A Weekender's Guide to New Plymouth
Get briefed before you pack up and head to the place they call 'a little bit out there'.
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Sitting on the western knob of the North Island, halfway between Auckland and Wellington, is New Plymouth — one of the country's best kept secrets and a town bored of being thrown into the same basket as Palmerston North.
The charm of the region is no longer under wraps; the destination was most recently given the reputable accolade of 'the second best region in the world to visit' by influential travel guide Lonely Planet. It was only beaten to the number one spot by Peru's mini-Machu Picchu: Choquequirao. At the heels of the mighty Mount Taranaki, or mini-Mount Fuji, you'll find a blossoming foodie paradise, a thriving and supportive arts scene, and world class festivals like WOMAD and Tropfest.
Thanks to Venture Taranaki we embarked on a weekend expedition in advance of you all packing up and heading to the place they call "a little bit out there". This is our weekender's guide to Taranaki.
SEE AND DO
Stretching 13 kilometres along the Taranaki coastline, the New Plymouth Coastal Walkway is a must when visiting New Plymouth. From Len Lye's infamous Wind Wand at the Puke Ariki Landing, head north along the winding trail past the rugged coast and popular surf beaches. Bikes can be hired along the way to make things far easier, including four person cycles from Wind Wanderers so you can ride with the whole gang, and perhaps take a rest when you need to.
For a midway drink stop, shipping container café Paris Plage boasts a fantastic al fresco area. Dump your bike on the grass, set yourself up on one of the bean bags and order the smoothie of your choice. Further along the track you'll meet the Fitzroy Surf Club. Their mocca thick shakes are world famous with locals and throw out enough buzz to keep you churning in the surf for hours. Down the wooden boardwalk, past a rolling green reserve and black sand beaches will bring you to Te Rewa Rewa bridge. Depicting either a whale rib cage or a rolling wave, the bridge on a clear day lines up perfectly with the summit of Mt Taranaki, though it still manages to provide a exceptional photo opportunity in the bleakest of weather.
In the other direction you'll come face-to-face with the colossal Paritutu Rock, a dominant feature of the Taranaki coastline. The pointy peak eroded from an ancient volcanic crater and stands at 153 metre high. It can be conquered in a 15-30-minute ascent via stairs and a white knuckle-inducing chain-led path. At the top you'll be treated to breathtaking views of the raw coastline and back to the city.
Boasting 55-acres of parkland to get lost in and a natural amphitheatre where artists perform at the foot of a lake, WOMAD Festival has rightfully earned itself the reputation as one of the most pleasant outdoor festivals in the world— and perhaps the only place where every year audience members take a dip with the ducks and the vision of a floating dance floor is a realistic possibility. The 14th edition of the festival is set to take place from March 16 - 18, 2017 across the lush TSB Brooklands Park and Bowl.
The aim of the festival is to celebrate the world's many forms of music, arts and dance. With this year's lineup they've managed to capture that vibe perfectly with acts spanning every corner of the globe, from Chile, Lebanon, Mauritania, New Zealand and beyond.
Not entirely dedicated to music, WOMAD offers several alternative experiences across the three days. The Living Library contains human books — people on loan who are taken out by the person borrowing the book to explore different topics and create dialogue; the Global Village is an experience in itself — packed with endless rows of exotic food and drink stalls, as well as unique handmade trinkets; the Village of Wellness is the place for revitalisation after a stint in the moshpit — you'll find everything from massage, aromatherapy, readings, healings and Japanese reiki. Blending the lines between performers and attendees is a common thread. Each year the festival hosts interactive artist workshops where all kinds of exotic activities are on offer. The Nova Energy Taste the World stage is another popular element, where performers trade in their instruments for cooking utensils to showcase cuisine from their home country.
The TSB Bank Festival of Lights runs for two months every year, attracting over 100,000 punters. The highlight of the summer calendar can be found in Pukekura Park, a location so highly thought of that it retains the highest possible position on the New Zealand version of Monopoly.
