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Whanganui – Guide for Backpackers

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What to do in Whanganui.

No wonder so many backpackers love spending a while in Whanganui! There are a wealth of jobs in the area to save a bit of money for your travels such as WWOOFing and picking, yet you are right here in the centre of all those city conveniences. What the city prides itself on the most is its fascinating Maori and European settler history which you can still see well-preserved in the city’s buildings. You’ll catch a true sense of preserved history which is not so easy to find elsewhere in New Zealand.

Wanganui not only sits on the banks of one of New Zealand’s most famous rivers, the Whanganui River, but it also sits on some beautiful long-stretching beaches lined with driftwood. You’ll find sections of the beaches that are great for relaxing, while there’s always room for adventure in the sand dunes or on the surf waves.

Things you can’t miss in Whanganui

  • Check out Victoria Avenue for its shopping and historic architecture
  • Walk the tunnel to the Durie Hill Elevator then climb the Durie Hill Tower!
  • Visit the stunning Kai Iwi Beach
  • Watch the insane amount of birds at Virginia Lake
  • Take a road trip along the scenic Whanganui River Road.
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Historical Whanganui

What’s striking about Whanganui city is the preservation of the historical buildings. Victoria Avenue, the main street of Whanganui, is lined with colourful buildings of all shapes and sizes dating to the late 1800s. Although walking the streets of Wanganui is like walking back in time, a mock-up of the city streets of early Wanganui can be found in the free-entry Whanganui Regional Museum. Displaying relics from the early European settlers, the mock-up street exhibition gives a refreshing way to show what life was like for early pioneers of frozen meat exportation. The Maori history, one that started with the Ngati Tupoho iwi (tribe), is best shown in the Maori exhibition. See three huge wakas (canoes) salvaged from the banks of the Whanganui River long ago, as well as many other traditional Maori tools and weapons.

Maori carvings can be found all around the city of Whanganui, such as in the entrance to the Durie Hill Elevator, with many faces carved into poles leading to the 213m tunnel.

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Whanganui’s towers

It’s hard to miss the towers dotted about Whanganui. Some of which offer amazing vantage points of the city, the Whanganui River and beyond to the central North Island volcanoes!

Durie Hill Tower

A trip to the Durie Hill Tower is not complete without making your own way to the top of Durie Hill (and that’s before climbing the steps of the tower). From Victoria Avenue, go straight across the City Bridge. Either take the steep climb up the steps or take the iconic Durie Hill Elevator. The entrance to elevator is an experience in itself, first passing the carved Maori poles, then walking down a ridiculously straight 213m tunnel. Then take the historic Durie Hill Elevator to the top of the hill. The fee is around NZ$2 per person, cash only. Once you reach the top, you are at the base of the memorial tower. The best time to climb the 176-step spiral staircase to the top is during sunset to get unmatched views of the city and outer landscape.

Bastia Hill Water Tower

Another tower worthy of a photograph is the Bastia Hill Water Tower. Although you can’t climb to the top, the unusual structure is a view in itself. To get there, walk up Georgetti Road passing a historic brickworks turned furniture studio. Once you reach the water tower, take your photos and prepare some great scenic views on the way back down Wairere Road.

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Beaches in Whanganui

If you haven’t had enough sight of water in the Whanganui River or even the mere presence of water from the cities water towers, then maybe the beaches will just give you that water fix. Surfers will find the best breaks on the Whanganui River mouth, along South Beach, and at the north of the river mouth at Castlecliff Bridge.

Castlecliff Beach

Time your visit at low tide to walk to the far cliffs of Castlecliff Beach. Otherwise, this is a popular swimming beach in summer. Castlecliff Beach is about a 10-minute drive from the city centre.

South Beach

Whanganui’s extreme beach: you can only access this super long stretch of sand by 4×4. Otherwise, parking is possible from a gravel road just off Airport Road on the banks of the Whanganui River, then walking over the sand dunes to the beach. Surfing is only advised if you are experienced, as this is not a patrolled area.

