Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Kiwi towns

Apparently, John Cleese trashed Palmerston North on his website, describing it as "suicide capital of New Zealand" after his recent visit here.

While Manawatu luminaries naturally feigned surprise and outrage, NZPA columnist Belinda McCammon thought it an opportune moment to dredge up all the nasty things that celebrities (from Charles Darwin on) had said about NZ (I don't know; you try and be a smart ass, and find that you've actually taken a literal tone...)

Cleese was hardly being original, anyway. PN is the currently accepted whipping-post for NZers wanting to dump all their fears about being provincial and backward onto a single place.

I forget exactly who was the recently returned NZ author, exiled in Europe for many years, who wrote in a column in the Dom Post that: "Those who grew up in Palmerston North dreamed of escape. Those who gew up in Fielding dreamed only of death".

Invercargill, immortalised by Keith Richards as "the asshole of the world", has now been rehabilitated somewhat. It seems you can't stay rock bottom for too long before you become edgy and avant garde.

A litle while ago a fashion-conscious friend of mine even suggested it could be a hidden gem. "Study journalism at the tech nearly for free; do a diving course; fresh oysters; great walking tracks on your doorstep; Queenstown and Central Otago just up the road", she listed with growing conviction. Mind you, she did grow up in AshVegas.

It's all put me in the mood to make a new "best and worst list". New Zealand is a country where urban development often seems to have been treated as an afterthought, and NZers and foreigners alike have long written off particular places as unbelievably dull, sterile and provincial (until recently, foreign travel writers often did this to NZ towns and cities en masse) . Yet it's not all bad - there have always been spots with some charm and flair. And other places with potential that sadly hasn't been realised.

Having travelled around most (though not all) of New Zealand in several tours with a folk-rock covers band, I've also been a keen observer of how the atmosphere and character changes from place to place.

Here are my picks and special mentions:

Ugliest town: Very hard to go past Huntly. Kind of Hull-on-the-Waikato ambience. Has a depressed and slightly creepy feeling. There was a fuss a couple of years ago when a motorway extension was being built in the area and local Maori claimed that a taniwha was being disturbed. Not hard to believe. Drive past the area aptly known as Long Swamp, not far north of Huntly, and you get the distinct impression that several mean-spirited taniwhas lurk nearby.

Honourable mention: Blenheim - I haven't been there for a few years, and people tell me that all the sauvignon blanc money that's poured in has changed the face of it a bit. But it would be a slow process prettifying a place which seemed to have made a serious study in defying the surrounding natural beauty by being as featureless and dull as possible.

Most attractive town: no obvious winner. Of course, New Zealand is full of diverse and dramatic natural beauty. Some of the urban spots which haven't squandered the benefits of their settings, and have even added to them, include: Paihia and Russell, Picton, Akaroa, Arrowtown, Clyde, Lyttelton, Oamaru, Hanmer and Martinborough.

Most underated: 1. Cromwell - before it became Pinot Noirsville, there was an austere charm to Cromwell, nestled in its desert setting under the Pisa Range. Most of the old stone town centre was drowned when the Clyde Dam created Lake Dunstan, but some of it is still preserved. Less well acknowledged, the new town was innovative (for NZ) with its "greenway" which ensures swathes of green public space between the residential crescents and cul-de-sacs.

Summers are actually hotter than in neighbouring Alexandra, and the general atomsphere is much nicer. There's a lazy rural feel and people are open and extra friendly. Though I'm still not sure about those giant fruit...

2. Westport - walk down Wesport's main street and it feels like you're stepping back thirty, or even fifty years. It has an uncontrived nostalgia, almost a sense of being forgotten. With almost everywhere these days featuring compulsory snappy cafes with fusion cuisine and latte, there's something comforting about heading down to the tearooms for a greasy mixed grill with shoddy filter coffee. The fact that, since its heyday, change has always come slowly to this remote spot, gives it a lingering sense of history. It's got a lush, mild feel, and is on the doorstep of some wild, beautiful scenery.

As a touring band, it would have to rank among the top few places we ever played. At the Black & White pub, gigs were genuinely wild, as locals and folk in from the bush mixed with backpackers sensing this was one place they could throw off their inhibitions and have a truly good time.

Most overrated: 1. Nelson. Don't get me wrong, the natural setting is absolutely outstanding, between the sea and three different ranges of mountains. The layout of the town is attractive enough as well, with its greenery, cathedral set amidst gardens, and the white hospital on the hill. But the cold, snobbish ambience is exactly what you'd expect if you took Christchurch, with all its stratified reserve, and shrunk it to one seventh its size.

2. Motueka - again, the sun and scenery flatter to deceive. This is Timaru with grapefruit. Stay around too long and you start to hear the banjos being plucked.

Biggest failure to take advantage of natural attributes: Napier and Hastings - the only real natural drawback of the twin Bay cities is that they're a bit isolated. In their favour is a decent port, perhaps the best climate in New Zealand, historic wealth from the hinterland - now with international prominence for its Bordeaux-style red wines - collective population great than Dunedin, and the silver lining of having to start afresh after the 1931 earthquake.

