In an area somewhere north of Taranaki James Russell has found a place that stills the heart and mind.

I've no idea where the northern boundary of the Taranaki region officially lies, but for me it starts at the bottom of the Awakino Gorge, where the road and the river finally meet the roiling sea (apologies to Waikato Council if I've stolen some of your land).

It's a road I travel often to visit my sister, who's lucky enough to live on this enchanting piece of coastline.

Typical of west coast beaches, this first glimpse of the Tasman Sea is almost overzealous on delivering the drama, particularly when a buffeting sou-wester is chasing a big swell to the beach.

There's a tiny unsealed road that comes off State Highway 3 called Awakino Heads Road; I always take it - you find yourself on a headland overlooking the broad scoop of North Taranaki Bight. A finer place to engage with a flask of tea you'll struggle to find.


From here through to New Plymouth is a wonderful place to explore.

In the space of the first five kilometres, two mighty rivers reach the sea: the aforementioned Awakino and the Mokau river. I often see fly fishers casting into the long pools of the river, which I'm told is a great spot for large brown trout.

If we've got a day to spare, we'll take the kids up the Mokau River, which is navigable for almost 40km, and best explored with the good folk of Mokau River Cruises on their vintage cream boat, the MV Cygnet. Options include a three-hour day cruise, a four-hour twilight cruise or an overnight stay up the river in the rustic Braid Hut, a converted sheep shed.

This river teems with whitebait (get a fritter extending well beyond the crusts of buttered white bread in Mokau township), so if we want to be part of the action, we time the trip for September or October during the whitebait season and borrow my sister's scoop net.

Our kids always appreciate a detour to the Three Sisters, towering rock formations on the beach found 15 minutes south of the Mokau Rivermouth. Turn off SH3 after the Tongaporutu Bridge and drive past the cute little river cottages to park in the riverside reserve. We keep a sharp eye out for "Elephant Rock" and the first of hundreds of caves along this coastline.

The main road plunges back inland up the twisting road of Mt Messenger, complete with tunnels hewn out of the rock, and mysterious caves in the hillsides where, according to the 4-year-old, many dragons and goblins reside.

One of these days I will have my wife drop me off at Tongaparutu for the 14km walk along the pale, dramatic cliffs of the coast right through to the end of Pukearuhe Rd.

The walk takes five hours, with the southernmost 1.5km passable only at low tide.


My sister lives in Pukearuhe Rd, the very end of which is the pickup point for the White Cliffs walk. When there's lots of us, we stay at Wai-iti Beach Retreat, 10km down Pukearuhe Rd. Right on the beach, accommodation options range from three-bedroom baches to converted shipping containers. The lawn in front of the cafe/restaurant stretches to the sand.

Another must-do on my list is at the other end of Wai-iti Beach, hidden in the trees on the headland. It is Wilkinson's Castle, the masterpiece of Arts and Crafts architect James Walter Chapman-Taylor.

Built in 1930 for Egmont MP Charles Wilkinson, it is not technically a castle, but a large home. In the Arts and Crafts tradition, all the timber was hand-adzed. Now owned by Ian and Gwen Beasley, the Castle is rented to holidaymakers (self-catering, for the brilliant price of $45/head) or for functions.

On our inevitable day trips to New Plymouth, my first stop is Mike's Brewery (just south of Urenui) to pick up a few bottles of his superb organic mild ale, among other varieties. Beer safely stowed, in Urenui Village we either stop at Mud Bay Cafe, a stylish timber and long-run iron affair serving great brunch and coffee or, if it's lunchtime, go a little further to the Onaero Beach turnoff past Urenui, and visit Waiau Estate for a truly delicious lunch in a beautiful setting.

If it isn't right on high tide, we'll always hit Onaero Beach afterwards - probably the best beach in the area - for a laze in the sun and a swim.

Mokau River Cruises: Ph 0800 665 2874.

Wai iti Beach Retreat: Ph: 06 752 3726 or 027 275 4571.

Wilkinson's Castle: Email or phone 06 752 3458.

Mud Bay Cafe: 18 Ngakoti Street, Urenui, phone 06 752 3881.

Waiau Estate: Onaero Beach Road, RD43 Waitara, phone 06 752 3609.

* Taranaki tide times can be found at