A jam-packed weekend in New Plymouth offers something for everyone, writes Renee Lang.
Screams of enthusiasm and applause erupt from the throats of hundreds of teenagers as I step on to the stage. Wow! What an amazing reception! After briefly basking in the attention I step back to allow the next person to mount the stage and they, too, are greeted with the same excitement. "Get over yourself," says my friend as she drags me away from Hiroyuki Matsukage's Star 2000, currently on display at New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. The artwork comprises a microphone in front of a huge landscape-format poster of hundreds of teenage girls; when you speak into the microphone the sound activates the afore-mentioned hysterical response.
Our busy weekend in the Taranaki city started at the gallery, followed by a brisk walk along the Coastal Walkway. Along the way we admired kinetic sculptor Len Lye's Wind Wand. The 45m-high fibreglass and carbon fibre artwork, which has been in place for around 10 years, can be seen from a considerable distance and sways gracefully in the breeze according to the strength of the wind.
Our appetite for design had been well and truly whetted by now, so we marched purposefully along the flat walkway for a few more kilometres. With the ocean on our left and Mt Taranaki to the right we couldn't have asked for a more scenic route. Eventually we came to our destination - Te Rewa Rewa Bridge, which is designed to look like a breaking wave while creating a natural frame around the mountain. This spectacular 70m structure spanning the Waiwhakaiho River is a truly impressive sight from all angles.
After a deli-style lunch, we embarked on another worthwhile saunter close to the city.
The Te Henui Walkway, which originated from a sewage pipe route, is just under 6km in length and takes in bush and forest reserves, a historic cemetery and even the site of a once-fortified Maori village.
New Plymouth and its environs offers some fantastic gardens that are open to visitors.
High on the list is Pukeiti, a 360ha rainforest property with a stunning rhododendron collection just south of the city, which has been going strong for 50 years now.
Officially recognised as a Garden of National Significance, Pukeiti is gorgeous at any time of year, but is particularly beautiful over winter and spring when the rhododendrons are in flower.
We couldn't leave town without a visiting Pukekura Park, a glorious 52ha package of formal gardens, fernery, lakes, themed garden plantings, walking tracks, a small zoo and much, much more. A stroll around the park on Sunday morning is the order of the day and so once again we don our comfortable shoes and head off.
It's within these grounds that the Womad Festival takes place each year; in 2010 more than 38,000 people enjoyed what has been described as a "cultural melting pot of rhythms, sights and sounds". But we're only here for the morning so we content ourselves with a quick ramble and then it's time for brunch.
All this walking could make a visitor hungry, but fortunately there are plenty of attractive cafes where good coffee and tasty meals are readily available.
We enjoyed a tasty brunch at Chaos Cafe where the ambience was lively and, in fact, far from chaotic. After one of us commented on the excellent coffee, a complimentary round was immediately forthcoming. Now that kind of service is way over and above the normal call of duty.
To find out more about Taranaki's past, present and future, we pay a quick visit to Puke Ariki. Best described as an innovative museum, library and information centre that combines learning knowledge, resources and heritage objects, this centrally located venue offers a variety of experiences to tell local stories through displays, technology, multimedia and the people themselves.
While we found walking around this compact city to be an attractive option, cycling is providing to be gaining in popularity - both with locals and visitors. The city mothers and fathers have recognised that a cycle-friendly district has many benefits for individuals and communities, and it shows, with some 8km of the city's cycle lanes painted green to increase their visibility for drivers and cyclists alike.
Flying to New Plymouth is an option for getting yourself down here, but if you're coming from Auckland, and have the time to spare, the four-and-a-half-hour drive is gloriously scenic.
Revel in the rolling pasturelands, limestone formations, sparkling rivers and the occasional peep of the triumvirate of mountains far away on the volcanic plateau. And there are several good small town refreshment stops; highly recommended are the Fat Pigeon in Piopio and Boscos on the outskirts of Te Kuiti.
Places to stay:
As with most provincial centres, there's a good range of accommodation including hotels, motels and, of course, a number of B&Bs. Here are a few priced from $110-$150 per night:
* The Quality Hotel is central and offers an outdoor pool, a spa tub, and a fitness facility (4 stars)
* The Waterfront Hotel is also central and some rooms have great views (4 stars)
* Pukekura Motor Lodge features well-appointed rooms and free internet access (5 stars)
* Beach Haven B&B
* Abode on Rimu B&B
Places to eat:
Eating out in the provinces is a whole lot better than it used to be.
Here's a small selection:
* Andre L'Escargot (French)
* Pankawalla (Indian)
* The Garlic Press Bistro & Bar (International)
* Westbar & Cafe (International)