Tucked away on the central west coast of New Zealand's North Island, the Taranaki region is both overlooked and under-appreciated. But for more intrepid travellers, the area dubbed 'the 'Naki' is definitely worth a detour.
It's a region of rolling dairy farms, easygoing residents and sleepy side roads, but look further and you'll find black-sand beaches whipped by Tasman Sea surf, and a provincial capital with a surprising world-class arts scene. Looming over the whole landscape is Mt Taranaki – one of New Zealand's most photogenic mountains.
Art meets nature in New Plymouth
Art and nature complement each other in Taranaki's capital, New Plymouth. The spectacular Wind Wand – a towering kinetic sculpture designed by New Zealand artist Len Lye – arcs and sways in staunch breezes surging in from the Tasman Sea, while the mirror-clad folds of the recently opened Len Lye Centre shimmer with southern hemisphere sunshine and shape-shifting clouds. Nearby, 19th-century heritage buildings offer an intriguing contrast.
One of the 2oth century's most interesting artists, Lye opined that 'Great art goes 50-50 with great architecture', and the ratio at the centre gets the balance exactly right. Towering ceilings create a sense of space and drama, while ramps lead visitors through galleries of Lye's challenging kinetic structures and boldly energetic films. Sculptures whir and buzz and Lye's colour-drenched or starkly monochrome short films shimmy and shake. Welcome to one of the most noisy and exciting galleries on the planet.
Adjoining the Len Lye Centre is the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, renowned as one of New Zealand's best regional art galleries. With a motto of 'Provocateurs since 1970' the gallery focuses on experimental and challenging local and international exhibitions. In a region traditionally more attuned to dairy farming and laid-back surfers hunting the perfect wave, this is another of Taranaki's best-kept secrets.
In mid-March, sleepy New Plymouth effortlessly morphs into the southern hemisphere's world music hotspot. Every year the WOMAD festival fills the city's TBS Bowl of Brooklands in Pukekura Park for a few exciting days. Recent festivals have included South African township a capella harmonies, Spanish flamenco beats and thumping Romany trumpet and tuba ensembles from the Balkans.
Outdoor adventures and foodie treats
In a land renowned for its iconic hiking, the Pouakai Crossing – the route around the perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki – is an Instagram-worthy contender for the country's finest one-day walk.
Traversing the northern side of the mountain, the 19km trek (seven to nine hours walking) negotiates diverse landscapes from forest through to sub-alpine scrub, and includes waterfalls, alpine tarns and swamps. There are also much lower visitor numbers than other more well-known hikes. Top Guides offers guided walks, shuttle transport and other shorter half-day excursions on sections of the Crossing.
After a day outdoors, it's just a short hop to return to New Plymouth and its excellent dining scene. Kick off at The Hour Glass, one of the country's best craft beer bars – look for beers from Taranaki locals Brew Mountain (brewmountain.co.nz) or Mike's Brewery – before tucking into robust charcoal-grilled dishes at Social Kitchen (social-kitchen.co.nz).
Other day trips to consider over your Taranaki pork belly include a 20-minute vertiginous scramble up Paritutu (154m) at the southern end of town, or for something more accessible, a forest walk around the Dawson Falls area on the eastern slopes of Mt Taranaki.
Roadtripping Surf Highway 45
Get some Kiwi tunes on your playlist before embarking on this 105km semi-circular route from New Plymouth to Hawera. At Oakura, the world's biggest surfboard stands outside Butler's Reef Hotel (butlersreef.co.nz) – during summer the pub's raffish beer garden hosts standing-room-only gigs from NZ's biggest bands – while the hip Kin & Co (facebook.com/KinandCo) cafe dispenses organic and artisan flavours with a side order of tattooed barista.
Along the route there are plenty of spots to plant your board. The black sand- and driftwood-adorned Ahu Ahu beach is the last resting place of the SS Gairloch, now a rusted skeleton in the waves after foundering on Timaru Reef in 1903. On the horizon, the soaring profile of Paritutu can be spied, while the constant and comforting presence of Mt Taranaki rises behind forested hills.
Travelling southwest of Warea, keep your eyes peeled for a Taranaki landmark: a huge boulder daubed with orange paint that announces the route to legendary surf break, Stent Rd – the original yellow road marker kept getting stolen by trophy-hunting surfers.
Less than 40km from New Plymouth's art-infused vibe, the Tasman shoreline here feels wonderfully remote, as the indigo ocean dissolves into the horizon. Take a turning down Cape Rd near Pungarehu for a rolling landscape of gassy and bizarre lahar mounds, which are testament to the area's explosive volcanic past. At the end of the road is the century-old Cape Egmont lighthouse.
Further south, Opunake is a town dotted with heritage buildings and colourful murals – say 'G'day' to the friendly team at Opunake Fish Chips & More (facebook.com/Opunakefishchipsandmore) as you're ordering lunch – before cruising on to Hawera where the excellent Tawhiti Museum tells the story of traders, whalers and NZ's indigenous Māori people. One final Surf Highway experience is climbing the 215 steps of Hawera's water tower for glimpses of Mt Taranaki's graceful volcanic cone and the surf-fringed coastline prescribing this surprising region.