The rich sheep- and dairy-farming Manawatu region embraces the districts of Rangitikei to the north and Horowhenua to the south. The hub of it all, on the banks of the Manawatu River, is Palmerston North, with its moderate high-rise attempts reaching up from the plains. Massey University, NZ’s largest, informs the town’s cultural and social structures.
With rafts of casual Huck Finn sensibility, Whanganui is a raggedy historic town on the banks of the wide Whanganui River. Despite the occasional flood (much of the city centre was underwater in June 2015), the local arts community is thriving: old port buildings are being turned into glass-art studios, and the town centre has been rejuvenated.
Whanganui National Park
The Whanganui River – the lifeblood of Whanganui National Park – curls 290km from its source on Mt Tongariro to the Tasman Sea. It’s the longest navigable river in NZ, and today conveys canoes, kayaks and jetboats, its waters shifting from deep mirror greens in summer to turbulent winter browns.
Surf Highway 45
Sweeping south from New Plymouth around the coastline to Hawera, the 105km-long SH45 is known as Surf Highway 45. There are plenty of black-sand beaches dotted along the route, but don’t expect to see waves crashing ashore the whole way. The drive generally undulates through farmland – be ready to swerve for random tractors and cows.
Egmont National Park
A classic 2518m volcanic cone dominating the landscape, Mt Taranaki is a magnet to all who catch his eye. Geologically, Taranaki is the youngest of three large volcanoes – Kaitake and Pouakai are the others – which stand along the same fault line. With the last eruption over 350 years ago, experts say that the mountain is overdue for another go.
Okato & Around
Between Oakura and Opunake, SH45 veers inland through Okato, with detours to sundry beaches along the way. There are legendary surf spots at Stent Rd, just south of Warea, and Kumara Patch, west of Okato. Near Pungarehu, Cape Egmont is home to a historic lighthouse and associated museum.
Around New Plymouth
There are a few interesting places to visit heading north from New Plymouth along SH3, with various seaward turn-offs to high sand dunes and surf beaches. Urenui, 16km past Waitara, is a summer hot spot. There is also a scattering of worthwhile sights south of New Plymouth, between the city and Mt Taranaki.
From south New Plymouth, the first cab off the rank is laid-back Oakura, 15km southwest on SH45. Its broad sweep of beach is hailed by waxheads for its right-hander breaks, but it’s also great for families (take sandals – that black sand gets scorching hot!). Sharpen your wave skills with some lessons from Vertigo Surf or Tarawave Surf School.
Around Palmerston North
About 15km northeast of Palmerston North (aka 'Student City'), SH2 dips into Manawatu Gorge – one of the few places in NZ where a river flows across a mountain range. Māori named the gorge Te Apiti (the Narrow Passage), believing the big reddish rock near the centre of the gorge was its guardian spirit.
Forgotten World Highway
The remote 155km road between Stratford and Taumarunui (SH43) has become known as the Forgotten World Hwy. The drive winds through hilly bush country, passing Māori pa (fortified villages), abandoned coal mines and memorials to those long gone. Just a short section (around 12km) is unsealed road.