From December to February the space is transformed into an illuminated wonderland and the perfect date location — it's like something out of a Hollywood rom-com. Hyper-colour art displays and light installations engulf the native bush, pathways, bridges and onsite waterfall. Illuminated canoes can also be hired for the ultimate romantic gesture.
This year's event included returning favourites like the Sleeping Giant, which responds to texts from festival-goers, the Bird Song Light Walk, and the Tunnel of Light. Not just a treat for the eyes, the festival also features an interactive musical bubble machine, a schedule of live performances, openair films, and of course, Grimace the Gorilla.
EAT AND DRINK
Despite its small population, New Plymouth is a melting pot of fantastic and envelope-pushing eateries that wouldn't be out of place in New York or Melbourne. It's in some part due to well-travelled and well-heeled developers that have their fingers dipped into at least 13 establishments around the city. Of course, nothing would be possible without the other passionate part-owners who run and control the businesses on a daily basis. We met several, and if there's one thing they love to talk about, it's where you can find the best of everything.
Hailed as the 'Britomart of Taranaki', the West End Precinct is a lively covered courtyard shared by half a d0zen in vogue retail stores and eateries, and one extremely enthusiastic DJ. At one end you'll find Ms White, a pizza and craft beer joint offering simple yet delicious wood-fired pizzas and nothing else. The ethos of owner Cohen Baird is to keep things simple but pull the whole thing together with quality. Hence, the craft beer list is one of the most extensive in the city, rotating each week with new additions and returning crowd favourites; the pizzas use first-rate ingredients direct from the motherland and only come in a handful of flavour combinations. We opted for the bianca-style no sauce pie, combining: prawn, preserved lemon, rocket, chilli oil. The establishment is the ideal spot for a casual afternoon session. Pull up a seat around the bar or table and see where the night takes you. The DJ won't let you down.
At the other end of the courtyard you'll find Snug Lounge, an intimate and classy Japanese restaurant-come-raging bar. It takes inspiration from Auckland's subterranean yakitori and kushiage joint, Tanuki's Cave, providing a menu of small sharing plates. High points include the trio of steamed pork buns, the prawn, chill in and ginger dumplings (on the smallest plate in the world), Japanese tacos and the nori fried chicken. Due to the palate of locals, some dishes have been toned down to suit. The cocktails are flaunted as the 'best in Taranaki'; a big call but something they actually manage to pull off with a flair you wouldn't typically expect to find in small town New Zealand. The menu is listed by strength— it begins with light summery drops incorporating Aperol and Pimms before making its way through reimagined classics like a pineapple rum Old Fashioned, through to booze milkshakes that do the unthinkable and mix dairy with spirits. From the 'short and sour' section, the Green Fairy is our pick, combining white rum, green apple, passionfruit and a rinse of absinthe.
Adjacent to the Govett-Brewster Gallery is Monica's Eatery, an ode to the life and spirit of Monica Govett-Brewster, a founding member of the world class gallery. Much like the work found in the gallery, the café drips contemporary charm; the room is flooded with light from large windows while the decor is fresh with natural blonde wood, fish bowl lighting and comfortable booth seating.
The coffee is just one of the reasons people visit Monica's. Thanks to a few particularly valuable baristas, the java is what plenty of locals make sure to point out is the best in town.
The menu is made up of breakfast staples including a remarkably fresh almond milk chia pudding with seasonal fruit, a quartet of bruschetta, ham off the bone eggs benedict, as well as lesser featured early morning dishes like smoked kahwhai kedgeree and portobello gnocchi. On a summer's day, the small outdoor area would be the ideal place to tick-off the drinks list.
Down the west end of Devon St, inside the lime green art deco building is a wee hidden treasure. The former ice cream parlour now hosts The Federal Store, an amalgamation of a '50s diner and hipster café— waitresses don head scarves, booth seating borders the room and a mish mash of nostalgic nicknacks are scattered in every direction.
