"You need to go here, here and here,” says the woman at Te Manawa the Hub info centre in Whangārei’s town basin.

She’s circling various attractions and places on a map with a highlighter. Seeing it all in one day may be ambitious, I realise.

First, we will explore the town basin itself. This is where international yachts tie up, where travellers gather, where adventures begin and end. Locals bring their visitors here and some come regardless of visitors in tow to see art, eat out, shop for gifts and walk around the marina. A popular, easy walkway has been developed, looping along the foreshore, past yachts and boat sheds, over a beautiful stylish bridge, past public artworks.

It’s also just a great place to pause. We sit on a sunny park bench with our map, planning the day. Nearby, children enjoy an innovative-looking playground; little dogs cheerfully greet each other.

Spoiled for choice for coffee stops, we opt for take-outs and wander through a community arts space while it’s being made. This is a co-op with many beautiful, locally made things for sale – leather bags, jewellery, woodwork and ceramics. A community weaving project on a massive loom holds various artists’ work in its warp and weft.

Burning Issues is a well-known craft stop, famous particularly for its glass art, but it sells quality ceramics and jewellery, too. An extra attraction is the glass blower at work on the premises. We watch Keith Grinter work on a bronze coloured bottle, impressed by the extreme physicality of his art, the mix of high heat, bold movements and magic, creating fragile things of beauty.

Next door, a master jeweller is at work on his glorious, intricate adornments. There is something very special about watching such things come to life.

Still in the town basin, we wander down to Reyburn House, a heritage building housing Society of Arts members’ recent paintings. Looping back, we step into the Whangārei Art Museum, a great space for important shows including, today, a photography project showing the progress of the Hundertwasser Art Centre taking shape outside. This is a game-changer. The building, which will house original Hundertwasser works on loan from Vienna and a contemporary Māori Art Gallery, is already incredibly interesting. I was told it’s on track to open in the summer of 2021 and meanwhile, Whangārei is buzzing with anticipation. Nods to the architect’s unique aesthetic can be seen around town already; posts and poles painted in shiny stripes, jewel-coloured murals in vaguely Hundertwasser style.

It’s not all about art at the town basin. It’s also about boats, of course, with seafaring storytelling in the air. I notice kayaks can be hired from the same place as bikes and a second-hand boat bits place is doing a roaring trade.

It’s also about food. Cafés and bars are full of people meeting, socialising with civilised grace.

The clock museum is here, too. Claphams National Clock Museum may be one of those places you mean to go to but never get around to. Well, bother. It’s fascinating. About 1400 time pieces of all shapes and sizes are in this surprising collection, from massive civic clock mechanisms to grandfather clocks, cuckoo clocks, moon dials, multiple watches and novelty clocks. I particularly like the dog clock;
he wags his tail and pokes out his tongue in time with his ticking pendulum.  

Reminded that time’s passing, we walk into town and find The Piggery second-hand book shop in Walton Street. It used to be out at Whangārei Heads in an old piggery, thus the name, but it’s been where it is now for 25 years. Around the corner, shops, a pedestrian mall and intriguing arcades keep us busy for a while.

While it’s close enough to walk, we opt to drive to The Quarry Arts Centre in Selwyn Avenue. This community hub of galleries, artist studios, workshops and a craft co-op shop built in a disused quarry is testament to the highly creative character of Whangārei. The Quarry has been going strong for years and has changed over time but remains a genuine treasure and a welcoming place to visit. Today the Yvonne Rust Gallery is packed with entries for a ceramics award. Plinths bristle with an incredible variety of work from all over New Zealand.

Further north, along what’s known as the Western Hills, is another old quarry, this one dedicated to plants. Whangārei Quarry Gardens, on Russell Road, was developed by volunteers over 20 or so years and is wonderful. Its sheltered microclimate makes it ideal for native and exotic subtropical plants – think bromeliads, orchids and palms; a lake, delightful trickling streams and pretty waterfalls irrigate the valley. It adds up to a very calming and refreshing place to spend time. Plus, it’s free.

Shaded picnic tables wait for travellers passing through with their own lunchboxes and thermoses; those less organised, like us, can opt for a cup of tea at Quail Café. From there, we go up. Mt Parihaka, once the site of the largest pā in New Zealand, watches over the city and beyond.

There are many walkways and cycle paths in Parihaka Scenic Reserve; several sweaty people arrive at the summit while we’re there, appearing to have run the two kilometre path from Mair Park below.

In far more relaxed mode, we lean on the railing of the viewing platform and look out over Whangārei. The city is compact and sheltered and oozes a laid-back, comfortable vibe from on high.

North lies Kensington, Tikipunga and Kamo. Out west, we see volcanic rises, forest and farmland. Down the harbour is Marsden Point and the refinery and opposite, Whangārei Heads and the distinctive silhouettes of Mt Manaia and Bream Head. That’s where we’re headed for the night; we take a few more photos, take in the view, softening now in the evening light, and follow a group of other tourists back to the carpark.

Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Spring 2020 issue

More information

See AA Traveller for more to experience in Whangārei. Pick up a Must-Do Northland visitor guide and regional maps from your local AA Centre.

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