On the wall behind the bar at Porridge Watson three clocks tell the time in the most important places in the world. That's not London, Paris or New York but Durie Hill, Whanganui East and Gonville, all about five minutes' drive from this fine lo-fi drinking establishment in the heart of Whanganui's historic downtown district.
It's a confident, and cheeky, statement of the truth: there's as much to enjoy in this compact river city for a few days as there is anywhere you'd care to name.
We fly in from Auckland, an hour's flight on the efficiently friendly Air Chathams, landing at the airport south of the Whanganui River in the glow of the late afternoon sun.
Getting to our accommodation coincides with an orange sunset reflected in the midstream ripples of the river. Iona Tiny House is an architectural marvel: named after the boat whose kauri-planked hull forms the backbone of the building; it's a 10-minute walk from the CBD, and you can lie in bed - or in the hot tub - and watch every kayak, boat and waka ama ply the waterway.
Getting out on the river ourselves is a must for this trip. The paddle steamer Waimarie is a Whanganui icon. Built in 1899 and restored in the 1990s as a Millennium project, the 30m long vessel was salvaged from the riverbed where it had lain after sinking in 1952.
We take a leisurely two-hour return cruise from Taupō Quay in the centre of town upstream to Ūpokongaro. The boat is full: no seats on the decks outside. But the saloon - all varnished golden wood and sash windows - offers a cool spot with a nearly water-level view of the river, brown under a blue sky.
The Waimarie is quieter than I expected: there's a soft chuffing as the paddles on each side churn a white foam that is gone before the wake passes the stern. There's a sweet smell of lubricating oil; meanwhile, the single exhaust coughing out smoke on the waterline at the starboard stern does not bother the passengers. As we leave the wharf, steam from the red funnel drifts away in the warm norwest breeze.
We are sharing the river with a variety of other craft: a lone Canadian canoeist in a red boat enters the middle of the river as we go under the Dublin St Bridge; we pass a female rowing four, coached from a speeding tinny; at the riverside campground at Aramoho yellow-hulled skiffs slide across the water propelled by muscular crews of eight; as we turn for the trip home at the soon to be opened Ūpokongaro cycle/foot bridge, a maroon speedboat fizzes past.
The homeward stretch is a great time to drop down the short metal ladder into the engine room to behold the best Victorian-era steam technology at work. It's no noisier down here than up on deck. The space is as clean as the white overalls the engineers wear. A greased piston pumps on either side of the white boiler, kept in motion by a fierce coal-fired blaze, seen through the arched door. Above and forward of the boiler, the engineers get a great view of the skipper's bottom as he stands alert at the wheel.
As we get closer to town, the need to be alert becomes clear: an enormous tree - trunk, roots and branches - is being salvaged from the river, secured by rope to the front of a ute on the bank. Another navigation hazard challenges the crew as we attempt to dock: Whanganui's proximity to the coast brings the tide into play and it appears to not have turned on time as expected. The run of the river, and the breeze, mean it's fourth time lucky when we successfully tie up.
Returning to the quayside in the hot sunshine, I'm more than a little jealous of the kids jumping into the water from a pontoon in front of the Union Boat Club.
On Saturday mornings, this part of town bustles, as locals check out the River Traders and Whanganui Farmers' Markets. There's produce and plants, crafts and bric-a-brac, and brunch options including dumplings, sushi, sourdough bread, icecream, hot dogs and coffee, of course. I go for the BBQ pork tortilla from the Food Infuzion stall and the girl serving me chastises her father for needlessly reminding her, as she heaps on the veggies, that it's a pork - not a salad - tortilla. I take the finished product - stuffed full of both salad and pork - to the grassy bank by the boardwalk to eat. Here, beneath the spreading pōhutukawa trees is a great spot to laze. Black and white ducks, and small children, waddle on a narrow strip of sand where bow waves from the paddleboat ripple and disappear.
