A boat turned tiny house is Whanganui’s cutest stay

"There once was a ship that put to sea..."

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As a travel writer for more than a decade, I’ve stayed in a lot of accommodation over the years. From sleeping on a pile of mats in a yurt in Kyrgyzstan to flashy five-star hotels in Dubai, I’ve seen it all. But one thing that hasn’t changed is that little hit of serotonin you get when you walk into a hotel for the first time, and you immediately love it. 

If there is one place that’s been consistently fabulous for accommodation in New Zealand, it has to be Canopy Camping. A collection of unique glamping sites around New Zealand, they have some of the coolest places you can stay. All off the beaten track, many are on private farms or in wilderness areas that allow you to enjoy nature in comfort. Some are like cabins or huts, others are big canvas tents, and most reflect the feeling and history of the place.

When I learned I would be going up to Whanganui, there was one place I was dying to stay with them – the Iona Tiny House, a historic boat-turned-tiny house. Sign me up!

iona tiny house

iona tiny house

Just two hours north of Wellington on New Zealand’s North Island, Whanganui is a great getaway, especially for those looking to get off the beaten track. Over the past few years, the city transformed into a veritable hub of art and culture. And with beaches, mountains, and beautiful nature right on your doorstep, Whanganui ticks all the boxes. 

You don’t need to spend much time in Whanganui to realize how important the Whanganui River is. It’s the first in the world to be considered a legal person. The river itself is also one of the Great Walks in New Zealand, except you paddle in a canoe instead of walking. 

As long as humans have been in New Zealand, the Whanganui River has held great importance to Māori and later on to Europeans. Boating along its shores has long been a tourist activity, and water is important to Māori, linked to identity, transport, and food gathering.

“Ko te wai te ora ngā mea katoa” – Water is the life giver of all things

The Whanganui River cuts right through town before meeting the Tasman Sea. No matter where I found myself, I was never far from the river. 

Reflecting the history and importance of the river itself is the Iona Tiny House. Perched above the river banks next to town, it is a haven and relaxing place. It’s one of those places you get to and never want to leave. I could feel a smile lighting up my face as I walked down the little path to the front of the house; I had never seen anything quite like it!

This cute tiny house is built into the hull of the Iona, an old kauri and totara riverboat used for fishing a century ago in Dunedin. Local architect Elinor McDouall saw the old boat for sale on Trademe in Northland in 2016 and decided to give it a new lease on life.

As someone who chronically takes on projects that she grossly underestimates the work involved, I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it would have been to turn this into the stylish home we enjoy today.

Coming in at only 35 square meters, the Iona Tiny House is small but packs a big punch. It’s also the first urban glamping place I’ve stayed. Across the river from the historic downtown, a road runs alongside it. You’re only a few minutes walk away from everything you might need. 

But once you pull in and park your car, you’ll quickly realize it’s set up to feel like you’re off the grid. You don’t hear or see any neighbors. Surrounded by native bush, there’s a little private path to the river. 

As you get out of the car, you see the hull of the Iona forms the back of the house, still distinctly boat-shaped. Then you meander around a wooden plank path to arrive at the front, which overlooks the river. With a wooden spa outside, it couldn’t be more idyllic. It’s also fully enclosed and set up like a home, so it’s less glamping and more tiny house-ing. It can be opened up or closed off. 

You can tell the Iona Tiny House is a true labor of love. 

With a kitchen you can easily stay in and not even leave, watching the river meander by from the bed. Tucked into a bit of a nook, it’s the epitome of cozy. There’s even a little hidey hole where kids can sleep. Keep your eyes peeled for a friendly cat that pops by some evenings for pats. 

There’s a curved sofa built into the hull of the ship where you can curl up with a book and just be at peace. With a little logburner, it’s the epitome of cottage-core. Though I was here in the middle of the summer, so it was definitely not needed.

I spent nearly a week at the Iona Tiny House, which was such a treat for me. Usually when I travel, I move around a lot. To be able to settle in, bring in groceries, and take my time made me feel like I could really appreciate this place. 

It rained a lot while I was in Whanganui because of the unusual cyclone up north at the time. I might be the only person who loves it when it rains. Down in Wanaka where I live on the South Island, it’s very dry. It doesn’t rain a lot. This summer was particularly hot and dry, we went weeks and weeks without rain.

I love falling asleep to the pitter patter sounds of rain on the roof. When the sky darkens, and you know the rain is coming, well that’s the best. I love staying in bed late reading and drinking coffee just enjoying being inside in a beautiful place.

Growing up in rural Virginia on the east coast of the US, we had hot, humid summers with thunderstorms nearly every afternoon. I have so much nostalgia for the warm smell of fresh rain. The gentle buzz of cidadas. Sleeping by the river in the Iona Tiny House took me straight back down memory lane. 

My time here was nothing short of magical. 

The more and more I travel, the more I love slowing down and taking my time. Just being in a beautiful place is special for me. I’m no longer driven by that need to scratch off as many things as possible from a list like I did in my twenties. 

Whanganui is a place that beckons you to come and stay. Here you can sit down and talk to strangers with ease. And there’s no where better to base yourself than at the unique former boat – the Iona Tiny House.

What’s the most unique place you’ve ever stayed? Would you sleep in this boat too?

Many thanks to Whanganui and Partners for hosting me on this amazing trip – like always, I’m keeping it real. All opinions are my own like you could expect less from me. 

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