From the air, Mt Taranaki looks as if a giant has taken a huge school compass and drawn a full 360-degree line all around the mountain. There's the white snow-capped peak in the centre, followed by the dark, dense perimeter of rainforest greens, before the lighter greens of the gently tapering plains of farmland beyond.
Not long ago I learned that the rainforest of Mt Taranaki is colloquially known as "the Goblin Forest" due to the enchanted feel of the twisted, moss-draped, kāmahi trees that dominate the slopes. A forest so fantastical it makes you think the trees might come alive? Count me in!
I'd also heard that no trip to Taranaki was complete without also visiting Hāwera on the province's southern coast to experience two very different, but completely unmissable museums.
The best museums in Taranaki
Let's not beat around the (native) bush, there are a fair few of us who like to think we'll do the whole museum thing while on holiday, but when push comes to shove, we end up going, "yeah, nah". And is Hāwera - population 10,000 and an hour's drive south of New Plymouth - really worth going out of the way for? All for a couple of museums? While on holiday?
Well, let's just park those misconceptions because we're talking about arguably the single greatest private museum in the country, the jaw-dropping Tāwhiti Museum with its miniatures and wax figures depicting the complicated history of Taranaki. And then, for a complete change of pace, what may just be the most significant collection of Elvis memorabilia anywhere in the world outside of Memphis, KD's Elvis Presley Museum.
And so my wife and I mapped out our Auckland to Taranaki road trip.
On the itinerary? Having already established that the Goblin Forest was an absolute Taranaki must-do, we can now vouch for there being no better launchpad for the unforgettable, fairytale-like walks that comprise Egmont National Park than the historic Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge.
Built in the late 1890s, the lodge has 12 rooms with a charming old wooden Suisse-ski resort kind of vibe. Located 900m up the 2500m high mountain, just getting to the lodge is a huge part of the adventure. We drove through endless farmland in foggy, mountain-obscuring weather, then all of sudden we hit that perimeter of forest.
It's as stark as it looks from out the window at about 900m. Like a wild wall of impenetrable jungle, there's no gradual shift from pasture to shrubs to forest. Instead, the trees come at you suddenly in a wondrous, intimidating tangle. The road you've taken across the miles of farmland gets swallowed and for the next 6km you're in the tree tunnel to beat all tree tunnels. It just might be my favourite small stretch of road in the country.
All around is the Goblin Forest and there are walks aplenty of all lengths to be done, some literally straight out the door from Dawson Falls Mountain Lodge. And when you're done taking in one of the most distinct, storybook-like forests in the land, a first-class fireside dinner awaits back at the lodge.
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This could've been the sum total of our southern Taranaki escape, but I hadn't forgotten Hāwera and those two museums. Forty minutes back down through the tree tunnel, our first stop was Tāwhiti.
This is the brainchild of former art teacher and lifelong student of history Nigel Ogle. The affable, humble Ogle has spent thousands of hours building detailed miniatures based on historical wartime paintings that retell the frequently devastating tales of the New Zealand Wars. Add to that life-size waxworks, a functioning train and a Disneyland Pirates Of The Caribbean-inspired underground boat ride called Traders & Whalers, Tāwhiti is worth the hype.
Where to find Elvis
Next we had a date with Kevin David Wasley, better known as the KD of KD's Elvis Presley Museum. A diehard fan of The King since the 1950s, KD's converted garage is an internationally acclaimed, floor-to-ceiling, anti-Marie Kondo celebration of everything Elvis. And when I say floor-to-ceiling, we're talking inclusive of the floor and the ceiling with every possible space decked out in Elvis records, Elvis knick-knacks, Elvis clothes, Elvis, Elvis, Elvis.
A true gent, KD's the clear joy in showing us his overwhelming (in the best sense of the word) collection of memorabilia of the 20th century's most influential, enigmatic, charismatic performer was, in turn, a joyous experience. We absolutely loved it.
Elvis, Tāwhiti, a historic mountain lodge and an enchanted forest - stop wondering from your window seat what this part of the country is like and see it for yourself.