My seven-year-old son has decided to be a police officer. “That’s gonna happen,” he tells me as we exit Porirua’s Police Museum in an orderly fashion and get into my grey Mazda Crapolla, belting ourselves in and then driving away in a southerly direction without breaking the speed limit. “Definitely.”
That’s the effect the small but perfectly formed place has on him. When I say small, it’s with the ‘all things are relative’ rule in mind. It’s tiny if your usual cultural intake is courtesy of Te Papa, but otherwise, well, size isn’t an issue here. There’s plenty to see and do to fritter away an hour or more, and as the first stop on Theo and Dad’s Big Day of Adventures it sets a solid bar. Besides, it’s hard to argue with free entry.
Old traffic patrol cars, a heavy-on-the-lights motorcycle and the stories of some early real-life New Zealand crime caught my attention, while Theo, perhaps worryingly, seemed more attracted by the dark underbelly of what was on display.
“I saw some weapons and some guns and a giant car crash. It was amazing. When I saw that I couldn’t believe it. And guns. Can we get some guns on the way home.” Is that the definition of counter-productive? For good measure, on the way out I forced him to fossick through the dress-up wardrobe and took a picture of him as a copper to bribe him with should he drift off the tracks later in life.
From the Police Museum to Aotea Lagoon by car is as easy as Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and takes approximately 30 seconds. In fact, it took longer to coax Theo into the car and sort his seatbelt out than to drive across the road and down a bit.
As I write the following, it’s probably worth mentioning, in the interests of transparency, that I’m a resident of Upper Hutt and an unwavering advocate of Harcourt Park as the most perfect family park-type experience it’s possible to have. Imagine how difficult it must be, then, for me to report that Aotea Lagoon might be nearly as good. In fact, there were moments in which I felt it might just edge my local outdoor Utopia in some areas.
Oh, let’s face it, the place is amazing. The multiple gardens and grassy areas, the petanque oval, the windmill and the exercise areas are all perfectly laid out, astonishingly clean and well maintained, and ideal for any age. The playground, though, is where Aotea Lagoon comes into its own. Theo and I could have played there for hours, and would have if he hadn’t dragged me away with his sights firmly on the next Big Adventure.
If you’re in the area on a Sunday afternoon, the miniature railway runs from 1pm until 4 pm and tickets are just $2.50. Kevin, the train’s number one engineer, tells me it is also for hire if you’ve got a family Christmas party coming up or a kid’s birthday. One hour of going round and round in circles will cost $150.
The star of the show on a wet day in Porirua is Pataka Art + Museum. Even better, it shares a car park with Te Rauparaha Arena and the Arena Aquatic Centre. We’ll get into our Speedos for a dip soon enough, but first there’s the small matter of an altogether drier stroll around Pataka.
The very first work as you enter also happens to be Theo’s favourite, and I find myself agreeing with the discerning view that he shares at top volume, shattering the hitherto peaceful tranquillity inside the beautiful building. “Dad,” he hollers, “it’s a bull. Awesome!” Then, pointing at what makes it obvious that the animal is, as reported, a bull and not a cow, he continues to shout, “Look. Look, Dad. Look!” The bull in question is by Wellington artist Michel Tuffery and is made entirely of corned beef tins (minus the corned beef), which is a not-so-subtle nod to the something, something, artistic something. I wasn’t really paying attention to the information, I just liked the sculpture.
Pataka charges nothing to enter, though you can donate, which seems to me to be a worthwhile cause. I love the courtyard out the back with its historic buildings and the wall of faces painted by local children, and Theo was keen on the café (Kaizen). Take it as a good thing that the well-appointed eatery was too busy for us to even get a seat. Pataka’s exhibitions change regularly but the website (pataka.org.nz) is easy to negotiate and contains plenty of information.
As much as possible, I’ve set out to make this a guide to either free or extremely good-value places to visit. It’s into the latter category that Arena Aquatic Centre fits. It has the usual array of indoor swimming centre attractions: a 25-metre pool, a spa and sauna, a hydroslide and lazy river, and a toddlers’ pool, but there are several stand-out differences — especially if you have a young family.
First, bring lunch. As odd as it seems, almost no one anywhere likes you to take your own food. Not because it makes a mess, but because it impacts their bottom line. They logic they use is that if you take a sandwich you’re less likely to buy a greasy hotdog and stale fries for $49 (extra for sauce). Movies, pools, the stadium… you can’t take your own food anywhere — except here. Pack tiny triangular ham and cheese sarnies into a Tupperware container with apples and bananas and miniature bags of chips, take the whole lot in with you and they’ll love you for it. Helen Brookes, the Aquatic Centre business manager, says the only thing they ask is that you don’t take glass. Best to put everything in plastic.
Second, everything is included in the pretty modest ticket price (a family of five gets in for $18.20). By which I mean that if you want to leave the other half with the kids and spend 20 minutes in the sauna, that’s included. If you want to take a spa, or watch on anxiously as your fearless kids hurtle down the hydroslide, that’s included.
Third, they cater more to small children than most of the other pools. The lazy river, for example, winds its way to the shallow end of the pool. And there’s a Kindy Gym programme that runs on weekdays on what Helen calls the ‘dry side’ of the centre. For an hour a day under-fives do gymnastics. Brilliant.
Theo and Dad’s Big Day of Adventures had to take a lunch break by now, so we veered off State Highway 1 into Plimmerton. There is, to be fair, not much in Plimmerton, but we like it. An ice cream and a stroll past the picturesque fire station, a little pizza and coffee, or running over rocks and collecting sword (sticks) and moon rocks (pumice) are all good, free fun if the weather’s right.
That reminds me. If you’re of a mind to take a hike with the family, or suggest that they take a hike without you, the Porirua City Council (PCC) website is an unusually good resource for information, with a ‘Top 12’ list of walks and a brief description of each one along with maps. Likewise for cyclists there’s a downloadable document with maps of the best rides in the area.
On the way home across the Haywards towards Pauatahanui, Theo and I stop at the Camborne Walkway (on the PCC’s list at number 4) so he can burn off some energy. It runs from Grays Road all the way along the Pauatahanui inlet almost to Mana and is listed as a 45-minute walk in each direction. With a seven-year-old it’s 20 minutes there and about four hours back (he’s easily distracted, though where he gets that from is hard to… ooh, look a cave).
Turns out, there’s plenty of free, or great-value, stuff to do with kids in P‑Town whatever the weather.