Jenny Ni­cholls goes to Taranaki to smell the roses – and the cre­ativ­ity.


“So, where are you from?” asked the Auck­land taxi driver, who was from Abuja, Nige­ria. “Taranaki.” “I have heard of it,” the Abu­jan said, po­litely.

“On a map of New Zealand, it is the left-hand bulge,” I ex­plained, trac­ing an unconsciously sala­cious ges­ture in the air. “It is very green. You can grow any­thing there.”

“Man­goes?” he asked, hope­fully.

Tall mango trees would de­feat the most am­bi­tious Taranaki glasshouse owner. None­the­less, the prov­ince that plunges into the Tas­man Sea like New Zealand’s green thumb is al­most ridicu­lously fer­tile.

I grew up on two dairy farms in North Taranaki, and our milk tank some­times over­flowed. Ev­er­green pad­docks and plenty of rain kept my fa­ther’s friesians fat and their ud­ders full.

I was amazed when, as an adult, I saw spi­dery ir­ri­ga­tion de­vices in Can­ter­bury. Ir­ri­gat­ing dairy farms?

Taranaki’s dark loamy soil, a vol­canic gift from the moun­tain, is rich and free- drain­ing. Here, money grows not on trees but rolling pas­tures. And stud­ded be­tween th­ese ver­dant pad­docks,

shel­tered from pre­vail­ing west­er­lies by belts of trees, are hid­den gar­dens of Im­pres­sion­is­tic lush­ness and imag­i­na­tion.

Each year in spring, some of the most in­ge­nious gar­den­ers in Taranaki open their gates for a fes­ti­val that’s 30 years old this year (Oc­to­ber 27-Novem­ber 5, www. gar­den­ Tootling around the moun­tain to see the rhodo­den­drons at Pukeiti is get­ting to be as much of a sea­sonal tra­di­tion here as new pota­toes, Wo­mad, or be­ing cast face-first into black sand by a dump­ing sum­mer wave at Wai-iti Beach.

On your road trip, you’ll find acres of blowsy rho­dos, roses and clivias, hostas, ferns and palms in ev­ery shade of green, mad flo­ral bor­ders and grass ten­nis courts, dreamy orchards, fancy-wancy clipped parter­res, and hang­ing bas­kets drip­ping with a pain­ter’s colours.

As the years pass, the gar­den fes­ti­val has trans­mo­gri­fied into the “Pow­erco Taranaki Gar­den Spec­tac­u­lar”, and this year boasts 47 gar­dens. To see them all re­quires

a trip around Mt Taranaki, from Waitara to Opunake to Haw­era, and back up through Eltham, Strat­ford and In­gle­wood to New Ply­mouth. Three great gar­dens on your sup­plied map are owned by the Taranaki Re­gional Coun­cil: Hol­lard, Tu­pare and the daz­zling rhodo­den­dron-fest Pukeiti, which is a bit like be­ing trapped in a Karl Maughan paint­ing. Like the stun­ning, 52ha, Vic­to­rian- era Pukekura Park in the cen­tre of New Ply­mouth, th­ese are open all year.

Back when I sweated over al­ge­bra at New Ply­mouth Girls High, the moun­tain was still pop­u­larly named after an English earl, and the Ma­gog mo­tor­cy­cle gang held court at the el­e­gantly dis­in­te­grat­ing White Hart Ho­tel. A trau­ma­tised friend who stayed there once told me he

thought New Ply­mouth was a “tough town, a ma­cho town”.

How times have changed. In the past decade, the city has qui­etly be­come groovy.

The Len Lye Cen­tre – a con­tem­po­rary art mu­seum with ar­chi­tec­ture to beat any­thing in Auck­land or Welling­ton – gleams mag­nif­i­cently down­town. Re­flected in its shim­mer­ing, rip­pling flanks is a chic, re­fur­bished White Hart Ho­tel, with an atrium that at­tracts enough hip­sters on a Tues­day to re­sem­ble Pon­sonby Rd on a Fri­day.

Truly great restau­rants such as So­cial Kitchen, housed in a ren­o­vated Sal­va­tion Army Hall in the cen­tre of town, are per­pet­u­ally booked. Don’t ex­pect to walk in and find a ta­ble at night. You won’t.

The Coastal Walk­way is a civic mar­vel: a sea- edge prom­e­nade along the en­tire length of the city, from Bell Block to Port Taranaki. The groovers you saw the pre­vi­ous night over Bang Bang Chicken Salad at the White Hart’s Snug Lounge cy­cle past in swarms – black ly­cra on elec­tric bikes.

The Te Rewa Rewa Bridge on the walk­way re­ally does look like a whale’s skele­ton, and frames Mt Taranaki in its ribs as pho­to­geni­cally as the fire en­ginered Vic­to­rian Poet’s Bridge in Pukekura Park.

Taranaki might be rub­bish at grow­ing man­goes. But cre­ative ge­nius is an­other thing en­tirely. +

Op­po­site left: “Bird Catcher Dream­ing”, a paint­ing by North Taranaki artist John Mclean.

Above: A mag­no­lia tree burst­ing with blos­som in a North Taranaki gar­den.

Top left and above: Keen surfer Lo­gan Gieni grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada and didn’t see the sea un­til he was 21. Now he and wife Marlise own Es­cape cafe and roast­ery, where you can find skate­board and surf­ing sup­plies, yoga classes and an in­door skate bowl. The cou­ple re­cently in­vited into the build­ing non-profit ini­tia­tive Bike Kitchen, which teaches lo­cals how to re­pair their own bike. “It cre­ates more of a com­mu­nity around here and that’s what we’re go­ing for,” says Marlise. Top right: Daniel Flem­ing, gen­eral man­ager at uber­cool bou­tique King & Queen Ho­tel Suites. Above right: The Bean Store cafe and Ozone Cof­fee roast­ers in King St, a hid­den gem be­hind the White Hart Ho­tel.

Above: Jen­nifer and Ken Horner’s Puke­tarata Gar­den near Haw­era, which has stun­ning views and is open to the pub­lic dur­ing the Pow­erco Taranaki Gar­den Spec­tac­u­lar in Oc­to­ber. Be­low: Jen­nifer Horner. Op­po­site page (clock­wise from top): A mag­no­lia tree bud;

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