Once again, Lonely Planet has released its annual update, and once again Blenheim hasn't exactly fared well. Is there any basis for Lonely Planet's rather uninspiring rating of Blenheim? Are locals who get upset and think Lonely Planet is barking up the wrong tree just one eyed Marlborurians who can't see the flaws in the town? Or is it Lonely Planet who have got things completely wrong? Personally, I think there is a bit of both.
Growing up in Blenheim, for many years I'd have considered Lonely Planet's critique of Blenheim to be glowing praise, and I was like many other young people who couldn't wait to get out of the place, never to return. As fate would have it, I did end up returning, albeit dragged kicking and screaming, but as time as passed I've seen many positive improvements that make Blenheim, and indeed Marlborough a much better place to live. That doesn't mean the job is done, and there's plenty more that can be improved but it's good to reflect on some of the great things Blenheim does have on offer.
Blenheim may not have the same historic character as some other towns in New Zealand or overseas, but anyone who thinks there's nothing to do here hasn't looked very far. The town tends to keep reinventing itself, which means anyone looking for a load of heritage charm simply isn't going to find it in one convenient central location, although there is heritage around if you look for it. Saint Mary's Church immediately comes to mind as a magnificient wooden church well over 100 years old, tastefully restored and redecorated.
Blenheim has a number of attractive parks that are well worth visiting.l Pollard Park, although not as extensive as botanical gardens in other towns around New Zealand is still very attractive, and a venue for a number of events. The illuminated lights at night add a magical touch. Harling Park with it's Japanese style provides a different approach, and provides access to the Wither Hills Farm Park with its extensive network of walking and mountain biking tracks, which on a good day provide spectacular views of Cloudy Bay, and even the North Island. Via the Taylor River Reserve and its network of walking and cycle ways, it's almost possible to get from one side of Blenheim to the other without ever venturing onto the streets. Slightly further afield, and not strictly in Blenheim, the Wairau Lagoons walkway provides access to an important wetland habitat that also has historical links to some of the earliest human inhabitants of New Zealand.
I remember as a child, walking the Wither Hills when permission was required from the farm owners, and in much the same way it was required for access to the Wairau Lagoons. I also remember when swimming was strictly a summer activity. Now Blenheim has an indoor pool which is available year round, and next to it of course the stadium.
Other features of interest that have been developed over the last 20 years or so include the Marlborough Museum at Brayshaw Park, and the Marlborough Art Society's gallery along with the Millennium Gallery in the former library building on Alfred St, and the commercial Top Town Cinemas complex.
I've mentioned some of the features that stand out to me, but no doubt there will be others I've missed. On the other hand, the Lonely Planet report shows there's no room for complacency. Did the authors know about the attractions I've mentioned? If not, why not? If so, what else were they looking for?
I have to admit I'm not excited about shopping in Blenheim. There are a few outstanding truly local shops like Blenheim Bookworld, and the local institution, Thomas's, but to some extent Blenheim could be said to resemble a rather widely distributed suburban shopping mall with the usual assortment of national franchises. Sure, there's a place for national retail chains, as they keep locals at home, but without distinctive local retailers, there isn't going to be much appeal for visitors. The Marlborough Farmers' Market is a great opportunity to showcase local produce, but it's too little and too infrequent. Not everyone is going to be passing through Blenheim on a Sunday, and sometimes people might want more than food. The Farmers' Market concept could certainly be enhanced and extended to cover other locally produced goods, along with a more permanent central location.