Terrific Taranaki has a lot to offer

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Recently named second best region in the world by travel guide Lonely Planet, after a brief visit, it’s easy to see why Taranaki is so highly rated.

First stop was the little town of Mokau for whitebait fritters to get into the holiday spirit. Arriving in New Plymouth to clear blue skies we jumped on our bikes to ride the 13km Coastal Path along the foreshore from the Port to Bellblock. It’s wide enough to accommodate cyclists, runners, walkers, wheelchairs, scooters, skateboards and rollerblades, all whizzing along below the distinctive 45m Len Lye Wind Wand sculpture. Towards the northern end of the path, Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, which is designed to resemble a breaking wave or whale skeleton, is a truly impressive landmark. Another bonus was the cycle park near Bellblock and the outdoor velodrome – I’ve always wanted to have a go so did a few laps, albeit very cautiously. The park also contains junior off-road courses with traffic lights, intersections and stop signs, replicating road conditions to teach bike and road safety.

Normally more restrained when it comes to accommodation, our wedding anniversary was a good excuse to go more upmarket and we stayed three nights in the gorgeous Ahu Ahu Villas, set on farmland 20 minutes south of New Plymouth. Built in French provincial style these award-winning, self-contained villas are situated on a headland with spectacular coastal views and easy beach access. A strategically placed seat is a great spot to relax at the end of the day with a glass of wine to watch the sunset. For a more affordable option, Oakura Beach Holiday Park offers camping sites and cabins right on the beachfront.

Having visited the bowl of Brooklands and Pukekura Park on previous visits, Pukeiti and Tupare Gardens were on our ‘must see’ list. Pukeiti, New Zealand’s premier Rhododendron garden, is set in a magnificent rain forest on the lower slopes of Mt Taranaki. Spread over a whopping 63 hectares there are three marked trails and numerous tracks to explore in this garden of national significance.

Tupare Gardens features majestic trees, landscaped gardens, extensive plantings, drifts of bluebells and a homestead designed by prominent New Zealand architect Chapman Taylor. The Gardener’s cottage contains information and photos providing a glimpse into the life of the original owners and their grand property. Down by the river, an expansive grassy area with an abundance of shade trees is a perfect spot to picnic on hot summer days. Entry to both gardens is free.

A drizzly day presented an opportunity to see the sights in New Plymouth, starting at the Len Lye Centre – a stunning contemporary building showcasing Len Lye’s filmmaking exploits and kinetic sculptures – and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. Adjacent to the waterfront, award-winning complex Puke Ariki houses an integrated museum, visitor centre and library, and is a popular attraction. The city centre is interesting and vibrant with a host of galleries, museums, gift shops and cafes.

However, Mount Taranaki was beckoning so we left the city via the surf highway and continued around the coast to Opunaki, with a quick detour to the Historic Cape Egmont Lighthouse, erected in 1881. Heading inland, Mount Taranaki rises up from lush green pasture, a stunning sight. From the information office at Dawson Falls Carpark, tracks and trails cater for all levels of fitness and ability.

Wilkies Pools Loop Track is an easy walk of 1-1½ hours. The track meanders through the Goblin Forest dripping with moss and lichen, with glimpses of the mountain visible through the bush canopy, to a series of cascading pools scoured out over thousands of years. The wheelchair-friendly side of the loop was closed for maintenance so we returned the same way, crossing a small unbridged stream.  Neither wide, fast flowing, deep nor difficult, negotiating wet slippery rocks can still be tricky. No longer young and agile, my days of rock hopping are a distant memory, so with dicky knees, poor balance and being risk averse, I tentatively picked out the safest route, aided by walking poles. Apparently I was closely observed by a spectator with wet trousers – an indication she hadn’t fared quite so well.

After a picnic lunch, we walked to Dawson Falls, which is an easy short walk from the car park and one of the most visited attractions in the Egmont National Park. Next on my list was the York Road Loop Track, a three-hour walk on the eastern side of the mountain. With rain forecast the next day we raced to the start point and, keen to finish the track in daylight, set off at a brisk pace. The track follows a railway formed in 1901 to service a quarry, and is deserving of a more leisurely pace. The walk is well signposted with information boards at historical sites, and has remnants of equipment and machinery visible along the way. We skirted around a few fallen trees, but generally the track was well formed and easy going with board walks over the boggy bits.

Home for the next few nights the nearby Stratford Mountain Lodge was the perfect spot to end a busy day. The lounges were spacious, comfortable, warm and welcoming with blazing fires adding to the ambience. Dinner was delicious and capped off a splendid day.

Waking to rain, we headed into Stratford, where New Zealand’s largest Glockenspiel clock performs a little cameo of Romeo and Juliet. Not far away, the cheese shop in Eltham was a great place to stock up on specialty cheeses at bargain prices.

Tawhiti Museum, on the outskirts of Hawera and rated as one of the best private museums in the country, has life-sized exhibits and realistic scale models. What started as a hobby has morphed over 40 years into an impressive facility depicting local history. The displays and models are built on the premises with moulds cast from friends, relatives and locals. The ‘Traders and Whalers’ exhibition is the latest addition to the museum. In small boats you drift along a nautically themed journey replicating an 1820’s experience. It is a shame they don’t offer a concession to visit both museums, as I imagine many visitors choose one or the other; a pity as they are both excellent. With an onsite café you can easily spend a good portion of the day at this top-class attraction.

The four-hectare Hollard Gardens was our last stop. With expansive lawns, swamp gardens, pretty borders and a huge range of plants, it’s a picturesque location and family friendly, with children’s play areas, and stilts and quoits in the little pavilion for anyone willing to give them a go.

Heading home we ended our journey as it had begun with whitebait fritters. Taranaki, I’ll be back soon.