Wanganui … officially New Zealand’s most beautiful city

26 October 2019

On 24 October Wanganui (a.k.a. Whanganui, the correct pronunciation of which, confusingly, is Fanganui!) won the awards for Most Beautiful City and Best Street in a competition run by the Keep New Zealand Beautiful organisation.

A couple of days later we roll into town to see what all the fuss is about. The main reason for our visit is to take a river trip on a restored 120 years old paddle steamer, but it quickly became apparent that Wanganui has a lot more to offer.

As we make our way down to the wharf where we will catch the paddle steamer we can see a row of elegant heritage buildings. New Zealand is a young country and inevitably buildings of age and character are pretty thin on the ground, so it was a pleasant surprise to see Wanganui has a few elegant examples. Reading up subsequently about the Keep New Zealand Beautiful Awards it’s clear that the town has many other fine historic buildings that we didn’t manage to track down.

Fortunately we are in Wanganui on a Saturday and are therefore able to enjoy “The River Traders”, a pop-up market with around 100 stalls. This weekly market reflects the history of this place before Europeans arrived, as it was a busy riverside trading site for local Maoris. As we wander around we can see it’s a hive of activity, with a variety of stalls selling food, craft products and much more.

We were happily enjoying ourselves nosing around the market when the unmistakable sound of Scottish bagpipes splits the air. Lots of New Zealanders are of Scottish descent, and it’s clear that – at least here in Wanganui – they’re working hard to maintain links with their heritage. The pipe band plays several sets in various locations in and around the market, and gathers an appreciative audience each time.

It is a slightly surreal experience, hearing authentic bagpipe music being played with such passion so far from the Scottish Highlands, but it adds to the atmosphere of what is clearly a thriving, lively town. This place has a wow factor, and it’s easy to see how the Keep New Zealand Beautiful judges would have been impressed.

Wanganui also boasts an exceptional water tower, even better than the one we saw in Hawera a day or two ago. Extraordinarily, and perhaps somewhat pretentiously for a tiny town on the opposite side of the globe, the Bastia Hill Water Tower was designed to reflect the arched aqueducts and towers of the water supply network of ancient Rome! It was built in 1927 and still deserves to be seen today.

When the time comes we make our way to the paddle steamer Waimarie. It was built by Yarrow & Co. Shipbuilders at Poplar, London in 1899 and transported to New Zealand in kit form, split across 73 separate crates.

As well as carrying cargo up and down the Wanganui River, the Waimarie (pronounced why-marry-ay) did a lot of business transporting tourists. Surprisingly perhaps, New Zealand was an upmarket tourist destination in the early twentieth century, and at a time when the road system was very limited river travel offered a good way of exploring the country.

Following an accident in 1952 the Waimarie sank, and was abandoned to its fate for 40 years. In 1992 a group of enthusiasts established a community heritage project to salvage, restore and operate the Waimarie once again. An amazing 67,000 volunteer hours later, the reincarnated Paddle Steamer Waimarie made its maiden voyage on 1 January 2000.

It’s evident from the moment we board that the volunteers have done a superb job. The Waimarie is now New Zealand’s only authentic coal-fired paddle steamer in operation and it is a privilege to sail on her for a few miles up the Wanganui River.

There is also something strangely satisfying in the fact that the Waimarie has returned to the role that she played for most of her working life, giving tourists a unique and restful view of this small corner of New Zealand’s North Island. Long may it continue.