Barmy about Palmy

ON TRACK: Palmerston North's Esplanade Scenic Railway is  good for cheap train rides, weddings, and entertaining children.
ON TRACK: Palmerston North's Esplanade Scenic Railway is good for cheap train rides, weddings, and entertaining children.

Air New Zealand announced plans that it was to trial a new service between Nelson and Palmerston North at the same time as British television personality Jeremy Clarkson bucked a long-held trend and heaped gushing praise on the Manawatu city.

The airline says it had no knowledge of the Top Gear presenter telling British media last week that if God had got it right, "Jesus would have been from Palmerston North".

The comment was made following Clarkson's recent visit to New Zealand to film an episode of the BBC motoring show. He gushed over "absolutely stunning; bite-the-back-of-your-hand-to-stop-yourself-from-crying-out lovely" New Zealand.

Palmerston North is reeling from the praise, particularly after another British visitor, comedian John Cleese, said several years ago that the city should be renamed the "suicide capital of New Zealand" because "if you wish to kill yourself but lack the courage to, I think a visit to Palmerston North will do the trick".

The city has presented an easy target for visiting personalities in the past, but Clarkson had proven that he had good taste, Destination Manawatu chief Lance Bickford told Fairfax Media this week.

Air NZ chief operations officer Bruce Parton was amused but in the dark about Clarkson's praise, the day before the airline announced that it will trial a daily service between Palmerston North and Nelson from July 12.

He said the airline had worked with Palmerston North Airport to reintroduce the link, which was last operated by an Air NZ service in 2008.

Various airlines have tried to do so before.

A link between the two centres was originally operated by James Aviation, followed by Eagle Air and then Air Nelson. Former Nelson-based airline Origin Pacific Airways also had a crack at getting a Nelson-Palmerston North service up and running.

Mr Parton told the Nelson Mail there were a couple of reasons why Air NZ felt it was time to resume the service.

He said the airline was aiming more at the business and conference market rather than the leisure market.

"Business markets in both areas have grown since last time. There's a strong population in Nelson who live there and who have amazing businesses outside the centre and want to travel," Mr Parton said.

Feedback to the Nelson Mail on suggestions for what to do in Palmerston North revealed a mix of activities, from a thriving arts and culture scene to the more down-home attractions in the Esplanade, including human-sized mouse wheels and a "great flying fox", plus Owlcatraz, an aviary full of owls just south of the city.

Mr Parton said growth in activity around Massey University had also prompted the airline's decision, while in Nelson the leisure sector was a big drawcard.

People in Nelson studying extramurally through Massey, which required occasional travel to Palmerston North, were thrilled to have a direct air service, Mr Parton said.

He said the push had come from Palmerston North Airport management, along with support from Nelson Airport. It was also an outcome of the national carrier's special invitation-only "Think Regional" tourism forum held in Nelson last September.

Palmerston North Airport introduced a controversial departure tax in 1990 to help pay for a terminal rebuild. A pricing review by the airport company last year meant that from October 1, the $5 levy was dropped as a separate charge.

Mr Parton said the levy had been absorbed by airlines in their landing fees, and subsequently into ticket prices.

The new service will be operated by Air NZ subsidiaries Eagle Airways and Air Nelson, using Beech 1900D and Bombardier Q300 aircraft.

Mr Parton said it would increase the overall number of flights in both centres, as opposed to a redistribution of services across the network.

"We'll commit to the trial for six months, and have a look at it then."

The 45-minute service between Nelson and Palmerston North will operate twice each weekday, with one return service on Sundays. Fares are on sale now and start from $79 one way.


Lonely Planet's top picks for things to do in Palmerston North:

1) Esplanade Scenic Railway – good for cheap train rides, weddings, a cafe, and entertaining your children. Mooch around the adventure playground, aviary, conservatory, bike trails and walkways, or just chill out on the lawns.

2) The Dugald MacKenzie Rose Garden – once voted among the world's top five prettiest gardens, brings tears of pride to local eyes, and there's a permanent orienteering course there.

3) The New Zealand Rugby Museum – an amazing space overflowing with rugby paraphernalia, from a 1905 All Blacks jumper to a scrum machine and the whistle used to start the first game of every Rugby World Cup.

4) Te Manawa – merges a museum, art gallery and science centre into one experience. Vast collections join the dots between "life, art and mind". The museum has a strong Maori focus, while the gallery's exhibits change frequently. The New Zealand Rugby Museum is in the same complex.

5) Tararua Wind Farm – on the southwestern edge of Manawatu Gorge, about 40 minutes' drive from Palmerston North. This is allegedly the largest wind farm in the Southern Hemisphere. From Hall Block Rd there are great views of the turbines. Spinning similarly north of the gorge is Te Apiti Wind Farm.