Key Points:

Somewhere in the back blocks of Taranaki they must have a charm school - and one with a remarkable success rate. I cannot remember having visited anywhere else where the people were so universally welcoming, so keen to share their pleasure in their own region and so assiduous in making sure their guests are comfortable.

From the cheerful girl in the coffee room at Dawson's Falls and the unassuming Greg and Judith Rupapera of Mt Taranaki Adventures through to volunteers like Mary Morris of the Friends of Pukekura Park and hosts like David and Nuala Marshall of Ahu Ahu Beach Villas, we were surrounded by people engaging us in a way that put some better-known destinations to shame.

It may be that Taranaki just has to try harder. It is, after all, not on a route to anywhere and picks up no accidental passing trade. You have to want to go there and, like too many others, we had never before quite managed it.

We probably mix with the worst sort of people - Aucklanders - and no one has ever recommended New Plymouth as a destination. But it's a town with real assets.

There is wonderful access to the seafront with a long coastal walk, given a distinctive hallmark with the sight of the oil rigs in the distance. There are plenty of decent cafes and the Puke Ariki information centre and museum is the sort of facility that ratepayers ought to be proud of.

But for most of us, the key to Taranaki is the mountain, so often seen while flying by but not always visible from the ground. A friend raised in Taranaki told me the tale of how an uncle who used to visit from out of the area never once managed to see the peak out of the clouds.

We were lucky enough to see it in both moods. Posing against a clear blue sky, the snow-topped peak looked almost too good to be true as we toured round the perimeter with Greg and Judith, who specialise in small group tours that have an individual flavour. They outlined the Maori perspective and then took us to Dawson's Falls, where Greg paid tribute with a discreet karakia. Then he inveigled me into a mountain bike ride down. The air was exhilarating and I was starting to get up enough nerve to stop squeezing the life out of the brakes when we reached the park gates.

In the afternoon, the mountain decided to slide behind the clouds and by the following day it had vanished.

But the weather was clear enough at Kaitake Lodge, where we spent our first night. It sits on the slopes above Oakura with a view to the sea and backs on to Egmont National Park - very fortuitous feng shui, as host Ross Henry pointed out.

The emphasis is ecological, with the lodge using solar power and wood fire and Ross offered various alternative therapies, including qui gong. But even if you don't take the therapy options - and I didn't - having such a lodge to oneself in tranquillity, quiet and peace is therapy in itself.

We caught up with a bit more therapy later in our visit with a restful hour in the Taranaki mineral pools. These were built in the early 1900s and rebuilt in 2000.

Whether drinking the mineral waters and loafing about in them has any medical value I cannot say, but it's certainly a great way to unwind after a busy day.

If the mountain is Taranaki's signature, the untamed coastline provides another focus. Our second night was spent at Ahu Ahu beach villas, with a spectacular view of the Taranaki coastline which, when we were there, was more dramatic than docile.

The four clifftop units are beautifully designed, using a variety of appropriate recycled materials and have been joined by another award-winning larger unit which can serve as a function and conference venue. But if the site is beautiful - and it is - one of the main pleasures was the local knowledge of David and Nuala Marshall who turned a morning of dismal weather into a delight with an enthusiastic tiki tour of their territory, from beaches to farms to artists studios and, of course, a reference to great surfing.

Our brief taste of Taranaki's range of water-based adventure came with an excursion on the converted English lifeboat of Chaddy's Charters. The low tide prevented the slipway launch but the ride out through the swell to the fur seal colonies was lively enough. Chaddy certainly had more than enough local knowledge to share. The group of little birthday boys shrieked with delight as the spray flew in, although I was happy enough to get back on land for a brief pause before taking a look at Taranaki from a different and more restful angle.

Richard Foale of Heliview Taranaki, yet another apparent graduate of the charm school, took us on a magical helicopter ride from Port Taranaki and along the coast skirting the mountain. This bird's eye view, which included hanging almost motionless over Ahu Ahu Villas and Kaitake Lodge, was a captivating experience, given another dimension by being able to trace the path of the Taranaki tornado in a way impossible to match at ground level.

As we went back, we were able to get a hint of another Taranaki glory; the gardens and parks.

It would be an exaggeration to say that on the following day we saw the city's Pukekura Park at its finest as the rain hammered down. But Mary Morris' enthusiasm was infectious and the hothouses were a charming respite. Even through the downpour you could see the good fortune New Plymouth enjoys in having a park maintained with loving care so close to its centre.

If the appeal to the eye is a constant in Taranaki, the down-to-earth appetites turned out to be well catered to as well. We ate with café-style flair at Café Wunderbar at Oakura, perhaps even less expectedly at the Waiting Room in tiny Okato and had an excellent dinner at Okurukuru, which provided big-city food in a terrific clifftop setting. To be honest, we couldn't really see it in the evening but were so impressed we popped back in the daylight to catch the view. And it goes without saying that we were well looked after, being moved to a cosy spot near the fire as we waited for our dining companions.

Those in the Taranaki tourist business know they have an uphill task but the hospitality never seemed merely an attitude that just came with the job. It's a travel writing cliché to say we'll be back, but this one you can bet on.

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GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies up to eight times a day from New Plymouth to Auckland return and up to seven times a day New Plymouth to Wellington return. See www.airnewzealand.co.nz or call (0800) 737 000

WHERE TO STAY
Kaitake Lodge is on the web at www.kaitakelodge.co.nz

Ahu Ahu beach villas have four self-contained units plus one larger unit. See www.ahu.co.nz
WHAT TO DO
Chaddy's Charters, offering lifeboat trips and other marine activities, is at Chaddy's Boat Shed, Ocean View Parade, New Plymouth.

Heliview Taranaki is on the web at www.heliview.co.nz

Mt Taranaki Adventures, run by Greg and Judith Rupapera, is at: PO Box 51, 29 Egmont Street, Kaponga, or www.mttaranakiadventures.com

Taranaki Thermal Spa, is at 8 Bonithon Avenue, or can be contacted through www.nzhotpools.co.nz
WHERE TO EAT
Café Wunderbar is at 1129 Main South Road, Oakura.

Okurukuru is at 738 Surf Highway 45, Oakura, and on the web at www.okurukuru.co.nz

The Waiting Room is at 64 Carthew St, Okato.

MORE INFORMATION
See Venture Taranaki's website at www.taranaki.co.nz