Right here on the riverbank is as good a place as any to start your Whanganui art trail. Bearing, by David McCracken is a 3m stainless steel sphere; deep fissures in its mirror surface map the Whanganui River and its tributaries. In the few city blocks bounded by St Hill St, Ridgeway St and the river are a number of galleries showcasing local artists. Sarjeant on the Quay has a selection of works on display from the larger Sarjeant Gallery, which is closed for renovations. If you are lucky, a visit to NZ Glassworks will coincide with glass artists working with the enormous furnaces; if not, the mezzanine gallery of finished works is a dazzling must-see of colour and light. Whanganui Walls - an annual outdoor symposium of international artists - has gifted the city a legacy of giant artworks to discover on the sides of buildings as you wander through the streets.
If performing arts is your thing, try to see a show at the Royal Wanganui Opera House, a wonderful Victorian theatre, and the only New Zealand theatre with a royal charter. On a different scale, the community-run Repertory Theatre has been putting on shows since 1933 in a building, built in 1882, that was Whanganui's first library. We are unexpectedly invited in for a tour, into all the backstage nooks and attic crannies by the enthusiastic Kieran, who is doing makeup for the Christmas production of Peter Pan.
To extend our art trek, we bike from downtown to North Mole at the mouth of the river, through the suburb of Castlecliff and on to Castlecliff Beach. Early on, near the rail yards, Brit Bunkley's Hear My Train a Comin', a 4m brick-paver train sticking out of the ground at an angle, tells us we're on the right track. This ride, partly on a shared path betwixt the river and some of the town's largest and ugliest industrial buildings, shows another side of the city. But it is worth doing for a couple of reasons: the river as it broadens is beautiful; and the raw, windswept North Mole - a favourite local fishing spot - affords a panoramic view of northern Cook Strait. At Castlecliff Beach, Citadel cafe is a haven of good coffee and food; across the road, the modernist works of painter and ceramicist Ivan Vostinar - who made all the pottery seen in The Hobbit films - fill his gallery and workshop with colour.
Whanganui, much like its west coast city neighbour New Plymouth a couple of hours' drive to the north, suffers from not being "on the way to somewhere". You have to choose to go there, and you should. Ask the residents of Gonville, or Durie Hill, or Whanganui East: you don't need a clock on the wall to tell you now is a great time to visit.
The Side Bar: Where to eat and drink in Whanganui
For a caffeine hit, wander into Article Cafe on the corner of Drews Ave and Rutland St. The building used to house the city's newspaper the Whanganui Chronicle and it's a trove of art, crafts, vintage clothing and retro knick knacks for sale.
Mud Ducks Cafe, on Taupō Quay, has a deck where you can watch the rowing eights glide downstream while enjoying breakfast on a quiet Sunday.
Porridge Watson opens later in the week, serving big soft German pretzels and food platters to go with whichever of the dozens of craft beers - or other fine beverages - takes your fancy. The string lights, brushed steel and copper bar front, mismatched mid-century furniture, crushed velvet drapes, wall-mounted stags' heads, and arcade games make for a unique hangout. We stopped in for a cheeky Cassell milk stout at lunchtime on Saturday.
If you are lucky enough to be dining at Maria Lane Eatery & Bar when duty manager Andrew Morris is on deck, then the food-and-drink gods are on your side. Andrew's Swiss training and years of overseas experience in luxury hospitality mean you'll be well looked after. Cocktails are one of his passions: The Jazzmin - tequila, Cointreau, Campari and lime juice - was a pink delight. He was spot-on with the wine and food matching too: Suzanne's sherry-braised beef cheek with fried polenta was fortified with a Collaboration cabernet sauvignon, while a crisp Bohemian rosé cooled the spice in my hearty tamari baked tempeh with shiitake and wild rice. But Andrew might've done a better job, bless him, of letting us know that the desserts - a cream, sour cream and ricotta cheesecake with drunken macerated cherries, and a vegan coconut chocolate mousse (made from ripe banana) with mulled wine tamarillo and hazelnuts - were so big we'd be unable to polish them off.
Our trip at Labour Weekend coincided with the inaugural Taste Whanganui festival. Regional and local beer, wine and spirit producers served up tastings to complement food vendors on the Whanganui War Memorial Centre forecourt. Live bands and people having a great time in the hot sunshine bodes well for future events.
We had a fine meal at High-Kut Bistro, and drinks by the river at Caroline's Boatshed, but there were many more places we wished we'd had time to try.
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