There's a certain no-nonsense charm to the unimaginative bluntness of a name like "Bushy Park". If the park is bushy, why not name it Bushy Park? Exactly! In a nation where the North and South Islands are handily called the North Island and the South Island, it makes sense that at least somewhere in Aotearoa there'd be a tract of bush bestowed as being "Bushy Park". And let it be known, Whanganui's Bushy Park is indeed, very, very bushy.
Extremely bushy. But it's also an internationally significant conservation triumph, a Category 1-listed Edwardian-era homestead and a crucial chapter in the story of the pride so many Whanganui locals have in their region.
My first trip to Whanganui was during "the before times", a time when non-Whanganui-ites too readily dismissed why a travel writer would want to go and explore this oft-bypassed part of the country. It feels like forever ago, but it was only April, 2019, when Kiwis with itchy feet had the freedom and inclination to plot adventures in places like France or Fiji as opposed to Whanganui. New Zealand's 15th largest city (almost 50,000 people) was a little far down the list. Well, here's the thing: it shouldn't have been then and it definitely isn't now.
Indeed a global pandemic has opened the eyes of so many New Zealanders to Whanganui. There are galleries and cafes, new street art, dozens of heritage buildings (the Opera House, the War Memorial Centre and the Sarjeant Gallery alone are enough to make Whanganui a must-visit for architecture buffs), riverside cycle trails, outrageous children's playgrounds (if there's a more awesome retro playground in New Zealand than Kōwhai Park let me know) and world-class gardens (Virginia Lake is special but the surreal, subtropical Paloma Gardens have to be seen to be believed). And of course, a certain Bushy Park.
I'm a sucker for luxury, historic hotels, but the last place I was expecting to find one back in 2019 was within the confines of a 98ha, fenced-off, pest-free, mainland ecological island. I'd gone to Bushy Park purely on the recommendation of a local who said that not only were the walks stunning, but that one Northern rātā tree in particular - named Rātānui - was among the absolute largest in New Zealand and may be as much as 1000 years old.
With the big tree all the motivation I needed, I'd jumped in the car for the 20-minute drive from downtown Whanganui, gone through the Jurassic Park-like gates that separate the surrounding farmland from the dense, primeval rainforest of Bushy Park and taken one of the tracks to the glorious, imposing Rātānui .
My jaw suitably dropped at the sight of this wondrous and twisting elder-statesman of the forest (43.1m tall, 11.86m wide), but it also dropped when I realised you could stay inside the forest at an amazing colonial homestead. Combining two of my loves - rambunctious bush walks and historic hotels - this was my kind of place and I knew another trip to Whanganui would have to happen soon and it would have to involve Bushy Park. It couldn't not.
Luckily my wife, Aimee, was keen and little baby Riley loves a bush walk as much as the next baby, so fast-forward to the end of 2020 and there we were, back at Bushy Park, but this time with a room booked for a couple of nights.
Bushy Park was established as a family farm in the 1860s, with the foresight to preserve almost 100ha of virgin rainforest in addition to the land being used for agriculture. A regal, 22-room homestead was added in 1906, and now fresh from a recent multimillion refurbishment, that same building still sits as proudly as ever on the crest of a hill overlooking the forest.
And what a forest it is too. Having been ringed by a pest-proof fence since 2005 thanks to an incredible community-driven project, Bushy Park is a precious lowland eco-system teeming with native birds and an estimated 160-species of plants. It's frequently cited as being one of the top 25 ecological restoration projects in all of Australasia and the continued health of the forest is down to the volunteers who put in hundreds of hours every year.
As for the homestead, five of its 22 rooms are offered as bedrooms for paying guests. If you can forgo an en suite - and trust me, when you see how beautiful these rooms are and just how well they're priced, you can - Bushy Park provides an authentic time travel to early 20th-century opulence.
We were in Room 2 which felt like a master bedroom in a palace with its fireplace, chaise longue and huge, curved sash windows. 16-month old Riley found it to her liking and a portable cot (as well as Buzzy Bee) was provided.
Over the course of our stay, we'd wear ourselves out in the best possible way doing every single of one of the 10 trails, and then swap stories with fellow guests over the delicious dinners in either the grand lounge or dining room. It was fun, so much fun. Brilliant service too. And we'd never really had a holiday like it: luxury in the very bushy bush.