Charismatic and compelling

Cuba St, Palmerston North.
Cuba St, Palmerston North.
Manawatu River.
Manawatu River.
Street art.
Street art.
Haru Japanese restaurant.
Haru Japanese restaurant.
Palmerston North's latern-crowned Hopwood Clock Tower.
Palmerston North's latern-crowned Hopwood Clock Tower.
Brew Union has 120 New Zealand beers on tap.
Brew Union has 120 New Zealand beers on tap.
Palmerston North has been unfairly scoffed at and derided by many a passing comedian. Mike Yardley was pleasantly surprised to explore a city groaning with eye-catching art and foodie finds.
 

There is a spark and a buzz to the centrepoint of Palmerston North that is surprisingly uplifting.

Boasting a true town centre, framed by The Square, an afternoon stroll through Palmy’s verdant heart laid bare how embracing and embraced the city centre is: it was cranking. Shoppers flocked along the wide footpaths, stopping at the many inviting retail offerings and locals enjoyed a languid autumn picnic or indulged in games on The Square’s vast grassy carpet, while buskers revved up the ambience of the city’s beating heart.

The Square, Palmerston North.
The Square, Palmerston North.
The Square is dotted with monuments, fountains and artful installations, ranging from the soaring lantern-crowned Hopwood Clock Tower to the glorious Carrara marble statue of Te Peeti Te Awe Awe, the Rangitaane chief who was instrumental in selling the land Palmerston North is built on to the crown in 1865.

That gracious statue is just one of 32 designated installations the city centre’s eye-catching arts trail comprises.

Don’t let the city’s brutalist building binge put you off. Mercifully, they do not get a mention on the trail map.

The city council building would have to be a top contender for New Zealand’s ugliest building. Remarkably, this visual atrocity and its soulless Soviet design came up trumps in a civic building design competition in the 1970s!

Numbers is a whimsical, joyful piece of street art, comprised of a stainless-steel cubes joined...
Numbers is a whimsical, joyful piece of street art, comprised of a stainless-steel cubes joined in a loop, to which random numbers in sheet bronze have been riveted.
Grab an arts trail map from the i-Site in The Square and you’ll be able to feast your eyes on this eclectic array of murals, mosaics, installations and sculptures on a leisurely 90-minute stroll. The murals along Berrymans Lane explode in a carnival of colour. I absolutely adore Paul Dibble’s tribute to the memory of the extinct huia, Ghost of the Huia. Equally commanding is his dramatic work outside the Regent Theatre, where a dainty dancer faces off against the steely gaze of a tuatara. Then there is Numbers, a whimsical, joyful piece, comprised of a series of stainless-steel cubes joined in a loop, to which random numbers in sheet bronze have been riveted.

Phil Price’s bright blue wind activated kinetic sculpture, United Divided, is another standout, as is his majestic bronze sculpture, Pacific Monarch.

Kids love the giant beetles crawling over the walls of Te Manawa, the city’s Museum of Art, Science and History. This cultural heavy-hitter is a storehouse of the region’s story and taonga, beautifully displayed in the Manawatu Journeys gallery. The adjoining art gallery showcases a vast stash of works, with regular visiting exhibitions and a space devoted to emerging talent from Massey University.

Te Manawa art Gallery.
Te Manawa art Gallery.
Complementing Te Manawa’s treats is the neighbouring New Zealand Rugby Museum, a compelling shrine to the heritage and glory of our national game.

It was established 40 years ago as a tribute to the founding father of New Zealand rugby, Charles Monro, who is immortalised in bronze on the outside forecourt. Home to one of the world's largest collections of rugby memorabilia — there are about 40,000 items — the treasures include the first "fern", the oldest All Blacks jersey, our oldest rugby ball and Dan Carter’s boots. Another star attraction is the "Have a Go" area, where you can put your rugby skills to the test, from pushing in a scrum and tackling to sprinting and kicking. Kids of all ages love it.

The New Zealand Rugby Museum is a must see for any visitor to Palmerston North.
The New Zealand Rugby Museum is a must see for any visitor to Palmerston North.
Another favourite is the new He Ara Kotahi Pathway. Primarily developed as a commuter trail, its recreational appeal is not in question. There aren’t many walkways in New Zealand where you traverse dairy farms, forests, pa sites, a military camp, streams and a river in less than 9km, but that’s precisely what He Ara Kotahi weaves together. Just a few minutes from the city centre, a highlight is the 194m bridge that spans the Manawatu River. It’s a head-turner come nightfall, lit up by countless luminous spheres.

Another charismatic city haunt that instantly seduced me was George St, a bastion of boutique and bohemian chic owner-operated stores, plus a slew of convivial cafes, such as Cafe Cuba, Barista and Moxies, which have underpinned its gravitational pull.

Named after the city's first mayor, George St is a bastion of boutique and bohemian chic.
Named after the city's first mayor, George St is a bastion of boutique and bohemian chic.
Taking its name from George Snelson, the city’s first mayor, George St was recently given a touch up with a "George"-themed Walk of Fame. The 35 George St portraits painted in the on-street parking spots include George Nepia, George Clooney, George Harrison, George Washington, and even fictional characters such as George Jetson and George of the Jungle.

Dubbed "Palmerston North’s Parnell", the beautifully-maintained character buildings of the street accentuate the precinct’s allure. George St is currently playing host to a 2.5m high bronze gnome, which was unveiled last year as the latest instalment to Palmy’s sculptural arsenal. Food finds are thick on the ground in the heart of town, particularly along the hospo sweep of Broadway Ave.

Mike Yardley is a freelance Christchurch travel writer.
 

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