Afew months later a long weekend escape was on the cards, so we piled the family - husband, three year old and seven year old into the car, and headed north towards the region that describes itself as ‘like no other’ to see just how far it had come since my last visit over a decade ago.
Heading for New Plymouth, our first stop in the region is the very unique Tawhiti Museum, just out of Hawera. The creation of local artist Nigel Ogle and his family, the museum illustrates the area’s history through an array of vintage machinery and artefacts, which are joined by hundreds of scale and life-sized models of local Maori, colonial and pioneering history. And while it was a tough job getting the family out of the museum to the adjoining Traders and Whalers exhibit, once they were there their jaws really dropped as they entered a series of underground lakes to sail through history in a boat ride that was about as far from what we’d expected to find as possible.
Back in the car, we hit Surf Highway 45 - the stretch of road that spans Taranaki’s coastline – and passed countless surf breaks and even more cars laden with surfboards, before stopping at the seaside village of Oakura for a coffee and then venturing through the eclectic mix of stress-free baches and million-dollar beach houses to stretch our legs on the black-sand beach.
The chatty barista ran me through how the once-quiet surfer’s community was transformed by the
arrival of Tom Cruise, Billy Connolly and a Hollywood film crew in 2003 when blockbuster The Last Samurai was filmed, and suggests I return to explore the Oakura Arts Trail – it turns out this small beachy village is a hive of artists and a dozen of their studios are open for viewing.
When we arrive in New Plymouth, my seven year old begs us to be taken to the sprawling Pukekura Park in the centre of town. My surprise that he’s suddenly taken an interest in gardens is tempered by the discovery that his dad has been telling him about the brand new playground and next-door Brooklands Zoo.
Fortunately both playground and park exceed expectations and offer something for the whole family. The free zoo features farmyard animals, otters, meerkats, a walk-through bird aviary and, to my three year old’s excitement, capuchin and cottontop tamarin monkeys. We all enjoy walking through Pukekura Park too – I can’t help but wish that my own town planners thought to put an expansive park with a gorgeous lake in the centre of my home city too!
On our second day in the region we discover that fresh snow has fallen on Mount Taranaki. While the family head up to the North Egmont Visitor Centre to play in the snow for the morning – the kid’s first experience of real snow, and only half an hour from New Plymouth - I decide to check out the city’s shops.
Expecting a small town shopping experience, I am surprised by what I find in New Plymouth. The main drag Devon Street offers a great selection of interesting clothing, homeware and art stores that take my fancy, punctuated with more cafes than I’d expected, with each offering a fantastic array of home-baked treats and locally-roasted coffee. I’m in heaven.
I re-join the family for lunch at Chaos café in New Plymouth’s CBD, where excited tales of snowball fights are interspersed with periods of silence as the provincial stereotype of farmers’ portions is found to be alive and well. My husband is also busy plotting a return with his mates to tackle the local tradition of going skiing and surfing on the same day, with a decent café stop in between.
From the café, we discover more of the region’s history at the impressive Puke Ariki museum and library complex on the city’s waterfront, before crossing the road to New Plymouth’s Coastal Walkway to walk off lunch.
The first thing that you see on this beautiful 11km boardwalk is the 45 metre tall Wind Wand sculpture, designed by illustrious artist Len Lye. The kinetic sculpture, which like much of Lye’s work constantly moves, has become an icon for New Plymouth, to the point where a huge Len Lye Centre due to open as a part of city’s Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in mid-2015, prompting us to diary yet another return visit.
Strolling down the Coastal Walkway, I am surprised again by the number of people out and about. This community is certainly humming - even on an overcast Sunday afternoon everyone is out jogging, walking dogs, riding bikes with the kids or skateboarding – a very social way to spend the afternoon. The kids are pleasantly distracted by a couple of playgrounds along the way, while we take note of the grand houses that have understandably begun to line
On Monday, we plot our fat-toosoon exit from the region, stopping at yet another café – this time the fabulously retro Federal Store – for another lavish breakfast before heading a couple of minutes up the road to one of the region’s famous gardens.
Te Kainga Marire is Maori for ‘the peaceful encampment’ and is the result of a breath taking transformation of an inner-city quarteracre section into one of a handful of New Zealand gardens to have been judged to be of international significance. As the garden’s creator Valda Poletti leads us on a passionate tour of the garden, telling us of its humble beginnings as a collection of clay and weeds and her life-long hunt for unique and interesting native plants, grasses and more. The kids are transfixed by the tui and wood pigeons who apparently call the garden home, and I left full of inspiration about how to redevelop our humble vege garden and the husband full of ideas about where to build the pizza oven.
Valda invited us in for tea made from ingredients in the garden, but we instead hit the road, bidding adieu to New Plymouth to head home via the Forgotten World Highway and the republic of Whangamomona.
The highway, which heads away from the ever-present Mount Taranaki at Stratford, follows old Maori trade routes and pioneering farm tracks through some spectacular countryside. Passing through historic settlements and untouched bush it’s easy to see why it’s a favourite with international visitors, and you almost expect to come across a horse and cart laden with milk around the next corner.
Just as the chorus of ‘are we there yet’ begins to rise from the back seat we round a corner and reach Whangamomona, a heritage-rated village home to around 30 residents these days, though once far more bustling. We take a walk and explore the old buildings, stopping to talk with the locals who is tinkering with a golf cart with railway wheels – a tourism attraction on the disused railway line between Stratford and Taumarunui which has seen a reversal in the town’s fortunes.
Unhappy with local government manoeuvring, Whangamomona declared itself a republic in 1989, and celebrates with a hugely popular Republic Day and presidential election every two years in January. As we gravitate towards the iconic pub in the centre of town to get our Whangamomona Passports stamped, and delve into the local history displayed on the pub’s walls, the kids are shocked to discover that the village’s presidents have included a goat and a poodle, who was apparently forced to retire from the position after an assassination attempt left him a nervous wreck.
Lunch at the Whangamomona Hotel is typically hearty, and shared with tourists, members of a classic car club and a lycra-clad couple who are travelling the 180km Forgotten World Cycleway by bike. While that may sound like a curious mix for a Monday morning in the middle of nowhere, and must provide endless enjoyment for the locals who I can’t help but join in their enthusiasm for the town.
From there we return to Stratford and head home having circumnavigated and scaled Mount Taranaki’s perfect peak.
I once read that the things you remember most about a holiday are the things you least expected to see, and in the case of our whirlwind visit to Taranaki and its rich mix of activities, beautiful landscapes and friendly people, I’ll be remembering this long weekend for a long time – or at least until our next and longer visit.