Julie Haines discovers there is much more to Taranaki than its majestic mountain . . .
Driving along a rural Taranaki road, the snow-capped peak of Mt Taranaki shrouded in cloud behind us and the windswept beaches of Surf Highway 45 in front, we were unexpectedly forced to a sudden halt.
The road was cordoned off by a farmer so his cows could safely cross during milking time.
We did a three point turn and started back the way we’d come, only to stop a few hundred metres later to marvel over another peculiar sight (to us townies anyway) — a paddock full of playful calves leaping excitedly across the grass like frisky lambs, chasing a rather startled pūkeko.
It was a quintessential Taranaki experience, in a region punctuated by scenic beaches, mountain rainforest, spectacular gardens, verdant pasture, and its fair share of wayward cows.
It is such an appealing place to visit in fact, that having driven a circuit around the region at Christmas while the plentiful pōhutukawa were in bloom, my daughter and I returned again in spring, to admire the rhododendrons and sample some more of the attractions on offer.
We started both our trips at Hāwera, where visitors can climb the 215 steps of a historic water tower for sweeping panoramic views across the countryside towards the coast and Mt Taranaki. From there we drove clockwise around the region using the ever-present mountain as our compass. Within a short time of departing Hāwera on our first visit we pulled over to knock on a farmer’s door, to alert him to a stray cow roaming down the road.
The obligatory trip up the mountain followed. At the top of Manaia Road there are a number of easy walks, including a short trek through “goblin” forest to Wilkies Pools, which were scoured from 20,000-year-old lava, and the very popular 10-minute walk to picturesque Dawson Falls. Don’t get caught out like us though and assume the weather on the mountain is always hot in summer — we ended up at the visitor centre buying gloves!
The seaside town of Ōpunake beckoned next. Its 7km clifftop trail overlooks a glorious family-friendly sandy beach framed by rocky headlands at each end which are great for scrambling on. Ōpunake is also known for its murals and as the birthplace of legendary runner Peter Snell.
Further up Surf Highway 45, just south of Pungarehu, we turned on to Cape Road and stopped at the Cape Egmont Lighthouse for a breather. The lighthouse has been in use since 1881. I doubt the light reached as far as Ōkato though, because the SS Gairloch ran aground on Timaru Reef on January 5,1903 and the remains can still be seen today. The chance to explore a real-life shipwreck could not be passed up, so we gingerly walked across the rock pools at the end of Timaru Road at low tide to inspect the rusty hull up close.
Our home for the night was a gingerbread house (or designed to look like one anyway). The unique Airbnb on an Ōkato dairy farm is the brainchild of Nicci Richards, also known as The Chocolate Lady, who couldn’t find a job that involved wearing a pink top hat so she invented her own. She combined her love for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland and started running chocolate making classes from the gingerbread house. We spent a fantastically fun and relaxing couple of hours melting chocolate, adding strawberry and peppermint flavouring, selecting moulds (for the adults there are even R18 options) and filling them with the chocolate and an assortment of hidden treats from a burgeoning table of lollies.
Bags full of our professional-looking and delicious chocolate, we hopped back in the car to head to Pukeiti, a 360-hectare garden and rainforest on the slopes of the mountain, with one of the world’s biggest and most diverse collections of rhododendrons. There’s even a self-guided treehouse trail for kids.
Another free garden worth visiting for a stroll and picnic is Tūpare, on the outskirts of New Plymouth. The land was transformed from a gorse wilderness to a landscaped garden in the 1930s, set around a Tudor-style homestead that is occasionally open for tours.
Tūpare was one of many free attractions that kept us entertained in New Plymouth, a terrific destination for families on a budget.
Pukekura Park is a must-see, both on foot and by rowboat (book in advance at the tea house during busy summer periods). The Festival of Lights runs at Pukekura Park for several weeks each summer and its light installations are magical — I still remember going as a child 40 years ago. At the top of the park you’ll find the Brooklands Zoo and playground which is well worth a visit with kids. Residents include the Tufted Capuchin, Capybara (the world’s largest rodent, growing up to 50cm tall), cotton-top tamarin, red-rumped agouti, curious meerkats sitting in the sun, and Bolivian squirrel monkeys, along with a bird aviary and a farmyard with alpacas, pigs and chickens.
New Plymouth’s Paritutu Rock offers rewarding views over the city and is fun to climb, if you don’t mind queueing during busy periods. The top third involves pulling yourself up rocks aided by a chain, which is not as terrifying as it sounds.
There is a 13.2km coastal walkway in New Plymouth that’s excellent for walking and cycling. We only did a small section by Te Rewa Rewa Bridge (a bridge shaped like a whale skeleton) which is a great spot for photos with the mountain in the background.
We also spent an amusing 20 minutes taking photos outside the Len Lye Centre, with its mirrored walls that distort reflections like a hall of mirrors in a carnival. Then we drove further east around the coast to splash around in the water on the pretty black sand beach at Wai-iti, near Urenui.
Sadly farewelling New Plymouth, we headed for Te Popo Gardens near Stratford, a fabulously peaceful spot to unwind for a night. The enchanting woodlands are filled with bluebells and life-size animal statues from Africa, along with goblin houses, a swing bridge, and the plumpest kererū I’ve ever seen. After a night-time wander to see the glow worms we fell asleep to the sound of morepork and awoke to the song of tūī.
From Te Popo it’s a short drive to the Forgotten World Highway (State Highway 43), a gorgeous journey over four saddles and surrounded by native bush. Work began on the original road from Stratford back in the 1880’s, and well over a century later it remains the only state highway in New Zealand that is not completely sealed. We highly recommend the side trip to the spectacular 74-metre Mt Damper Falls (an easy 2km return walk), stopping to admire the single lane 180m-long Moki Tunnel, and also stretching your legs in the historic “republic” of Whangamōmona.
Returning to Stratford we couldn’t resist watching New Zealand’s first Glockenspiel clock tower perform some famous scenes from Romeo and Juliet. Stratford was named after William Shakespeare’s birthplace, and most of the streets are named after characters in his plays. The carved Glockenspiel characters come out to perform daily at 10am, 1pm, 3pm and 7pm.
As we left Stratford and aimed for home, we found ourselves once again knocking on a farmhouse door, to tell the surprised resident that a cow was wandering along the road. It seemed rather apt that we finished our second holiday the same way our first trip began.
© Copyright Julie Haines 2021