A trip through the North Island’s mid-west takes you on roads less travelled, along the Tasman Sea coastline and through verdant countryside dotted with numerous attractions.
From Auckland, it’s less than an hour’s drive to the Waikato, the North Island’s rural heartland cloaked in vast expanses of pasture. Such scenery predominates southward through the King Country and Taranaki, all the way to Whanganui.
As perennial as the grass are the pounding waves along the Tasman Sea coast, famous here for its intermittent cliffs, hot black sands and surf beaches around Raglan and Surf Highway 45.
Unique natural areas stake their place amid the farmland, including Taranaki’s fascinating Egmont National Park where a lone conical volcano stands as iconic as Japan’s Mount Fuji. In its shadow is the vast forest of Whanganui National Park, a rugged wilderness with a mystical, magical river at its heart.
These neighbouring regions sport three relatively small cities – Hamilton, New Plymouth and Whanganui – and lots of lightly populated towns. And although sights such as Waitomo Caves and Mt Taranaki feature high on the must-do list, this part of New Zealand is quiet and unhurried, ideal for a relaxing road trip.
- scenic back roads
- surf beaches
- fascinating cave tours
- a picture-perfect volcano
- two national parks
- unique museums
WHAT TO SEE & DO
The North Island’s mid-west is criss-crossed by diverse highways, alpine to coastal. The journey from Auckland to Waitomo Caves serves up a classic slice of New Zealand rural life, with opportunities for seaside detours. The Forgotten World Highway is one of the region’s signature drive, a hilly inland route with lookouts, waterfalls and the memorable Whangamomona.
Skirting along South Taranaki’s semi-circular coastline, Surf Highway 45 is heavenly for its swell sea views and constant view of the magnificent volcano. The sleepy Whanganui River Road, meanwhile, is an incredible back-road journey still somewhat under the traveller radar.Nature & Scenic
Hidden amidst unprepossessing farmland an hour’s drive south of Hamilton, the world-famous Waitomo Caves are ancient limestone caverns filled with stalactites, stalagmites and galaxies of glowworms. Various walking tours take in this eye-popping spectacle, although intrepid travellers can delve deeper into the inky abyss on a Legendary Black Water Rafting trip. As well as a lovely holiday park and craft brewery, the caves area also sports the powerful Marokopa Falls and Mangapohue rock archway.
Two of New Zealand’s 14 national parks lie in this part of the country, each with distinct landscapes and recreational opportunities. Egmont National Park is relatively small and rather circular, extending to a radius of around 9km from the pinnacle of Mt Taranaki. Just half an hour’s drive from downtown New Plymouth, the park’s visitor centre ready access to various alpine hikes with vast views, while the outlying Pouakai Range offers a mixture of unique plant life, swamps, waterfalls and other natural wonders.
Whanganui National Park encompasses the deeply ridged forestland surrounding the Whanganui River. Kayaking trips are the big ticket here, but hiking, mountain biking, jet boating and scenic drives offer other, often easier ways into the wilderness.
The west coast from the Waikato south to Whanganui is sparsely populated and often remote, with scores of quiet back roads reaching wild, empty beaches. Popular hotspots – often patrolled by lifeguards in season – are dotted along the way, such as the sweet little town of Raglan and its famous surf beaches, Manu Bay and Ngarunui.
Taranaki also lures swimmers and board-riders, particularly along Surf Highway 45 where Oakura and Opunake fill up with fun-lovers come summertime. There are other options closer to downtown New Plymouth, such as Fitzroy.
Museums & galleries
These provinces pack an impressive cultural punch, particularly in New Plymouth where Puke Ariki museum, Govett-Brewster Gallery and new Len Lye Centre showcase everything from Maori artifacts to world-renown cinematic and kinetic art.
Whanganui’s Sarjeant Gallery also boasts impressive collections. Among the more unusual offerings are Hawera’s Elvis Presley Museum (yes, Elvis), and Tawhiti Museum that uses spookily lifelike dioramas in local history exhibits. Classic Kiwiana can be encountered at Otorohanga’s oddball Ed Hillary Walkway, and in Te Awamutu Museum where the Split Enz gallery will leave you seeing red.
Hamilton Gardens & Pukekura Park
These large public gardens in Hamilton and New Plymouth vie for the title of New Zealand’s best, and offer excellent opportunities to view native plant collections as well as splendidly landscaped gardens with playgrounds and duck ponds, expansive lawns and cafes.
Taranaki/Mt Egmont National Park
Visitor Centre Perched an impressive 946 metres above sea level on the side of the volcanic cone, the centre enjoys unobstructed views up, down and around the national park and out to the coast. The centre’s displays explain the formation of this unique landscape, which can be explored on a number of family-friendly short walks and longer day hikes.
