People from countries with populations significantly larger than New Zealand's 3.6 million will probably surprised to learn that at 76,000 or thereabouts, Palmerston North is New Zealand's sixth largest city. It is, because of its numerous educational establishments, also the country's youngest city, with an estimated 50% plus of its residents being 25 years old or younger.
Massey University is the primary reason for Palmerston North's status. Founded as an agricultural college in 1927, offering degrees to Masterate level in Agricultural Science, along with several short courses in farming-related subjects. The college expanded to offer Horticulture after World War II, and was granted university status in 1963. Since then it has become a full scale multi-faculty institution, and the primary location to study subjects such as Veterinary Science. Today, it's a large and thriving place, with subsidiary campuses in Auckland and Wellington, and a very large pool of extramural students. The city's provincial status, with its low rents compared to Auckland or the capital, make it an attractive option for students considering the burden of debt their education will leave them with.
The city's teacher training college has merged with the university, and other tertiary institutions have sprung up – International Pacific College, which houses 500 or so overseas students from the Pacific Rim working towards qualifications in subjects like International Relations, English as a Second Language and International Economics, and UCOL – the Universal College of Learning – which has subsidiary campuses throughout the lower North Island and provides degrees, diplomas and certificates in applied subjects as varied as nursing and automotive engineering. Like any university town, research centres cluster around the place
It almost didn't happen though – nearby Wanganui was the first to be approached to open the college, but it turned the opportunity down; a decision which has left Wanganui languishing as a pretty, quiet, coastal backwater, while Palmerston North (in many ways a less blessed location in terms of natural features) goes from strength to strength.
Palmy, as it's affectionately known, isn't the prettiest place in the world. At its heart is The Square, a large, green area with bridges, duck ponds, statues, tables to eat your lunch and a clock-tower. It used to be quite a pleasant place, but recent council initiatives are swiftly turning it into a featureless mass of nothingness. There's ANZAC park, at the top of Pork Chop Hill which looks down over the city and shows it to be very green and kind of cuddly. There's the rose gardens at the Esplanade, next to the Manawatu river, which houses a magnificent array of established and experimental bushes (Palmy was known as Rose City, before it went all intellectual and rebranded as Knowledge City – all NZ towns have these subtitles), and that's about it for the city itself.
The weather isn't that great, either. While not as windy as Wellington, there's a constant westerly wind throughout spring until around Christmas which makes residents snappy and irratable by mid-November. Temperatures tend to be mild, and it rains more than many places.
It's not a place that attracts a lot of tourists.
This is, however, something of a pity, because if you look a bit harder, you find that Palmy has a lot going for it.
Firstly, Massey is a very attractive campus, with bush walks to explore, and some interesting art-deco buildings. On the top of the Tararua and Ruahine ranges, ten minutes out of town, is the ever expanding, and very eye-catching, wind farm – hundreds of white windmills rotating lazily like a flock of dizzy seagulls. The ranges themselves offer some of the best tramping (hiking) tracks and hunting in New Zealand, and the Manawatu river and its smaller cousins in the Pohangina valley offer some of the fattest trout and best fishing in the world. And then there's the magnificent Manawatu Gorge, seven kilometres of fissure that separate the two mountain ranges, with the river flowing through the bottom and steep rock faces rising above you with dozens of waterfalls of various sizes cascading down them. You can jet-boat on the river, or bungee-jump from the Ballance bridge at the far end, if you choose. It's breathtakingly beautiful the first time you see it, and still manages to surprise me every so often even after living within walking distance of it for seven years.
Within the city itself there are literally scores of restaurants – more per capita than anywhere else in the country -- ranging from cheap and cheerful to haute cuisine (I recommend Spostato to gourmets, their desserts are to die for). There are numerous bars, and the country's most successful multiplex cinema. There's also Cinema Gold, a fifty seat auditorium with easy chairs and wine taking the place of bucket seats and popcorn. The shopping is good, and there are plenty of bars.
Culturally, the city is very active, with the small Centrepoint theatre acting as a proving ground for new plays before they transfer to Auckland or Wellington, the recently and spectacularly refurbished Regent, which puts on the larger events like orchestral concerts, ballets and touring artists of all varieties, and the Globe, which is the eclectic community theatre, where amateurs and professionals alike put on things that might not have the audience appeal to fill the Regent. Palmy boasts a large museum, an extensive and challenging art gallery, an interactive science centre, weekly arts events at the university auditorium (entry for a dollar donation), and several annual literary festivals centred around the industrial-chic architectural wonder of the city library.
In terms of sport, The Adidas Institute of Rugby hosts training camps for players at all levels of the game, including national heroes The All Blacks, and Pascall Street stadium is a key venue for international events in many sports. You can go to stock car racing, speedway, the horse races or the trotting, and there's a large cycling track as well as all the usual sports fields, swimming pools and so on. Oh, and the national rugby museum is here too.
It's not glamorous, it wasn't a location for The Lord of the Rings, and it's never going to be the centre of the universe, but it's a pretty good place to live, work, and even visit if you happen to have a spare day while you're touring Aotearoa.