Taranaki & Whanganui
Halfway between Auckland and Wellington on New Zealand's underappreciated west coast, Taranaki (aka 'the 'Naki') is the country's Texas, with oil and gas streaming in from offshore rigs. But in New Plymouth free galleries, a provincial museum and dining hot spots attract young families and retirees from Auckland craving a slower pace without compromising lifestyle. Travellers are following suit.
Behind the city the stunning Mt Taranaki demands to be photographed, if not visited. The volcanic terrain is responsible for the area’s black-sand beaches, lapped up by surfers and holidaymakers during summer.
Further east the history-rich Whanganui River curls its way through Whanganui National Park down to Whanganui city, a 19th-century river port ageing with grace and embracing its local arts scene. Palmerston North, the Manawatu region's main city, is a students' town courtesy of caffeinated Massey University literati. Beyond the city, the region blends rural grace with yesterday’s pace.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Taranaki & Whanganui.
Elvis lives! At least he does at Kevin D Wasley's astonishing museum, which houses more than 10,000 of the King’s records and a mind-blowing collection of Elvis memorabilia collected over many decades. 'Passion is an understatement,' says KD, whose grey hair is slicked back and on theme. Admission by appointment – phone ahead. BYO blue suede shoes.
This two-headed artistic beast is arguably NZ's best regional art gallery, presenting contemporary – and often experimental and provocative – local and international shows. 'Great art goes 50-50 with great architecture' – so said NZ artist Len Lye (1901–80), to whom the shimmering Len Lye Centre is dedicated. It's an interlocking facade of tall, mirror-clad concrete flutes, with internal galleries linked by ramps housing Lye's works – kinetic, noisy and surprising. There's also a cinema here, plus regular kids' art sessions. Essential viewing!
Spend an hour or two in one of NZ’s better natural history museums. Te Atihaunui-a-Pāpārange Māori exhibits include an amazing waka (canoe), fire-hardened here (bird spears) and some vicious-looking mere (greenstone clubs). Colonial and wildlife installations are upstairs, including plenty of fossils and skeletons. Don't miss the amazing old photos of Māori life along the Whanganui River in the early 1900s.
Lush Pukekura has 49 hectares of gardens, playgrounds, trails, streams, waterfalls, ponds and display houses. In summer, rowboats (per half-hour $15) meander across the main lake (full of arm-sized eels), next to which the Tea House serves light meals. The technicolored Festival of Lights draws the summer crowds here, as does the impeccably mowed cricket oval. For the lethargic, 45-minute motorised buggy tours (adult/child $5/free) can whip you around to see the best bits; call for bookings.
Translating as ‘Hill of Chiefs’, Puke Ariki was once a pā (fortified village) site, and is now home to the i-SITE, a fab regional museum, a library, a cafe and Arborio restaurant. The excellent museum has an extensive collection of Māori artefacts, plus colonial, mountain geology and wildlife exhibits. We hope the shark suspended above the lobby isn't to scale.
Fans of the oval ball holler about the New Zealand Rugby Museum, an amazing space overflowing with rugby paraphernalia, from a 1905 All Blacks jumper to a scrum machine and the actual whistle used to start the first game of every Rugby World Cup. Of course, NZ won back-to-back Rugby World Cups in 2011 and 2015, but failed ingloriously in 2019: quiz the staff about the All Blacks' 2023 prospects.
Te Manawa merges a museum and art gallery into one experience, with vast collections joining the dots between art, science and history. The museum has a strong Māori focus and includes plenty of social history, information on native animals and wetlands, and an interactive science display on the Manawatu River. The gallery’s exhibits change frequently. Little kids will get a kick out of the interactive play area. The excellent New Zealand Rugby Museum is here too.
Across City Bridge from downtown Whanganui, this elevator was built with grand visions for Durie Hill’s residential future. Beyond an entrance lined with Māori carvings, a tunnel burrows 213m into the hillside, from where a 1919 elevator rattles 66m to the top.
At 156m, this craggy, steep-sided hill is almost as tall as New Plymouth's old power-station chimney down at the port (198m). Paritutu translates as ‘rising precipice’. 'Precipice' is right – it's a seriously knee-trembling, 15-minute scramble to the top, the upper reaches over bare rock with a chain to grip on to. If you can ignore your inner screams of common sense, you'll be able to see for miles around from the summit. Save it for another day if the weather ain't pretty.