The mountain dominates the landscape with it's perfect shape and (often) snow-crested peak. This region was where much of the film The Last Samurai was made, with Taranaki serving as a convincing volcanic stand-in for Japan's Mt Fuji. The mountain is notorious for staying shrouded in clouds, a symptom of being so close to the ocean, and fitting for the legends that speak of its isolation.
The drive from Wellington takes about 5 hours, up the Kapiti coast through many small New Zealand towns. S patiently tolerated my request to stop in the town of Stratford so that I could investigate a potential hobby: geocaching. I've never done geocaching, and am curious for both professional and personal reasons. Basically, it's like a treasure hunt where you use GPS coordinates to find a hidden object ("the cache"). From reading about it online, I knew there was one near the Malone Memorial Gate in Stratford, and figured it would be easy to find. Just one problem: My GPS device didn't really work properly (loaner from work) and the key clue was that it was "just hanging around" on a yew tree. What does a yew tree look like? Not a clue. We'll move on now...but rest assured I will return to this issue in the future. ;-)
A more successful stop was in Hawera for a visit to the Tawhiti Museum. This little gem is, in my opinion, perhaps the best museum in New Zealand that I have seen thus far.
Tawhiti Museum focuses on the history of the Taranaki region and uses an astonishing collection of carefully crafted and historically accurate dioramas to tell the story. The dioramas themselves are rich in detail and great fun to explore, ranging in size from tiny miniature scenes to life-size reconstructions using real objects and machinery. The detail in these scenes is captivating, and really bring the stories to life. Even more amazing is that the displays were largely constructed by one guy, and that it started off as a casual hobby!
I haven't had as much fun (or learned so much, for that matter) in a museum in a long time. As a museum professional myself, it was yet another reminder that exhibits don't have to be modern, cold, technology-laden sparklefests to be engaging. There wasn't a flatscreen in the place. In terms of graphics and design the presentation techniques were simple, even archaic, and I didn't mind at all. Highly recommended.
Instead, we headed over to the Dawson Falls area on the south side of the mountain. It was freezing and windy, but the sun came out and once we got into the bush it wasn't so bad. It had been raining a lot, though, so the tracks (trails for you Americans) were very, very wet. Sometimes it was more like walking in a stream. There's a DOC visitor centre there, and several short walks around the area.
This region gets a huge amount of rain, especially on the mountain slopes. As a result, everything gets covered in green mosses and lichens, hence the nickname 'goblin forests'.
S used our Day Walks of New Zealand book (a gift from friends Anke and Jeroen - thanks again, guys!) to plan a route that linked several of the walks together and ended on the Kapuni Loop Track with a viewing of Dawson Falls. We got a bit wet, but it was worth it.
On our second day in the area, we wanted to be outdoors but perhaps a bit less soggy so we decided to visit Pukekura Park in the city of New Plymouth (more on it in a moment). This world-class park covers about 52 hectares, and includes a mixture of botanic gardens, concert venues, small lakes, playgrounds, greenhouses and beautiful architectural landscaping. Among the highlights are Bowl of Brooklands, which is supposed to be a terrific concert venue (attracting such talent as Elton John).
There are ferneries and palm groves, with native and exotic plant specimen collections. The park also has some very old (and huge) trees in the park, including a 2,000 year old Puriri tree. It was a really nice and relaxing day.
New Plymouth is the largest city in the region and was our base of operations for the weekend. It's one of the fastest-growing and prosperous cities in New Zealand, and it shows in the investment to infrastructure. They have a very nicely done waterfront walk that spans 7 kms of beachfront.
Not surprisingly, I found myself liking NP better than Wellington, but it's easy to do when you are on holiday and don't have any cares. The parklands and other amenities do make for a nice city, but it still has a ways to go in terms of the restaurants, cafes and theatre venue offerings before it can wrest the culture capital title away. Still, they are making a good effort of it.
There is a top-notch regional museum in the form of Puke Ariki. Superficially this place feels like a variation on Te Papa, but closer examination shows they focus on regional Taranaki stories and topics around geology, flora and fauna, maori culture and colonial heritage/agriculture, etc.
When you enter the museum, you cannot miss the giant white shark suspended from the ceiling. This is a re-creation of the extinct Carchardon (Carcharocles) megalodon, a prehistoric version of our modern great white shark that grew to over 18 meteres (59 feet) in length. These guys are among my favourite prehistoric beasties. A bit of trivia for you...the teeth of Megalodon are also found in the Southeastern U.S. and in fact it's the official state fossil of Georgia.
Our last night, we enjoyed dinner at the museum restaurant - Arborio - before heading back to Wellington the next day. Our route back took us around the western side of the mountain, termed the 'Surf Coast' because of the big waves and surfing beaches found there. And on that note, I leave you to ponder whether you would continue to surf in water with killer whales.