The Sarjeant Gallery, Queen's Park (tel. 06/349-0506; www.sarjeant.org.nz), is one of the finest provincial galleries in the country. It boasts a large contemporary photographic collection and stunning architecture. It's open daily 10:30am to 4:30pm, holidays from 1 to 4:30pm (closed Dec 25 and Good Friday), and admission is free.
Nearby you'll find the Whanganui Regional Museum, Watt Street (tel. 06/345-7443; www.wanganui-museum.org.nz), which is renowned as New Zealand's finest provincial museum. It has rare collections of Maori canoes, artifacts, and moa bones. Before heading up the Whanganui River, make sure you see their excellent display and videos on the importance of the river. Kids will love the Bug Room and the moa skeletons. It's open daily 10am to 4:30pm (closed Dec 25 and Good Friday). Admission is NZ$6 for adults, and children 14 and under are free.
Ohorere Gardens, 1778 Papaiti Rd. (tel./fax 06/342-5848), is a private garden on the banks of the Whanganui River, 4km (2 1/2 miles) from the city center. You'll see camellias, rhododendrons, more than 100 varieties of old roses, and ponds. It's open September through April on Wednesday and Sunday from 10am to 4pm. The entry fee of NZ$10 includes tea and coffee but personally, I think you get better value at the free Virginia Lake and Bason Botanic Gardens, 552 Rapanui Rd. (www.basonbotanicgardens.org.nz), 11km (7 miles) out of town (pick up the brochure at the visitor center for directions), which is also free and is open daily from 8am until dusk, with the conservatories open daily 9am until 4:30pm. Bason boasts picnic spots aplenty and a glorious rare orchid display.
If you feel up to climbing hundreds of steps, cross the river to Durie Hill Elevator and Tower. Located opposite the Wanganui City Bridge at the bottom of Victoria Avenue, it begins with a pedestrian tunnel that takes you to the historic elevator, which in turn rises 66m (216 ft.) through the hill to the summit. You can then take the 191 narrow spiraling steps up the Memorial Tower for unparalleled views. Check with the visitor center for hours. For a lovely, quiet wander close to town, it takes a lot to beat Virginia Lake, on Great North Road on St. John's Hill (tel. 06/349-0001; www.wanganui.govt.nz). The lake is bordered by pleasant bush walks, hundreds of ducks waiting to be fed, a free-flying bird aviary that you can walk through, and a coin-operated fountain that impresses with brilliant colored displays at night. Walking around the lake takes approximately 30 minutes.
If you are interested in the arts, you'll be pleased to hear that some of New Zealand's top artists live in the area. Pick up the Arts & Cultural Trail, Arts Guide, and Whanganui Artists Open Studios brochures from the information center. They cover a wealth of painters, printmakers, sculptors, jewelers, potters, and glass artists. Chronicle Glass Studio & Tours, 2 Rutland St. (tel. 06/347-1921; www.chronicleglass.co.nz), is a collective of local glass blowers worth checking out.
A Traditional Marae Visit
If you would like to meet local Maori at the Koriniti Marae, Whanganui River Road, Wanganui (tel. 06/342-8198; fax 06/348-0398; www.koriniti.com), call first to make sure you do not interrupt private events like tangi (funerals). Visitors are welcome to take photographs at the marae and to look through the Whare Taonga (museum). There is no charge, but a koha (donation) is welcome.
The River Traders
Every Saturday, from 9am to 1pm, you'll find the colorful River Traders Market (tel. 06/343-9795; www.therivertraders.co.nz), beside the river. Go behind the Whanganui Riverboat Centre and turn right. You'll see the gathering of local artists, craftspeople, and organic produce sellers.