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The Art of Discovering a True Gem

It’s not often considered when it comes to luxury travel, but Joanna Mathers finds the Whangārei region is a diamond in the rough.

24 May 2023

A golden onion hovers atop a forest of masts. For travellers driving alongside Riverside Drive towards Whangārei’s Victoria Bridge it’s an unmissable beacon; a luminous orb signalling arrival at a significant destination.

The orb is the crowning glory of Whangārei’s Hundertwasser Art Centre, a gallery of international significance. The design of the gallery was gifted to the people of Aotearoa by the artist himself, but he never lived to see its completion.

Years of internal dissention and disagreement saw the project relegated to the backburner and it took years of agitation by a dedicated group of volunteers to see it created. The Project Action Team (a group of around 20 volunteers) charged themselves with bringing the art centre to life (they even undertook a referendum on the subject) and raised millions in funds.

And the glorious new centre (finally) opened earlier this year, bringing in crowds and accolades, a true gem in the city’s crown.

I’m visiting the art centre after a glorious five days at a luxe Airbnb on the edge of the Pataua River in Pataua South. Close to Whangārei Heads, it’s an area I’ve never explored, but it’s worth it. Just 30km from Whangārei there’s plenty for nature and ocean lovers in these parts, and some very luxurious accommodation … but more on this later.

Closest thing to heaven on Earth

Stepping into the Hundertwasser Art Centre is like journeying into a curved and comforting alternative reality. The floors undulate softly (it takes a little getting used to). Even the toilets are gloriously askew and ebullient – a riot of colour in this most utilitarian space. (His toilets in Kawakawa, 45 minutes north of Whangārei, are also well worth a look.)

Hundertwasser lived in the Bay of Islands for 24 years, and considered New Zealand the closest thing to heaven on Earth. Born in Vienna in 1920 and raised by a Jewish mother (his Catholic father dying when he was very young) he even joined the Hitler Youth to deflect attention away from his heritage.

But very few of his Jewish family would survive the ravages of Hitler’s death machine. Sent to concentration camps, 69 were murdered.

“This had a huge impact on his worldview,” says the excellent Hundertwasser ambassador and art centre guide Pam Tothill as we sit in an area dedicated to his youthful artistic endeavours.

“He was really aware of being the ‘only one left’, and felt responsible for doing something great on behalf of his family. To make the Earth a better place.”

Hundertwasser is known for his eschewal of straight lines (“he called them an invention of man, godless, leading to hell” says Tothill), his celebration of colour, and the organic motion that reflected the lines and exuberance of nature.

The horror of his early life led him to nature. He travelled Europe and Africa extensively, before discovering NZ in 1973. A trip to Fiordland after a touring show of his art led him to exclaim: “New Zealand takes me back to my origins. Like Israel is for the Jews, New Zealand is for me.”

A trove of off-kilter and joyous works

The art centre is a trove of his beautifully off-kilter and joyous works: ranging from the early dabblings to the conservation posters he created for Conservation Week in the 1970s. There are photographs of his property in the Bay of Islands; his move into architecture as he created a home from used bottles; the roof from earth and grass.

There is also an afforested roof atop the centre. Here you will find some very rare plants, including Pennantia baylisiana or kaikōmako. There is only one of these left in the wild, perched on a cliff on northern Three Kings Islands.

The art centre offers regular tours (public and, by arrangement, private) as well as function spaces where people can gather for special occasions. There is also an exclusive restaurant, Aqua, which exudes Hundertwasser quirkiness. The food is beautifully presented and delicious, there’s a deck which accommodates dogs and humans, and an excellent drinks selection.

Hundertwasser Art Centre may be one of the major drawcards for Whangārei right now, but it is far from the only attraction. There are some amazing offerings up here. For example, MV Waipapa is available for charter per hour and can take visitors on harbour cruises or to Parua Bay Tavern on the Whangārei Headland. Further out, there are spectacular spots to stay and explore.

Conservation project with history

One of these is Tahi Eco Retreat. Situated 30km from Whangārei in Pataua North, it is set on 316ha of bush-clad land on the edge of the Pacific Ocean. Lesley Vincent, services manager for Tahi, explains the retreat is one aspect of a conservation project that began nearly 20 years ago.

The land had been deforested to create farmland, but the owners have a commitment to returning it to its original state. Nearly 30ha of wetlands have been restored, 349,000 native trees planted, and over 71 species of bird returned. There are also native fish, lizards and insects returned after many years.

Three original cottages have been renovated for guests to use: “We are in the process of updating them again,” says Vincent. She explains that the self-catered cottages are incredibly popular over the warmer months when guests go hiking, swimming at a nearby beach, birdwatching and exploring the beautiful spot.

There is also a barn that can be used for small events such as intimate weddings. In summer they have a popular café that serves breakfast and lunch.

The land is also home to many bees. Tahi Honey is created here, which is carbon neutral and GE free.

Beaches on this coast are spectacular and perfect for a range of water sport. The Pacific Ocean is nearby, and further up you can find some of the best beaches in the country, including the secluded white sands of Whale Bay.

All in all, Whangārei and its nearby coastal surrounds are a true gem. It’s not often considered when it comes to luxury travel, but for those who love art and nature and want to truly escape it all, this district is ideal.

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