Kai Iwi Beach

Often described as the most scenic beach in Whanganui, this is a popular swimming beach in summer. It is well worth the 20-minute drive to the beach along State Highway 3 then turning off Rapanui Road to the beach.

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Parks and lakes in Whanganui

Escape the hustle and bustle of the city within the city! Whanganui has a great selection of parks full of wildlife and generally nice places to hang out.

Virginia Lake/Rotokawau Reserve

Pick from an upper, middle and lower walkway around this beautiful lake teeming with birdlife. Watch, pukeko, ducks, geese, white swans, black swans, tui, fantails, and more in the lake and gardens. In the centre of the lake the fountains perform in regular intervals, while the Winter Gardens, Art Garden and aviary are year-round attractions. Virginia Lake is situated on St Johns Hill just off State Highway 3, about a 5-minute drive from the city centre.

Queen’s Park

A park with a view, Queen’s Park is easily accessible from Whanganui’s city centre from Victoria Avenue. What once was a Maori pa (fortified village) is now home to the Whanganui Regional Museum, War Memorial Centre, the libraries, and the Sarjeant Gallery building. This is park is a perfect example to see some grand architecture in Whanganui.

Bason Botanic Gardens

If plants are more your thing, check out the Bason Botanic Gardens surrounding a small lake. The gardens hold one of the most extensive public garden orchid collections in New Zealand. The Bason Botanic Gardens are about 13-minute drive from Whanganui city centre. Take State Highway 3 north then on Rapanui Road.

Westmere Lake

For a more natural setting, Westmere Lake has a 30-minute walkway around the lake taking in the views of wildfowl and native birds. Westmere Lake is 10 minutes north of Whanganui along State Highway 3, then a short drive down Rapanui Road.

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The Whanganui River

A guide on Whanganui cannot go without a mention of the famous Whanganui River. The longest navigable river in New Zealand at 290kms long is the site of a New Zealand Great Walk, the Whanganui Journey.

Whether it’s by canoe or jet boat, there are some tour providers based in Whanganui who can transport you along the river so you can immerse yourself in the beauty of the Whanganui National Park. You can also see the river along the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, which ends in Whanganui where the river meets the sea. The cycle trail starts in Turoa, Ruapehu, and is 217km long, including a journey to the Bridge to Nowhere. Tour providers can also transport you and a bike to your desired cycle section from Whanganui. For more information on the Mountains to Sea Cycle Trail, check out Mountain Biking in Ruapehu.

Finally, another where to see the Whanganui River is by taking a self-drive tour along the Whanganui River Road. The road is just off State Highway 4 as you leave Upokongaro. The road passes a number of scenic campsites, historic Maori sites and natural wonders. Get some awesome views from the Aramoana Summit. Check out the Oyster Cliffs on the side of the road with layers of fossilised oysters, (but you might have guessed that). beautiful maraes can be seen in Atene, Koriniti and Matahiwi, which you can admire from the outside, as you will need permission to enter. Be sure to stop at Omorehu Falls before ending the Whanganui River Road at Pipiriki, which is the gateway to the Whanganui National Park.

If you have more time in Whanganui…

  • Walk among protected bird species in the native forest of the Bushy Park Reserve, a 20-minute drive north of Whanganui along State Highway 3
  • Check out the wares at The River Traders & Whanganui River Market every Saturday morning
  • Try your hand at glass blowing or watch a free glass blowing viewing at the Chronicle Glass Blowing Studio & Gallery on Rutland Street
  • Head to one of the nearby mountain bike parks: Araheke Mountain Bike Park, Lismore Forest, Hylton Park or Matipo Park
  • Geek up on your Whanganui and New Zealand history by doing the Whanganui Heritage Trail in the city. Pick up a Whanganui Heritage Guide from your hostel or information centre
  • For more things to do, check outĀ 10 Free or Cheap Things to Do in Whanganui.
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