All abuzz in Palmy
There is a spark and a buzz to the centrepoint of Palmerston North that surprisingly uplifted me. 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.
She was cranking. Shoppers flocked along the wide footpaths grazing from the inviting retail offerings, locals enjoyed a languid autumn picnic or indulged in games on The Square's vast grassy carpet, while kerbside buskers revved up the ambience of Palmy's beating heart. The Square's seven hectares are dotted with a plethora of 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 Palmerston North to the Crown in 1865. That gracious statue is just one of 32 designated installations that comprise the city centre's eye-catching Arts Trail.
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. Remarkably, this visual atrocity and its soulless Soviet design came up trumps in a civic building design competition in the 1970s!
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 on. 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 landmark Museum of Art, Science and History. This cultural heavy-hitter is a storehouse of the region's story and taonga, beautifully displayed in the Manawatū 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.
Complementing Te Manawa's treats is the neighbouring NZ Rugby Museum, a compelling shrine to the heritage and glory of our national religion. 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 spanning 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 feature 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 love it — I was pretty useless.
Another local crowd favourite is the new He Ara Kotahi Pathway. Primarily developed as a commuter trail, on foot or by bike, its recreational appeal is not in question. There aren't many walkways in New Zealand where you traverse dairy farms, forests, pā sites, a military camp, streams and a river in less than nine kilometres, but that's precisely what He Ara Kotahi weaves together.
Just a few minutes from the city centre, a highlight is the 194-metre long bridge that spans Manawatū River. It's a head-turner come nightfall, lustily lit up by luminous spheres.
Another charismatic city haunt that instantly seduced me is alluring George Street, a bastion of boutique and bohemian chic owner-operated stores, plus a slew of convivial cafes, like Cafe Cuba, Barista and Moxie's, which have underpinned its gravitational pull. Taking its name from the city's first mayor, George Snelson, it was recently given a touch up as the street of famous Georges, 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 like 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 Street is currently playing host to a 2.5 metre high bronze gnome, that was unveiled in the city last year as the latest installment to Palmy's sculptural arsenal.
Foodie finds are thick on the ground in the heart of town, particularly along the hospo sweep of Broadway Ave, which beckons like the world on a plate.
My head was spinning as I sized up the myriad temptations, but I opted to join the effervescent Friday-drinks crowd who flock to Brew Union after work, which has cultivated a red-hot reputation as a trendy social nexus. It was absolutely cranking. This ebullient industrial-themed brewpub boasts 21 taps of NZ craft beers alongside wood-fired pizza, house-pressed burgers and lip-smacking sharing plate options.
Add to that, a dizzying array of 100 gins. I ordered up a Brew Union Golden Ale, which was delightfully crisp with a hint of grapes and citrus, alongside a sensational Buffalo Prawn pizza. Hand-stretched to order, Brew Union's wood-fired pizzas have a crisp and slightly smoky crust, a chewy bite and are artfully topped with super-fresh ingredients. It's just the place to raise a glass and toast Palmy's infectious urban spirit.