Toast of Taranaki
Head to the North Island’s west coast for outdoors fun aplenty
FESTIVAL FUN: New Plymouth is festooned in festivals, including the world music festival W WOMAD (March), the Festival of Lights (December-February) and the Taranaki Garden Festival, blooming in October. All are big-city quality, minus the crush. The Festival of Lights sees us wandering around the trail of light installations deep in the city’s 52ha Pukekura Park at night. It doesn’t hold a candle to Sydney’s blazing light festival, Vivid, but it’s a sweet and easy evening. Even the queue for the most popular attraction — taking rowboats out on the main lake and under the light-curtained Poet’s Bridge — is only about 20 minutes, but too long for a local youth who jumps the fence and takes a boat for a joy paddle. More: womad.co.nz; festivaloflights.nz; gardenfestnz.co.nz.
CULTURE CLUB: Some joke that New Zealand’s 4.6 million residents are outnumbered by 2 27.6 million sheep, but Kiwis also enjoy a disproportionate number of brilliant museums. One of them is New Plymouth’s Puke Ariki, which ups the ante with a library and information centre all in one, making it a sensible starting point. We find artefacts and stories from the Taranaki district’s Maori people and local research projects, including a collection of juicy historical scandals. Young kids will love the bugs and fossils collections, and the suspended replica of Carcharodon megalodon, a giant extinct shark. Staff are friendly, including at the cafe Arborio (mushrooms with feta and rocket pesto for me, thanks), where the coffee is topnotch. More: pukeariki.com; arborio.co.nz.
SEAS BREEZE: The Coastal Walkway runs just shy of 13km, almost the complete length of the city. It should really be called a pathway, because part of its purpose is to get locals biking about. New Plymouth is one of the country’s two walking and cycling model communities and also prides itself on being among New Zealand’s most accessible cities. Complimentary mobility scooters can be borrowed from the Todd Energy Aquatic Centre (just leave your keys or driver’s licence as security). Whether you walk, bike or scooter, sit for a while and watch kite surfers performing death-defying acrobatics off East End Beach. It’s terrifying and mesmerising. More: newplymouthnz.com.
LIFEBOAT AHOY: David Chadfield, aka Happy Chaddy, promises to “do anything to make you smile” when he takes you out in his old English lifeboat (a Liverpool-class C, for you old salts). Chaddy has a lifetime of stories, the gift of the gab and a boatshed crammed with memorabilia from his days as a professional boxer and shark fisherman. Once you get out of the harbour, the lifeboat rocks and rolls as it heads to the seal colony on Sugar Leaf Island and Chaddy checks on lobster pots, pointing out various seabirds. Chaddy’s Charters isn’t a luxe experience but it’s great value and rollicking good fun. More: chaddyscharters.co.nz.
PUBLIC OFFERINGS: Art that boosts a landscape or urban street is worth slowing down to admire. New Plymouth’s civic art journey began with the 2001 installation of the 45m-long Wind Wand, the creation of New Zealand-born Len Lye (see No 6). It’s become a beloved landmark and in March was joined by Waving Wands, six hypnotically hula-ing fibreglass “wands” springing from a hillock up the other end of the Coastal Walkway. It’s lit at night and the effect is quite magical. (The sculpture previously whizzed about atop the Pulitzer Museum in New York.) The Te Rewa Rewa Bridge blends art and utility (to cross the Waiwhakaiho River) with its bright white whale-skeleton lines. Position yourself exactly to use the “bones” to frame Mount Taranaki. More: artinpublicnp.org.nz/art-works/.
A MOVING LEGACY: Christchurch-born Len Lye (1901-1980) was the epitome of a self-made man or, as one friend noted, “the least boring person who ever existed”. He worked in film in pre-war London and was later a big name in New York’s avant-garde art scene. He essentially invented kinetic sculpture, the art form for which he’s best known, but he was also a writer and poet, knocking around with the likes of Dylan Thomas and Robert Graves. The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery staged an exhibition of Lye’s kinetic sculptures in 1977, which led him to set up a trust, shortly before his death, to bring his works to New Plymouth. The architecturally eye-popping combined art gallery opened in 2015. More: govettbrewster.com/len-lye/.
PETROL OR PEDAL: You can easily fly to New Plymouth (about one hour from Wellington) but why not drive, as whatever route you take is preposterously scenic and liberally sprinkled with historical curiosities and art galleries. A detour to remember would be via the 155km Forgotten World Highway. It’s the country’s oldest heritage trail and includes the 180mlong single-lane Moki Tunnel, built in 1936. That highway is also part of the Taumarunui to New Plymouth bike route if you’re so inclined (there’s a topographical clue there). There are bikes for visitors to rent all around Taranaki if you’re without wheels. More: taranaki.info.
T TRAMPING ALL OVER: The mountain formerly known as Egmont, the region’s iconic, Fujiesque landscape beacon that last erupted in 1755, is now Mount Taranaki. On the drive to the plateau car park, lush rainforest gives way to alpine vegetation and there’s a spectacular view from the lookout. We only have time for part of the Enchanted Track, but there are more than 200km of tracks to explore, some accessible to wheelchairs and therefore prams. Expert guided tours are available for even half-day walks and well worth considering. (And don’t be put off by that word tramping; it’s NZ-speak for bushwalking.) More: taranaki.info; topguides.co.nz.
THET PLOTS THICKEN: Three gardens make up Taranaki’s regional gardens, including Tupare, which is closest to the city. Half an hour’s drive away is one of the world’s great rhododendron collections at Puketi. On the other side of Mount Taranaki, Hollard Gardens is a total delight. Even non-gardeners such as me find much to admire in these world-famous, lovingly created estates. Clever signs tell a gentle story of dairy farmer and passionate gardener Bernie and his wife Rose, with two occasionally intertwining trails named for the couple (this tickles our family as my husband is Bernie and one of our daughters is Rosie). The newlywed Rose was lonely when they set up home there in 1942, but as the garden’s reputation spread, visitors became friends and in time busloads were arriving. Bernie’s sign proudly tells us Rose’s “Sunday afternoon teas with a trolley laden with home baking were legendary”. There’s an imagination-filled kids’ playground and a spick and span barbecue gazebo. All the council-run regional gardens are free, or you can book a paid guided tour. More: trc.govt.nz/gardens. LIGHTS FANTASTIC: I wish every hotel guestroom designer would adopt the humane approach to lighting that we find at the Novotel New Plymouth Hobson (pictured), which opened in late 2015 and occupies a charmed spot between regional friendliness and slick modern. Power points have USB ports and by the bed is a control panel on which functions are clearly labelled, including LIGHTS OFF, a rare hotel kindness. Our executive guestroom with two queen beds provides plenty of space for us and two children. In the Governors Eatery (lack of apostrophe notwithstanding), food from the intelligent, small menu is proudly local and excellent. Bikes are complimentary for guests, so you’re out of excuses not to cycle. More: novotel.com; newzealand.com.
Hikers near Mount Taranaki, top; the Festival of Lights at Pukekura Park, above left; Len Lye Centre at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, above right; red jockey cap lily in Hollard Gardens, below; Chaddy’s lifeboat tour, bottom