The eatery is the go-to for young locals looking for caffeine assistance on the weekend morning. This particular visit it was heaving and was even witness to a pregnancy announcement. In line with the decor the food is predominantly 'American diner', offering delights like a brunch quesadilla topped with beans and two fried eggs, huevos rancheros that come with tortillas, spicy beans, bacon, and relish, and a beef and bacon burger with slaw and curly fries. The cabinet looks equally as impressive, loaded with brioche donuts, salads and quiche.
Owner Jeremy is no stranger to good coffee and has put his passion to practise to create the café's own signature blend The Fed with local roastery OZONE Coffee.
The idea of Social Kitchen comes directly from the owners' own dining habits — more often than not situated around the kitchen with friends and with moderate drinking between courses. It's one of few restaurants in the city offering family-style shared plates, a concept that some Taranakians are still trying to grasp as they sit shackled to the ancient concept of meat and three vege.
The eatery is perfect for groups; long tables take up the centre of the room and bench seating to one side is packed with diners digging into plates between conversation. One large round table at the end of the room is equipped to host a dozen diners, and in our seating transformed from a raucous ladies night to a birthday catchup. It's fair to say that the atmosphere is lively.
The drama continues with one of the most popular dishes: flaming zany zeus halloumi. Every so often the restaurant is illuminated with the flaming dish as its walked through the restaurant. Accompanied by lemon and toasted ciabatta, it's a good way to begin before jumping head-first into the meat-centric large plates. Carnivours have the right of way here, with the menu boasting everything from free-range jerk chicken, 12-hour spiced wild goat, lamb shoulder, Manawatu angus eye fillet and yellow fin tuna.
Christchurch-born kinetic and film artist Len Lye has a special bond with Taranaki. His work can be seen in several locations around the city; the most recognisable being the waterfront's 48-metre Wind Wand. Attached to the Govett-Brewster Gallery, the Len Lye Centre (pictured above) is the repository for much of his collection and the first gallery in New Zealand dedicated entirely to a single artist. The structure's undulating stainless steel exterior is a major landmark in the CBD, a work of art in itself, and gives great insight into groundbreaking artist and his obsession with 'art of movement'.
Inside you'll find an evolving collection of pieces including Trilogy (A Flip and Two Twisters)— a dramatic display of three large steel sheets suspended from the ceiling; one large loop and two long strips. The motorised performance can be heard throughout the gallery as they flail and crash— a sound described by Lye himself as 'icicles tumbling down your back'. Earmuffs are available due to the thunderous volume of the work, which reaches up to 100 decibels.
Until March 27, other work featured includes some of his smaller kinetic pieces like Moon Bead, Witch Dance, Storm King, Roundhead and Rotating Harmonic, as well as a selection of his experimental visual work that uses exposed and scratched film to create animations. One particularly intriguing piece is Pictures for Percussion that combines abstract images on 16mm film and a haunting soundtrack of African drums.
You won't find classical oil paintings at the Govett-Brewster — it's all about the contemporary. Its current exhibition All Lines Converge is a striking display of work looking at the important role of women within the gallery's history, with a focus on the Pacific Rim and New Zealand.
Auckland collective et al. investigate ideas related to group culture and beliefs with a strong piece that reimagines the architecture conditions of indigenous housing; Fiona Clark presents three photographic series illustrating the culture significance of the Waitara River, the female elders of the Taranaki region and three art students performing on Whatipu Beach; Maree Horner's Diving Board, first made in 1974, confronts the gulf between visual and physical participation, between seeing and doing.
Some pieces aren't overtly obvious. Billy Apple has left his mark on the gallery with an offset staircase to throw off visitors and make them question the ability of the architect. Sydney artist Wendy Bornholdt takes over the rest of the staircase between Galleries 1 and 2 with her construction installation an ocean of in-betweens. The work subtly confronts visitors with scaffolding poles, iron buckets and quietly hissing transistor radios.
Stephen Heard visited New Plymouth courtesy of Venture Taranaki and stayed at the city's newest boutique hotel, King and Queen — a 17-suite hotel opposite both major galleries and surrounding the thriving West End Precinct.
Image: Michael Flynn.
Published on February 16, 2017 by Stephen Heard