After the road sign leading to one of New Zealand's most iconic surf breaks was continuously pinched by Kiwi boardriders seeking the ultimate souvenir, local authorities solved the ongoing, light-hearted pilfering in a colourful and creative way.
Other roads leading to beaches from Taranaki's Surf Highway 45 – named after the 105km route taken by surfers looking for the best waves along the central North Island's rugged west coast – are still indicated by standard yellow road signs, but Stent Rd's legendary right-hand reef break is announced in a more permanent way. A huge boulder, daubed with orange paint and framed by palms thriving in the region's sub-tropical climate, stands sentinel on a rural corner. Now there's definitely no danger of it ending up in a suburban backyard after a surf-inspired road trip.
My own exploration of Surf Highway 45 begins in New Plymouth, an evolving mix of heartland New Zealand and a surprising arts scene. The spectacular Wind Wand – a kinetic sculpture designed by New Zealand artist Len Lye (1901-1980) – sways in staunch breezes swooping in from the Tasman Sea, while southwest from New Plymouth's main beach, the craggy coastal collection of 154m-high Paritutu and the Sugar Loaf Islands signals the start of my journey. Other idiosyncratic Len Lye works are on display in New Plymouth's Govett-Brewster Art Gallery – now bookended by the shimmering architectural curtains of the Len Lye Centre - but my focus today is on the rugged coastline.
Just 14km from New Plymouth, Ōakura is a relaxed combination of summertime surf town and residential alternative to the city. What's described as 'the world's biggest surfboard' stands beside Butler's Reef Hotel – 150 years old in 2015 – and in summer the pub's raffish beer garden often hosts gigs by New Zealand's biggest bands. Looking forward to January 2 next year, Butler's Reef will be rocking with a gig from The Feelers and Elemeno P. A friendly barista serves me a robust espresso at the Lemonwood Eatery, a recent opening, bulging with vegan and plant-based flavours, and there's more evidence of Ōakura's emerging gentrification with posters for "surf yoga" in the window of the local fish and chip shop. Factor in food-truck treats from Ōakura-based La Petite Cabane and a volcano looming on the inland horizon, and it's a cosmopolitan New Zealand combo that reminds me a little of travels on Hawai'i's Big Island.
Down on nearby Ahu Ahu Beach – reached by a 3km detour dotted with scurrying quails and meandering horse riders – the spirit of old Taranaki soon re-emerges. A friendly local waiting patiently to catch whitebait in the river mouth provides directions to the nearby wreck of the SS Gairloch, and I pick my way over black sand covered with bleached and twisted driftwood to the rusted skeleton of the ship that foundered on Timaru Reef in 1903. Paritutu and the Sugar Loaf Islands dot the horizon back along the coast, and the perfect conical spectacle of Mt Taranaki rises from behind forested hills.
Back on Surf Highway 45, my next stop is Ōkato, a sleepy junction town featuring a giant red tractor for sale in the main street - a steal at $49,500, apparently - rustic handmade tables and chairs from Rusty Nail Furniture, and the easygoing vibe of the Downtown cafe. Rotating exhibitions by local artists are featured on the cafe's colourful walls, and devouring a cheese scone outside on one of the retro sofas is the perfect way to ease even further into a Taranaki road trip. Ask cafe owners Amanda and Al if they're still selling DVDs of Last Paradise, an entertaining New Zealand documentary crammed with 1960s footage of Taranaki's surfing pioneers negotiating dusty unsealed roads in search of great waves.
More than five decades on, the roads leading to the coast from Surf Highway 45 are now smooth and sealed, and just after Warea, the bulky boulder announcing Stent Rd comes into view. Behind me, Mt Taranaki is a constant and comforting presence, and down on the coast, the indigo ocean expands to the horizon from a rocky shore dotted by hardy vegetation. In summer, Stent Rd is one of Taranaki's most popular surf breaks, but on a spring weekday, the Tasman sea shoreline feels wonderfully remote. Another coastal diversion from nearby Pungarehu leads to the imposing profile of the Cape Egmont lighthouse, more than 100 years old and operated by a lighthouse keeper until 1986. On Cape Rd leading to the lighthouse, the Surf Highway's distinctive rolling landscape of grassy lahar mounds caused by an explosive volcanic past is populated with shy, spring calves.
