Things to See and Do
The North Island’s mid-west is criss-crossed by diverse highways, alpine to coastal. The journey from Auckland to Waitomo Caves serves up a classic slice of New Zealand rural life, with opportunities for seaside detours. The Forgotten World Highway is one of the region’s signature drive, a hilly inland route with lookouts, waterfalls and the memorable Whangamomona.
Skirting along South Taranaki’s semi-circular coastline, Surf Highway 45 is heavenly for its swell sea views and constant view of the magnificent volcano. The sleepy Whanganui River Road, meanwhile, is an incredible back-road journey still somewhat under the traveller radar.
Hidden amidst unprepossessing farmland an hour’s drive south of Hamilton, the world-famous Waitomo Caves are ancient limestone caverns filled with stalactites, stalagmites and galaxies of glowworms. Various walking tours take in this eye-popping spectacle, although intrepid travellers can delve deeper into the inky abyss on a Legendary Black Water Rafting trip. As well as a lovely holiday park and craft brewery, the caves area also sports the powerful Marokopa Falls and Mangapohue rock archway.
Two of New Zealand’s 14 national parks lie in this part of the country, each with distinct landscapes and recreational opportunities. Egmont National Park is relatively small and rather circular, extending to a radius of around 9km from the pinnacle of Mt Taranaki. Just half an hour’s drive from downtown New Plymouth, the park’s visitor centre ready access to various alpine hikes with vast views, while the outlying Pouakai Range offers a mixture of unique plant life, swamps, waterfalls and other natural wonders.
Whanganui National Park encompasses the deeply ridged forestland surrounding the Whanganui River. Kayaking trips are the big ticket here, but hiking, mountain biking, jet boating and scenic drives offer other, often easier ways into the wilderness.
The west coast from the Waikato south to Whanganui is sparsely populated and often remote, with scores of quiet back roads reaching wild, empty beaches. Popular hotspots – often patrolled by lifeguards in season – are dotted along the way, such as the sweet little town of Raglan and its famous surf beaches, Manu Bay and Ngarunui.
Taranaki also lures swimmers and board-riders, particularly along Surf Highway 45 where Oakura and Opunake fill up with fun-lovers come summertime. There are other options closer to downtown New Plymouth, such as Fitzroy.
Museums & galleries
These provinces pack an impressive cultural punch, particularly in New Plymouth where Puke Ariki museum, Govett-Brewster Gallery and new Len Lye Centre showcase everything from Maori artifacts to world-renown cinematic and kinetic art.
Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery also boasts impressive collections. Among the more unusual offerings are Hawera’s Elvis Presley Museum (yes, Elvis), and Tawhiti Museum that uses spookily lifelike dioramas in local history exhibits. Classic Kiwiana can be encountered at Otorohanga’s oddball Ed Hillary Walkway, and in Te Awamutu Museum where the Split Enz gallery will leave you seeing red.
Art & Culture
Arts and Crafts Trail Oakura, Surf Highway 45 – including seven of Taranaki’s best artists, such as designer jeweller Rob Wright, potter/artist Joyce Young, glass designer Richard Landers and jeweller/enameller Sally Laing.
Tawhiti Museum is Taranaki’s premier heritage attraction. Winner of seven separate tourism awards, Tawhiti includes super-realistic life-size figures and scale model displays that are absolutely stunning. This massive project is the work of Nigel Ogle, an ex art teacher who has turned his talents into a passion for innovative display.
Taranaki Pioneer Village, Stratford – unique open-air museum of 50 historic buildings and artefacts of Taranaki’s pioneering days.
WOMAD – this World of Music Arts and Dance festival is held in New Plymouth every two years (next March 2007), transforming Brooklands Park and Bowl into an international kaleidoscope of song, movement and colour.
Parihaka Peace Festival – held annually, this music and food festival celebrates the huge significance that Parihaka Pa in Pungarehu holds within the international peace movement both historically and in the future.
Taranaki Aviation Transport and Technology Museum – a fascinating collection of things farming, trades, domestic, printing, post office memorabilia, fire engines and aircraft.
Beach & Coastal Encounters
The Three Sisters and Elephant Rock – located at Tongaporutu, the Three Sisters (now two, due to tidal erosion) are 25m pinnacles rising up from the beach, accompanied by Elephant Rock. Closeby are old Maori rock carvings in hidden caves, and the Three Sisters forms the start of the Whitecliffs Walkway.
The Gairloch wreck – came to grief on the coastline south of New Plymouth in 1903. This wreck can still be seen north of Oakura on State Highway 45.
Paritutu Rock – the remnant of a volcanic plug that dates to around 1.75 million years ago, this prominent New Plymouth landmark is adjacent to the Sugar Loaf Islands marine reserve. The rock can be climbed relatively easily by the moderately fit, and offers great views of the region.
Sugar Loaf seal colony – join Dave Chadfield from Chaddy’s Charters on a trip around the Sugar Loaf Islands marine area to see the northern-most seal colony in New Zealand.
Pouakai Zoo is the largest privately owned primate collection in New Zealand. It offers close-up interaction with exotic animals and birds, and lovely bush walks.
Brooklands Park and Zoo – first established in 1843, this park has been developed into a large formal landscaped plateau of estate gardens surrounded by native bush. The adjacent zoo is a favourite with children, including a modern free-flight full of tropical birds, farmyard, otters and monkeys.
Stoney Oaks Zoo – a unique wildlife park that brings people and animals together. Tickle a pig’s tummy, hand-feed opossums, sit on a cow, cuddle deer, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs. Home to McGillie – a Highland beast and mascot of the Taranaki rugby team.
Western North Island
At the northern end of this region, the more adventurous travellers are well catered for. With two great rivers providing plenty of opportunity for rafting excursions and exploration, the Rangitikei and the Whanganui bring this part of the region to life and is an exciting addition to any travel itinerary.
The Whanganui River, starting high up in the volcanic plateau of the central North Island at Mt Tongariro, passes through the native tree and fern clad hills of the Wanganui National Park.
The Ruahine and Tararua Mountain Ranges are found in the central area of this region, and pristine rivers wind through the surrounding farmland making for a scenic and peaceful journey.
To the far west of the region facing the Tasman Sea is a magnificent volcano, Taranaki, which dominates the province that shares its name.
This is a region with a blend of natural beauty, attractions and activities.
Western North Island - the 'real New Zealand'.
- Campervan travel is easy around this area, with quiet roads, clear road signage, spacious parking and visitor information centres in sizeable towns and cities.
- Hamilton, New Plymouth and Whanganui have more than respectable culinary scenes; outside of these cities are many great cafes and country pubs, but it will pay to keep the campervan kitchen stocked up; look out for produce stalls and farmers’ markets.
- The area’s 20-odd commercial holiday parks see plenty of road-trippers, and offer a social atmosphere and comprehensive campervan facilities.
- During January and Easter, New Zealand holidaymakers are out in force – especially around Raglan and the Taranaki coast. At other times, campsite bookings are usually not required allowing campervan travellers to follow a flexible itinerary.
- Of the handful of Department of Conservation campsites in this area, all are reasonably remote.
- Freedom camping is permitted in some local reserves; i-SITE visitor centres can advise where and what rules apply.