Hidden gems: Palmerston North

By Colin Hogg

In a four-part series of discovering New Zealand's hidden gems, Colin Hogg finds that the Dullsville reputation of Palmerston North is busted by a museum with wow factor and a cool city centre.

Among the exhibits in the Rugby Museum (above) is the kicking boot of the great man, Don Clarke, who used it to good effect against the Springboks in 1956. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Among the exhibits in the Rugby Museum (above) is the kicking boot of the great man, Don Clarke, who used it to good effect against the Springboks in 1956. Photo / Mark Mitchell

It has been suggested that a person could go barmy in Palmy. After visiting the settlement formally known as Palmerston North, the English humorist John Cleese went so far as to say it was just the place to go if you wanted to kill yourself.

Hard talk, but part of a pattern when it comes to the famously misunderstood lower North Island city of more than 80,000. Palmerston North has often had a rough press along with even rougher word of mouth. And, of course, it's all most unfair.

On my first morning in town, I catch up with the mayor, Jono Naylor, an affable chap in a sharp new suit. We meet at a downtown cafe called Tomato, a brightly painted, kitschy place doing excellent coffee.

There's no point in being sensitive with the mayor. I'm only visiting because, in tourism terms, Palmy's a troubled town. Jono knows his city has had image problems. "We've allowed other people to tell our story too long," he says, "but it's hard to shift perceptions."

Such as the perception that Palmy is as dull as it is flat and that if offers little in the way of diversion for someone from out of town looking to spend a couple of interesting days in unexplored territory.

Jono reckons I'll have no trouble amusing myself for a couple of days in his town, though he has to say that.

Palmerston, as it was originally called, sprang to life in the 1860s, founded in a 360ha clearing in the forests that once covered the Manawatu Plains, laid out around a generous square.

Palmerston added its North later on to avoid confusion with the now much smaller place just north of Dunedin.

The town council had wanted to take a new name altogether but couldn't agree on anything and had to compromise with the rather unimaginative Palmerston North, a decision that apparently satisfied no one at the time and has added to the image problems since.

Interestingly, for a city established in a clearing, one of the most notable things about Palmy is the clearing it created in its own centre. The word "generous" hardly gets to describing the Palmerston North Square. At 7ha it's vast and, until a few years ago, it was the town's big, dark heart.

The railway station had been there till 1966 but after it moved, the Square fell into confusion and decay. "Dark and a bit dangerous," said Jono.

After quite a discussion about the cost, the city set about spending $12 million revitalising the square and it is now a wonderful and quite remarkable place - an oddly psychedelic spot in the midst of what might seem a rather straight city.

The square is just a five-minute walk from the Hotel Coachman, a good spot where I'm on the third floor in an old-fashioned suite with fishing rods on the wall, windows that open and a garden view.

By day, the square has an almost bucolic charm with its pastures of perfect grass, its water and a fine array of public sculpture ranging in age and style from war memorial gothic to recently installed modern by, among others, local sculptor Paul Dibble.

The ugly beautiful clock tower dates from the 1950s, though it's got more of a '60s hippie vibe by night when it forms the colour-morphing centrepiece of the square's nightly light show, which comes with an accompaniment of discreet classical music played out of the dazzling base of the clock.

It's actually an exercise in crime prevention through environmental design and it apparently works. Also, it's fun and it's the last thing I expected of the squarest spot in Palmerston North.

The second-last thing I expected was visiting the Rugby Museum where I gazed in awe at Don Clarke's boot. Clarke, who wore the holy footwear kicking mightily for the All Blacks against the Springboks in 1956, was a big bloke and so is that boot. They've just got the one boot - the kicking one.

An intimate spotlight hits the boot when you press a little button. I found it hard to tear myself away. When I did, I noted that the Rugby Museum - situated handily next to Te Manawa, the city's fine museum and art gallery - also offers the opportunity to boot a ball in an interactive area.

But for some less challenging interactivity, I went for a wander in the Victoria Esplanade Gardens, splendidly laid out along the banks of the Manawatu River on the city's eastern side. There's a miniature railway should your feet fail you.

For an out-of-town experience, a 20-minute drive northwest of Palmerston North takes you to Feilding, 14-time winner of the Most Beautiful New Zealand Town crown. On Fridays, the town comes alive for the locally famous Feilding Farmers' Market.

But it's the Palmerston North Square that keeps drawing me back.

Around it, the streets offer a crash course in architecture through the last century - the stately Edwardian Grand Building and, thrusting into the square like a huge, angry ocean liner, the 1970s brutalism of the city council building. The views from up there go on forever, the mayor told me.

They call the nearby Palmerston North Library the "living room of the city". Designed by superstar architect Ian Athfield, it's a wild and user-friendly mix of artful whimsy and practicality. There are steel bridges, a banana tree, a performance area - and books, of course.

Tucked just behind the library is George St, with its buzzy boho vibe and cafes and restaurants. My pick, Barista, seemed to be everyone's, even on a week night. The place was hopping, the service efficient and funny, the food quite excellent, the prices quite Auckland.

But then there's the bonus of a walk back through the square which is possibly the only place where it is slightly barmy in Palmy - but in a good way.

- NZ Herald

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