Taranaki dreaming: New Plymouth is truly a top town

by Virginia Larson / 16 January, 2019
Editorial
Pūniho marae

Taranaki's Pūniho Marae with the maunga looming behind. Photo/Ken Downie

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Thoughts on a last-minute summer road trip to New Plymouth.

I had nothing adventurous planned for the Christmas-New Year break; nothing that required more than a daypack or beach towels and sun-block. Then a large, lazy anticyclone shuffled over the North Island and the highway called. But where to go at the height of the Kiwi holiday season with half a million overseas tourists roaming about the place? The beach resorts would be packed, likewise lakeside towns like Rotorua and Taupо̄.

New Plymouth, I thought. Lonely Planet named Taranaki one of the world’s best regions to visit in 2016, but those planet-scouring pollsters have moved on to Manitoba and northern Peru, among other slightly less trampled-over zones. Maybe I could find a hotel room for a couple of nights ahead of New Year’s Eve.

It was also 10 years since North & South awarded New Plymouth the title of Top Town and a lot longer since I’d spent time in the city. Last June, in a story about New Zealanders moving from the big cities to the regions, we revisited our occasional Top Town series, including a catch-up with a New Plymouth family we’d talked to first in 2008. In 2018 they were still enthusiasts for life in Taranaki. Economist Arthur Grimes, who’s a researcher on the National Science Challenges’ “Building Better Homes, Towns and Cities” project, was also interviewed for the 2018 feature. He singled out New Plymouth as a reinvigorated city: “It used to be a really boring place,” he said. “Now it’s fabulous.”

"As Auckland’s traffic returns to normal – congested – and we start moaning again about red light runners, scooter hooligans and crowded beaches, I’ll be thinking of you...”

Fortunately for me, the “fabulous” message hadn’t got through to every impromptu road-tripper in the country, and I snapped up a room for two at the Devon Hotel, which turned out to be one convenient road-crossing away from the Coastal Walkway – with free bikes for guests – and a few blocks from the town centre.

I know we had our rose-tinted, summer holiday glasses on and probably saw New Plymouth at its best. But as we passed Waitara, even a few wisps of cirrostratus burned away, leaving Mt Taranaki standing snow-streaked and sentinel over the city. For the duration of our visit, “te maunga” was a constant presence; only the vapour trails from passing jets streaked through the blue.

We strolled the wide, meandering Coastal Walkway, which was busy but not jammed like Auckland’s waterfront paths. Around 6pm one night, East End Beach was still buzzing with swimmers; kite-surfers skimmed over waves further out; cyclists, runners and roller-skaters spun past us; in adjacent parks, families sprawled on deck chairs, eating pizza. Teens congregated to flirt and giggle.

On a crystalline morning, we drove to the Dawson Falls road-end at Egmont National Park, where we walked the Kapuni Loop track to the falls and loitered about the visitor centre viewing platform, with its mountain-top to green horizon vistas. We circled back through farmland and a stretch of the Surf Highway, taking a side-trip to lovely Oakura Beach.

Back in town, we admired the undulating, gleaming steel of the Len Lye Centre and, inside the gallery, immersed ourselves in the ear-ringing, whirling dervish of its “Wind Dance” kinetic sculpture. We visited Puke Ariki museum; and ate a supremely good meal at Social Kitchen, a bar and bistro artfully refitted into a former Salvation Army citadel. After dinner, we found a car-park on one of the elegant streets around Pukekura Park and joined a happy throng at the TSB Festival of Lights, where we wandered about the light sculptures while a cool, jazzy band played background soundtrack.

So thank you, New Plymouth, for three magical days and Mt Taranaki, for unfurling your coat of clouds. As Auckland’s traffic returns to normal – congested – and we start moaning again about red light runners, scooter hooligans and crowded beaches, I’ll be thinking of you. Top Town? You’d win my vote again. 

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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