the street of famous Georges, with a George-themed Walk of Fame. The 35 George St portraits painted in the on-street parking spots include George Nepia, George Clooney, George Harrison, George Washington, and even fictional characters like George Jetson and George of the Jungle. Dubbed Palmerston North’s Parnell, the beautifully-maintained character buildings of the street accentuate the precinct’s allure. George Street is currently playing host to a 2.5 metre high bronze gnome, who was unveiled in the city last year, as the latest instalment to Palmy’s sculptural arsenal. Foodie finds are thick on the ground in the heart of town, particularly along the hospo sweep of Broadway Ave, which beckons like the world on a plate.
I joined the effervescent Friday-drinks crowd who flock to Brew Union after work, which has cultivated a red-hot reputation as a trendy social nexus. It was absolutely cranking. This ebullient industrial themed brewpub boats 21 taps of NZ craft beers alongside wood fired pizza, house-pressed burgers and lip-smacking sharing plate options. Add to that, a dizzying array of 100 gins. I ordered up a Brew Union Golden Ale, which was delightfully crisp with a hint of grapes and citrus, alongside a sensational Buffalo Prawn pizza. Hand stretched to order, Brew Union’s wood-fired pizzas have a crisp and slightly smoky crust, a chewy bite and artfully topped with super-fresh ingredients. It’s an all-round winner of a dining and quaffing destination! www.brewunion.co.nz
Just a few doors down from Brew Union, another firm local favourite, where reservations are highly recommended, is Haru Japanese restaurant. The all-wooden interior delivers a warm and rustic ambience, while the food is meticulously presented and utterly divine. The dinner set is brilliantly crafted if you happen to indecisive. I plumped for the Tempura Platter, which comprised a generous assortment of prawns, fish, seasonal vegetables and dipping broth. It’s a reasonably priced menu and the service is faultless.
Where to stay? An easy walk from The Square, I bedded down at Distinction Coachman Hotel, a landmark establishment that possibly every Palmy family has enjoyed a special occasion at. It’s the go-to hotel for celebrations. I love its lodge-like design, schist exterior and graceful timber features inside, while the expansively sized accommodations are particularly generous. Whether you are travelling for business or pleasure, staff are incredibly outgoing and welcome you into their oasis as if you have arrived home. Comprising 73 contemporary-style rooms and suites, all feature free unlimited WiFi, Sky TV, functional desk/workstation area and tea & coffee-making facilities. Some studios offer cooking facilities, if you prefer to dine DIY-style.
You’ll enjoy complimentary off-street car parking, 24 hour reception, room service and access to an outdoor swimming pool (summer only), spa pool & gym. The hotel also offers a business centre and 4 function rooms that lead to a serene and secluded garden, whether you want to relax – or tie the knot. Enjoy a drink in the Hunterville Bar by the open schist fireplace or indulge in La Patio Café & Bar’s award-winning fusion of Mediterranean and Pacific Rim Cuisine. Dining is available either indoors or al fresco. Plus, alongside the hotel, there’s connecting motel accommodation options as well, catering to all guest preferences. It’s a sparkling establishment that can’t fail to impress. https://www.distinctionhotels.co.nz/palmerston-north-hotel
I flew to Wellington with Jetstar. Score even sweeter deals with a Club Jetstar membership. The programme offers travellers access to special ‘member only’ fares, 20% discount on baggage and seat selection products, and early access to the biggest sales. Bag a bargain fare deal and seat to suit at www.jetstar.co.nz
I picked up my Avis rental car from Wellington Airport to free-roam the North Island. The Avis Safety Pledge allows customers to pick up and drop off vehicles with minimal contact. This has been complemented with the Digital Check In option, dramatically speeding-up time at the counter. To travel with complete flexibility, select the Pay at Counter option, which includes free modifications or cancellations at any time. Or, you can select the Pay Now option, and receive a saving for paying in advance. Until 1 July 2021, you can also cancel for free on Pay Now Rentals if you cancel at least 24 hours in advance of rental collection. www.avis.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.