Yet Napier and Hastings have divided themselves rigidly along class lines, carried on internecine squabbles over infrastructure, and ended up creating a rather dull place which has little cultural, economic, educational or political impact on the New Zealand scene.

Honourable mention: Whangarei - warm, lush, surrounded by unique mangrove swamps, native bush and bird life, and island-dotted bays and beaches so beautiful they make you weep, you'd think the town could have been inspired to do better. But again, class differences and poverty are the strongest impressions.

Please post your own views of the best and worst of NZ's towns. I realise there's a distinct South Island bias in the ones I've mentioned here. Some parts I haven't really visited at all include Southland, Eastern Bay of Plenty and East Cape. And some of my judgements are based on more fleeting impressions than others, so feel free to vehemently disagree.

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Susan said...

I have to agree that Palmerston North is the most dire of places. I spent a night there last year when I was teaching at the Open Polytechnic and have to say I have seldom encountered a more inhospitable bunch of people and a less enticing place. One of their problems seems to be that they have a captive market with the large university population and they really don't try to attract visitors from out of town. Indeed, they actively discourage them. The cafes I struck were grossly overpriced and the food very indifferent; the cafe that supposedly served breakfast didn't have much more on the menu than baked beans. I was offered weetbix out of a box, and when I asked for yoghurt was told that I would "have to pay more". It was like getting blood out of a stone even to get toast and marmelade. Dinner the night before appeared more elaborate but the food was very ho hum and not worth the money. No one from the Polytech offered me hospitality - told me they "weren't funded" to cover visitors meal costs (unusual in these situations) but left me to fend for myself, and to add insult to injury I had to PAY to leave the airport! It's the only place to my knowledge that has a departure tax for domestic flights. The blackboard menu at the airport cafe turned out to be just for show. The person in front of me was told in no uncertain terms - just what's in the cabinet now, we're not putting anything else out as it's already 12.30!! I'm with John Cleese on this one!

For the most under-rated town I would pick Wanganui. Everything is close to the main centre, nice parks, no traffic problems, great cafes on the main street, good shopping at leisure - obviously not like a huge metropolis but surprisingly wide range of good stuff. The walks that have been developed along both sides of the river are fantastic - you can walk for miles crossing the bridges when you want to. OK I wouldn't want to live there permanently but really it's a pleasant town to visit and way more interesting that most of the surrounding towns and seems to have a sense of civic pride in keeping the town looking attractive.

I agree about Nelson being over-rated. Have never liked the place for the reasons you describe. For different reasons Queenstown is heading the same way. Why would you want to go there these days? Over-priced and over hyped I say.

Let's have some more comments please!

Cecilia said...

Well, obviously my experience of NZ towns is limited and I certainly try to avoid places like Palmerston North when I do come back. I know it's years since I went to Nelson, but I always thought it was a beautiful town with nice weather. I guess I have no memory of the "cold, snobbish ambience" though you're hardly the first person to mention it.
Lyttleton might not be some people's choice due to the industrial appearance of the port, but I personally have always liked what the port represents. Lyttleton gets big points on natural setting of course, but it also has retained some character in the architecture and streets. One thing I notice every time I come back to Christchurch is the blockish and entirely functional buildings. I'm not talking about the Arts Center/ Worcester Blvd etc. or people's houses, but just urban areas which aren't historic enough to preserve. For example, when was home in December, they were pulling down the building opposite Les Mills on Cashel St. The building wasn't that interesting but it had red brick from many years ago and had, well, some "character". Certainly, it was infinitely better than the grey block depicted on the sign as replacing it. Anyway, this is all a long winded way of saying, that one of Lyttleton's strengths is that the streets and commercial spaces have avoided morphing into faceless grey blocks.

Akaroa and Hanmer are also very attractive towns to visit. Akaroa doesn't feel like anybody actually lives there who isn't a tourist or in the tourist industry, but the upside of that is good food and excellent coffee. Also, some really great (and really expensive) clothing stores. Akaroa also gets points for the lighthouse and the cemetery. Hanmer seems more like a town where people actually live. Once again, tremendous natural setting and they haven't manage to ruin it with ugly buildings. I found people there to be laid back and friendly. It also seemed to be substantially warmer than other places in Canterbury.

Well, I know I haven't talked about anywhere you haven't already mentioned, but then my recent experience of NZ towns is very limited. These days, my impressions are strongly influenced by two factors 1) the food I eat there, and 2) the weather when I visit. So, for example, on my last trip, Rangiora appeared really quite pleasant due to the yummy lunch at the Blue Rooster (kudos to Sophia for this one) and hanging out in the park in the sunshine.

Simon Bidwell said...

yes, I almost mentioned Wanganui. I also like its gardens and its river, while its town centre has been successfully prettified. On the other hand, we found it rather stuffy and unwelcoming when we played there, with a pretty dead nightlife. I acknowledge this was a fleeting impression, since we only played there once.

Queenstown: overall the town doesn't contribute much to its setting (and for natural beauty, I think Wanaka wins out). But, though expensive, it's definitely a party town, and I have always had a good time when I've been there.