Bridge to Nowhere
From Pipiriki on the charming Whanganui River Road, it’s possible to visit this bridge literally in the middle of nowhere and a lonely monument to abandoned dreams. The jet boat ride upriver and bushy tramping track make for a memorable day out in Whanganui National Park – a rugged wilderness with limited
- Campervan travel is easy around this area, with quiet roads, clear road signage, spacious
parking and visitor information centres in sizeable towns and cities.
- Hamilton, New Plymouth and Whanganui have more than respectable culinary scenes;
outside of these cities are many great cafes and country pubs, but it will pay to keep the
campervan kitchen stocked up; look out for produce stalls and farmers’ markets.
- The area’s 20-odd commercial holiday parks see plenty of road-trippers, and offer a social
atmosphere and comprehensive campervan facilities.
- During January and Easter, New Zealand holidaymakers are out in force – especially around
Raglan and the Taranaki coast. At other times, campsite bookings are usually not required
allowing campervan travellers to follow a flexible itinerary.
- Of the handful of Department of Conservation campsites in this area, all are reasonably
- Freedom camping is permitted in some local reserves; i-SITE visitor centres can advise
where and what rules apply.
- Auckland & The Coromandel [add link]
- Auckland to New Plymouth [add link]
- Thermal Explorer Highway [add link]
- Rotorua–Waitomo Loop [add link]
- Central Volcanic Plateau [add link]
Egmont National Park – New Zealand’s second-ever national park (designated in 1900), Egmont encircles
Mt Taranaki’s base and spans 33,500ha of bush. It includes waterfalls, plunge pools, well defined tramping tracks that take up to five days, and is a utopia for volcano lovers. The mountain itself is around 120,000 years old, and last erupted in 1775.
Cape Egmont Lighthouse – situated on the westerly most point of Taranaki, accessed via Cape Rd, Pungarehu. This reassuring beam is seen for 22 nautical miles on a clear night.
Pukekura Park – This 52ha central city park includes lakes, fountains, waterfalls and towering native trees. Throughout the summer months, the annual TSB Festival of Lights attracts more than 100,000 people to enjoy the illuminated wonderland.
Coastal Walkway – rent a bike or power walk along New Plymouth’s 7km walkway which runs along the New Plymouth city coastline. This walkway has won national architectural and creative spaces awards. Along the way you will pass four beaches, rivers, skating rink, the Aquatic Centre and the 45m kinetic wind wand designed by Len Lye, which dances in the wind in a tribute to tangible motion.
Pukeiti Rhododendron Trust – featuring one of the world’s greatest rhododendron collections, plus more, set in Taranaki rainforest. Set in 320ha of beautiful grounds, the trust was established in 1951 and is open all year round. Pukeiti is a Garden of National Significance in New Zealand, and one of ten that Taranaki boasts.
Art & Culture
Arts and Crafts Trail Oakura, Surf Highway 45 – including seven of Taranaki’s best artists, such as designer jeweller Rob Wright, potter/artist Joyce Young, glass designer Richard Landers and jeweller/enameller Sally Laing.
Tawhiti Museum is Taranaki’s premier heritage attraction. Winner of seven separate tourism awards, Tawhiti includes super-realistic life-size figures and scale model displays that are absolutely stunning. This massive project is the work of Nigel Ogle, an ex art teacher who has turned his talents into a passion for innovative display.
Taranaki Pioneer Village, Stratford – unique open-air museum of 50 historic buildings and artefacts of Taranaki’s pioneering days.
WOMAD – this World of Music Arts and Dance festival is held in New Plymouth every two years (next March 2007), transforming Brooklands Park and Bowl into an international kaleidoscope of song, movement and colour.
Parihaka Peace Festival – held annually, this music and food festival celebrates the huge significance that Parihaka Pa in Pungarehu holds within the international peace movement both historically and in the future.
Taranaki Aviation Transport and Technology Museum – a fascinating collection of things farming, trades, domestic, printing, post office memorabilia, fire engines and aircraft.
Beach & Coastal Encounters
The Three Sisters and Elephant Rock – located at Tongaporutu, the Three Sisters (now two, due to tidal erosion) are 25m pinnacles rising up from the beach, accompanied by Elephant Rock. Closeby are old Maori rock carvings in hidden caves, and the Three Sisters forms the start of the Whitecliffs Walkway.
The Gairloch wreck – came to grief on the coastline south of New Plymouth in 1903. This wreck can still be seen north of Oakura on State Highway 45.
Paritutu Rock – the remnant of a volcanic plug that dates to around 1.75 million years ago, this prominent New Plymouth landmark is adjacent to the Sugar Loaf Islands marine reserve. The rock can be climbed relatively easily by the moderately fit, and offers great views of the region.
