Clueless people, like me, may have been slightly taken aback when Lonely Planet deemed Taranaki the second best region in the world to visit in its Best in Travel 2017.
Sure, the new Len Lye Centre is a spectacular building, but surely not enough to elevate the region to international status? Just how wrong can a person be — I found out on a recent trip.
There are endless fascinating and inspiring things for families to do in Taranaki and this "round the mountain" itinerary works really well if you have a few days.
Forgotten World Highway
We travelled to Stratford via the Forgotten World Highway. The road is windy with several saddles but the scenery is blow-your-socks-off gorgeous. Untouched, primal and lush green — you almost feel there must be moa running around in that bush somewhere. Stop in Whangamomona to see New Zealand's only republic town and take a break from the twists and turns.
Stratford is the perfect gateway for adventure activities. Jason Kowalewski and his wife, who run the lovely Amity Court Motel, also have a business called Back 2 The Wild Tours and will drop you at Wilkie Pools and Dawson Falls on the south-eastern slopes of Mt Taranaki to explore. They leave bikes at the charming Dawson Falls Lodge so you can cycle down through the pretty tree-lined glade to the well-kept Hollard Gardens for a run around and play on the playground.
The pools are spectacular, with crystal-clear water tumbling down rocks into pools and cascading out the other side, and the walk through the Goblin Forest to get there is nothing short of magical. Dawson Falls is also a sight worth seeing. Standing at the bottom, surrounded by emerald bush and the pounding of the falls was a moment in my life I'll never forget. It's one of those places that makes you feel 200 per cent alive.
Tawhiti Museum, Hawera
Tawhiti Museum is regularly rated in Tripadvisor's top 10 travellers' choice museums in New Zealand and for good reason. Owner Nigel Ogle is passionate about using art to re-create our history and spends inordinate amounts of time making intricate models of past life in New Zealand. The sprawling 4000sq m museum contains almost 100 of these scenes (some with up to 800 figures) plus many life-sized mannequins in settings from a bygone era. Shops, sitting rooms, blacksmiths' workshops, butchers' shops all transport you back in time with their lifelike detail and expressions. Any young tractor or farm equipment fans will be in heaven when they see the enormous collection of machinery, and there's a Bush Railway train ride too.
The other part of the museum is a canal boat ride which takes you through the times of the traders and whalers in the Taranaki region. The caves were constructed by Weta Workshop and our whole family enjoyed the dark, moody journey, which so vividly portrayed the sights and sounds of inter-tribal and settler conflict. Our 10-year-old nearly jumped out of his skin as a life size model of a wild boar shot through the "bushes" towards us. If you have Wind in the Willows fans, they will love Mrs Badger's Cafe and all its display windows containing Ogle's adorable depictions of scenes from the book.
Surf Highway 45
We took the scenic route from Hawera to New Plymouth via Surf Highway 45. It's a great drive which, at times, veers very close to the coast. There are several surf towns along the way with stunning black-sand beaches and wild waves. Make sure you stop at Opunake for some of the best fish and chips you'll ever have. Really, the best.
It's hard to know where to start with New Plymouth as it's a paradise for families. Our boys loved biking part of the 13km Coastal Walkway that winds, at times, wildly close to the waves and other times through farmland, passing playgrounds and fields to play in. In fact, there seemed to be endless places for kids to play in this town — ours especially loved Kawaroa Park playground which is right at the water's edge.
The Len Lye Centre is as magnificent as its international reputation would have you believe. The shimmering stainless steel facade with its dramatic curves is a work of art itself and the kids loved the moving, vibrating, extremely lively installations as much as we did.
Puke Ariki was also a huge hit. This wonderful interactive museum with beautifully-presented modern exhibits was fascinating for us all. Our children loved the activity trails with the reward of a badge after finding everything on the sheet in each section — our 7-year-old was begging to go back first thing the next day to earn his last two badges.
There are plenty of other quirky and fun museums and if you have time, it's worth dropping in at Manutahi Museum to see John Ward's collection of thousands of taxidermied animals. He's a collector rather than a hunter and is very enthusiastic to share all his knowledge on animals of the world.
And it's no struggle to find good food either: breakfasts such as pancakes with salted caramel mascarpone and broken meringue at Monica's, outstanding shared plates at Social Kitchen, cocktails and Asian inspired innovative morsels like bao, skewers and Japanese tacos at Snug, brulee doughnuts at Public Catering Company, great coffee at Jetcharm and Ozone, Masala Dosa at Kathakali plus so much more. Who knew?
We were lucky enough to be there for the TSB Bank Festival of Lights, held every summer which is truly delightful. Lit up bridges and waterfalls and vibrant installations line Pukekura Park and the playground is adorned with glow-in-the-dark art. It's a truly magical night-time walk for both young and old.
And if you get the chance, definitely get out on the water with Chaddy's Charters, as much for his entertaining banter as anything else. We loved being out on the magnificent turquoise blue harbour and spotting gorgeous baby seals on the rocks and frolicking in the water around the islands. The backdrop of the mountain completed the vista just perfectly and Chaddy's local knowledge (and Dad jokes) were unsurpassed.
It wasn't hard to see why a well-known guidebook would rate this area highly. In only four days we covered so many wonderful activities and we can't wait to get back to do the rest.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: New Plymouth is a 4.5 hour drive from Auckland, or Air New Zealand and Jetstar fly daily direct services.
Amity Court Motel in Stratford is clean, modern and the hosts are locals, who are full of information on the region.
King and Queen Hotel Suites in the West End Precinct of New Plymouth is a luxury hotel that's two seconds from the hospitality precinct with numerous fantastic dining options.
Fitzroy Beach Holiday Park is right on the beach and there's everything from campsites to cabins. They have a wonderful glamping option if you want to camp but not have the hassle of bringing a car full of equipment.
Further information: See visit.taranaki.info.