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.
Categories: New Zealand, New Zealand towns