My next stop is at Opunake, a town dotted with murals and the colour and heritage of the restored Everybody's Theatre. Iconic images of Charlie Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe sit above the community-run cinema, and a friendly "Where are you from?" from the team at Opunake Fish, Chips and More makes choosing lunch an easy decision. Minutes later I'm tucking in down at Opunake Beach, and understanding exactly why this classic Kiwi fish and chip shop is regarded as an essential Surf Highway stop. Opunake's main street statue of local boy the late Sir Peter Snell, is another highlight, but I'm pretty sure the three-time Olympic champion didn't include a couple of battered scallops, a deep-fried fillet of tarakihi, and half a scoop of chips in his training regime for Rome in 1960 or Tokyo in 1964.
Southeast from Opunake, the highway leads through sleepy Manaia, once designed on a grand scale to be one of Taranaki's main centres, and emerald-green pastures filled with herds of black and white Friesian cows resemble a Gary Larson Far Side cartoon waiting to happen. Past Ohawe, south Taranaki's main beach, Surf Highway 45 cruises into Hawera where the excellent Tāwhiti Museum tells the story of the traders, whalers and dairy farmers who developed the region. My own story ends with climbing the 215 steps of the town's 55m water tower. Afternoon cloud has finally shut down vistas of Mt Taranaki, but there's still plenty to see with horizon-filled views along the highway and back around the coast to New Plymouth.
FACT FILE: HIGHWAY 45
New Plymouth is around four and a half hours drive from Auckland, with a coastal highlight the rugged west coast surf beaches south of Mōkau on SH3. From Wellington, the journey time is similar, travelling on SH1 and SH3 via Whanganui's arty riverside vibe. Air New Zealand has direct flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch to New Plymouth.
In New Plymouth, Ducks & Drakes Boutique Motel & Backpackers offer colourful motel rooms and a sunny and good-value backpacker lodge with dorms, single and double rooms. They can also arrange trailhead transport for tackling the Pouākai Crossing in nearby Egmont National Park, regarded as one of New Zealand's best one-day walks.
In the city, King and Queen Hotel Suites are stylish and centrally-located, and an easy stroll to attractions including the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery/Len Lye Centre and New Plymouth's excellent Puke Ariki museum and library.
Eating & Drinking:
Centred around the city's West End Precinct, highlights of New Plymouth's cafe, bar and restaurant scene include Social Kitchen with grills and seafood with a South American and Spanish influence, wood-fired pizza and craft beer at Ms White, and Italian meatballs at Polpetta. Ask if any local beers from Ōakura-based Three Sisters Brewery are available. For brunch and coffee, adjourn to Monica's Eatery adjacent to the Govett-Brewster. The best baking in town is available nearby at Billow.
New Plymouth Coastal Walkway
Spanning 12.7km, the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway is another good way to explore the rugged west coast of the North Island, this time more slowly, and on two wheels or two feet. It's an easy coastal route that's also easily negotiated by prams, wheelchairs and mobility scooters, making it accessible for all travellers.
Focusing on shorter walks en route is an option, but exploring the full stretch from Ngamotu Beach to Hickford Park offers the best experience. Short hops by Uber provide access to the beginning and end of the walkway, and another option is to rent a bike from Cycle Inn in central New Plymouth. E-bikes are also available, and it's worth booking ahead on weekends and during holidays.
The walkway begins at Ngāmotu Beach near Port Taranaki. There's a sheltered and family-friendly beach here. Fuel up with breakfast at the quirky Manou's Waterfront Cafe before carrying on to Kawaroa Park and its excellent children's playground. Nearby, the Todd Energy Aquatic Centre has the loads of fun combination of wave pools, kids pools and hyrdoslides. By now, the spectacular 45m-high Wind Wand sculpture by New Zealand kinetic artist Len Lye will be coming into view, and the walkway fringes Strandon's waterfront park to arrive at East End Beach. Across summer, Paris Plage Cafe in Fitzroy Park is a good spot for an icecream, and on weekends, the East End skatepark is popular.
To the northeast, the gentle arc of Fitzroy Beach is popular for surfing, and swimming between the flags is definitely recommended. Further on, the spectacular 83m Te Rewa Rewa Bridge over the Waiwhakaiho River is reminiscent of a breaking wave or a whale skeleton, with the bridge's arc perfectly framing Mt Taranaki in the distance. Bridge plus mountain is definitely the best photo opportunity of the day.
Continuing through Taranaki coastal farmland, the walkway then traverses Waipu Lagoons with birdlife including Australian coots, grey teal ducks and pūkeko. A final stop is the Taranaki Cycle Park at Hickford Par, and if you're travelling on two wheels, there's a cool car-free junior mini road circuit – complete with traffic lights and a roundabout – for all the family to negotiate.
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