Sugar Loaf seal colony – join Dave Chadfield from Chaddy’s Charters on a trip around the Sugar Loaf Islands marine area to see the northern-most seal colony in New Zealand.
Pouakai Zoo is the largest privately owned primate collection in New Zealand. It offers close-up interaction with exotic animals and birds, and lovely bush walks.
Brooklands Park and Zoo – first established in 1843, this park has been developed into a large formal landscaped plateau of estate gardens surrounded by native bush. The adjacent zoo is a favourite with children, including a modern free-flight full of tropical birds, farmyard, otters and monkeys.
Stoney Oaks Zoo – a unique wildlife park that brings people and animals together. Tickle a pig’s tummy, hand-feed opossums, sit on a cow, cuddle deer, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs. Home to McGillie – a Highland beast and mascot of the Taranaki rugby team.
Western North Island Quick Facts
At the northern end of this region, the more adventurous travellers are well catered for. With two great rivers providing plenty of opportunity for rafting excursions and exploration, the Rangitikei and the Whanganui bring this part of the region to life and is an exciting addition to any travel itinerary.
The Whanganui River, starting high up in the volcanic plateau of the central North Island at Mt Tongariro, passes through the native tree and fern clad hills of the Wanganui National Park.
The Ruahine and Tararua Mountain Ranges are found in the central area of this region, and pristine rivers wind through the surrounding farmland making for a scenic and peaceful journey.
To the far west of the region facing the Tasman Sea is a magnificent volcano, Taranaki, which dominates the province that shares its name.
This is a region with a blend of natural beauty, attractions and activities.
Western North Island - the 'real New Zealand'.
Located on the western seaboard of New Zealand’s North Island, Taranaki has in the past decade come into its own as a destination to live, work, play and enjoy. Protected by a proud picture-perfect mountain steeped in historical significance, and pounded by a dramatic coastline offering a huge array of aquatic activities, Taranaki is now recognised as a lifestyle destination of choice…a treasure trove ‘like no other’.
Population: ||Taranaki has a population of 104,000, with 70,000 residing in the region’s main centre of New Plymouth City.|
Climate:||Taranaki’s climate is very temperate in both temperature and weather. Temperatures range from an average high of 16 degrees Celsius in the winter, to the mid-20s or higher in the summer, with long balmy nights and crisp winter mornings.|
The region’s cultural mix is varied, given its migrant history over several hundred years. Cultures range from Maori, English, Polish, Swiss, Dutch, Chinese, Indian and New Zealand European.
Taranaki is famous for 2518m Mt Taranaki, Egmont National Park, top New Zealand surf breaks, ten out of 31 New Zealand Gardens of National Significance, artists, heritage attractions (Puke Ariki, Tawhiti Museum), New Zealand’s first themed touring route of Forgotten World Highway 43, and Surf Highway 45.
Taranaki is centred nearly bang on halfway between Auckland and Wellington on the North Island’s western seaboard.
By car or motorhome:
- SH3 from the north, via Te Kuiti
- SH3 from the south, via Wanganui
- Auckland to New Plymouth (spectacular route through Waitomo, Awakino Gorge and Mt Messenger) – five hours.
- Wellington to New Plymouth (through lush South Taranaki countryside dotted with oilrigs and horse studs) – four-and-a-half hours.
If you are travelling to Taranaki, the following are tips to enjoy your specific driving routes:
Forgotten World Highway 43 from Stratford to Taumarunui – please note that there are no petrol stations along this highway, so you will have to refuel your motorhome in Stratford or Taumarunui. There are 12km of unsealed road on this route.
Surf Highway 45 from New Plymouth to Hawera – please note that access to some of the surf beaches is over private land. Please ensure you lock your vehicle before heading to the beach, and take your rubbish home with you. Toilets are available at Fitzroy Beach, East End Beach, Oakura Beach, Weld Rd, Rocky Point (Rocky Rights and Rocky Lefts), Stent Rd, Opunake Beach and Ohawe. It is recommended that visitors unused to surfing should visit Oakura Beach, AhuAhu Rd, Weld Rd, Stent Rd and Opunake Beach.
Dame Melvina Major (opera singer), Victoria Girling-Butcher (singer), Midge Marsden (singer), Dalvanius Prime (singer)
Katie Wolfe (actor), Melanie Lynskey (actor), Ian Rey (actor)
Joyce Young (potter/artist), Margaret Scott (painter), Peter Lambert (painter), Michael Smither (painter), John McLean (painter), Sally Laing (enamel artist), Dale Copeland (artist), Chris Fuller (surf artist)
Deryn Hinch (Australian broadcaster), David Hill (children’s writer)
Kieran Crowley (rugby), David Loveridge (rugby), Graham Mourie (rugby), Grant Fox (rugby), Michael Campbell (golf), Grant Moorhead (golf), Michael Walker (jockey), Adine Harper (netball)