Yes, agree about Lyttelton. I like the port, the sense of comings and goings, and the many historical elements which have been retained. There's a vibe of old saltiness, and people relax more than they do over the hill.

Which brings me on to Christchurch, which is where I agree most vehemently. Chch considers itself a conservative and tasteful place. But it’s conservative only in rejecting almost everything new and bold, while having allowed its history to be eroded, preserving only some bits of shrink-wrapped Anglican Gothic memorabilia.

If you look at photographs of central ChCh in the 1940s, it actually had many grand, attractive buildings. With a few exceptions, these have been replaced by boxes like the one you describe on Cashel St that are ugly, faceless, and above all, cheap (you can forgive lack of taste, but lack of money is worse).

The charming, olde English bits of ChCh are counterbalanced by the Olympian awfulness of some of the rest of the architecture – the central Post Office being the outstanding example.

The Catholic Basilica, perhaps the city's most impressive building, has never been viewed as a civic asset, and has been left to slowly decay.

Overall, the city has suffered from about 50 years of complete lack of vision. Things have picked up in the last ten under the Buck/ Moore regimes (some good new things like the Art Gallery + someone's finally discovered the potential of the brick areas from Bedford Row – High St), but they have still been a bit timid (like, how hard would it have been to fully close off Cathedral Sq? With good 1-way systems north and south, why do you need Colombo St to run though the Sq?)

[actually, I had deliberately left the cities (Ak,Wtn, ChCh, Dun & Hmtn) out, but had to have that rant...]

Hanmer is great, though I understand it is getting a bit overrun a la Arrowtown now. It has an almost European spa kind of feel, and though I don't really believe in the "plant fascists", I would defend those big old pine and fir trees to the death, should they become an issue.

You're right, the Hanmer-Waiau-Rotherham area is significantly warmer (in summer) than the rest of Canterbury, though I think that Waipara (next valley across; the main wine growing area) is a bit warmer still. In the winter they have snow.

Emma said...

The building in Cashel street was mostly empty and then burned out I believe. So it was demolished due to it being somewhat of a hazard.

If you want to talk about the abominations of Christchurch, how about we discuss the malls?

Now onto Palmerston North. I moved here on a whim for what was to be a quick stay and ended up living here for almost two years. It is unpleasant, but I'm not sure it deserves the derision it is receiving. For me the bright spots include the newly redone (and very controversial) square, and well maybe that's about it. There are a few cool little gems like Ihi on George Street. Mao Bar and Relax which are two bar/cafes that do good food and great drinks. The biggest issue for me is the dearth of vegetarian food, which is a problem outside the main centres.

By far its worst feature is ABOMINABLE roading. Whoever designed some of the intersections, or traffic flows was INSANE. A city this size should not have traffic issues, and yet it does.

The windmills are a lovely feature.

I agree with you about Cromwell. I have a soft spot for 90s Wanaka (gone downhill now as I understand it) I love Fox Glacier.

I would like to vote for Bulls. For worst town. I mean, does anyone really need that many bull puns? Or am I just being a meany pants?

This is an incoherent comment.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Emma - good to hear from someone who has actually lived there instead of just passing through.
Re Bulls: Yes agree about the silly puns - I guess if the only thing going for you is the rather ridiculous name of your town you have to do something about it - but in this case just make it more ridiculous. And even worse, they have all those "antique shops" - (do they have jokes about "bull in a china shop"?) The one star of Bulls is the Scullys Lavender shop - not that it would appeal to the male of the species. I always stop there and stock up on the great hand creams and lavender oil. But live there - I don't think so!

Simon Bidwell said...

hmm, like "the only place you can get milk from bulls" ?

I actually think Bulls is quite an attractive town, in a gentrified, Martinborough-esque kind of way. As a junction point, it hasn't been left to decay like some others, and even has a few ethnic cafes, plus the previously mentioned lavender shop.

Should note that I personally have nothing major against Palmerston North. The town centre is actually quite attractive, there's a couple of pretty churches, and in term time it has almost a touch of Dunedin.

I think it suffers a bit from the general blandness of south Manawatu. if you're coming from the south, you wind along the spectacular Kapiti coast, then somewhere around Levin/Foxton it tirns to...blah. Likewise if you're coming from the north and the Desert Road/Taupo.

Emma said...

I'm just blinded by the puns.

sophia said...

I've always thought Geraldine was highly underrated. It is in a beautiful area close to some of Sth Canterbury's last remaining original bush, good climate, pretty town. Not that big but surprisingly un-hick for it's size, although admittedly most of the people I know don't actually live right in town. Great place to play gigs as well and they have quite a few festival/events in the summer.
Jeremy I know really enjoyed living in Dunedin - great hills and beaches and a really interesting city community-wise, good music (not just alt-rock there seems to be plenty of everything going on down there) but the climate is a problem if you don't like the cold. Having said that Dunedin isn't particularly wet compared to some of the country.
I guess most places can be the best place/worst place in the country depending on what you need at the time.