Things to do in New Plymouth, New Zealand

Things to do in New Plymouth

We spent five days exploring New Plymouth, on the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand, and its surroundings. Here are some of the highlights :

(1)    Sugar Loaf Islands
(2)    Back Beach
(3)    Mt Taranaki
(4)    White Cliffs
(5)  Tongaporutu
(6)  Coastal Walkway
(7)    Pukekura Park
(8)    Fitz Roy and Bell Block beaches
(9)    Paritutu Rock
(10) New Plymouth City
(11) Hiking the Pouakai Crossing Track.

See my  New Plymouth photos

(1) Sugar Loaf Islands

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands

Off the coast near Taranaki Port, lies is a collection of islands – remnants of an ancient volcanic crater. In the past, these islands were used for mining, fishing and hunting. These eroded, now, uninhabited sea stacks and five islands (Mataora, Motuotamatea, Pararaki, Motumahanga and Moturoa) form the Sugar Loaf Islands (Ngā Motu). The rest of the coastline is exposed to the wild sea. Below the water – reefs, cliffs and canyons attract a variety of marine creatures. On the protected islands, is the domain of birds and mammals. The “sugar” is the bird guano that used to be collected from these islands.

There is a wonderful view point just past Paritutu Rock on the coastal road towards Oakura. A wooden step can be used to descend onto the beach (Back Beach). Just be aware of the tide. Today’s wet, windy and cloudy weather was challenging.

For information, please refer to DoC – Sugar Loaf Islands

(2) Back Beach

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands

After I abandoned my walk along the Coastal Walkway, I drove to the port and to Paritutu Rock. The sky was dark and the rain continued. I abandoned the idea of climbing. The port was busy with incoming truck mostly loaded with pine logs. We continued out drive southbound to a lookout, at Paritutu Centennial Park, of the Sugar Loaf Islands. I noticed some people walking on the black sand beach below. The waves were still pounding onto its shores but the tide was receding. I continued to drive further south and eventually found a car park, close to a beach. This is Back Beach.

I was quite excited to walk on this beach. The roar of the waves was furious but a narrow patch of beach was exposed. The sand was still soaked in sea water. The wet and cold wind made walking uncomfortable. We weaved past rocky outcrops and avoided our feet from getting wet. Although, dark a gloomy, the sight of the Sugar Loaf Islands was inspiring. I could almost walk across. Paritutu Rock , like a sentinel overlook these scattered rock islands. With the poor weather, I decided to return later. Hopefully, the weather would improve.

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands

I returned later around 1530. The beach was flat, wide and the sea calmer. several local people walked their dogs here. It stretched for a 2 – 3 kilometres. I loved the open space knowing that this space is only temporary before the tide come in. A great spot for jogging, I thought. There was a beauty about today’s dark landscape. With the ebb and flow of the tides, the sand shifted constantly. Wonderful glossy sheen sculptured patterns were created and never repeated. Occasionally, when the sun managed to shine through, the trapped sea water reflected like a glass. In the distant, over the water, a funnel of rain poured. All the islands were just silhouettes on the horizon. More sea stacks were exposed. Suddenly, the sun broke through. It lit up Paritutu Rock. The outlook was transformed. The colours of the volcanic black sand beach and Sugar Loaf Islands changed with the shifting storm clouds. I stayed for the impending sunset under a bleak weather. It fizzled out. I left as the tide was beginning to come in at 1700.

(3) Mt Taranaki
This was my first visit to New Plymouth. The major draw card was near perfect conical and symmetrical – Mt Taranaki (similar to Mt Fuji). My mental picture of Taranaki region is dairy cows on a pasture with snowy peak of Mt Taranaki looming in the background. I had flown over Mt Taranaki several times and was mystified as the base is dark green disk shaped. As though someone had drawn a circle to demarcate Taranaki’s boundaries. Beyond that boundary of forest tress lies the lighter green pastures of dairy farms.

Taranaki

When we arrived at Stratford, it rained and visibility was poor. This continued all the way to New Plymouth. I could sense the base of the mountain though. On a clear day, at 2518 meters, Mt Taranaki is visible from almost anywhere in the region. In Māori, ‘tara’ means mountain peak, and ‘naki’ is thought to come from ngaki, meaning shining, in reference to the snowy/icy upper slopes. A dormant free standing volcanic mountain with lush temperate rain forest of Kamahi and Totara at its lower base. With frequent rainfall, the forest tress are covered with liverwort, lichens and moss. Sometimes referred as ‘Goblin Forest’. Gradually transformed into alpine vegetation on its upper slopes. Beyond that, it is the bare.

Taranaki is not always seen as I had experienced. One day out of five! The reason is perhaps in legends – Taranaki rested here after fleeing from the central plateau. When the clouds covers the mountain, Taranaki is hiding his tears. Broken-hearted after losing – Pihanga, his lover.

I want to climb its slopes to the peak but certainly not in winter. Taranaki can be climbed by anyone. Hence lies the problem. Not everyone can summit this iconic mountain. I climbed Kilimanjaro 8 years ago and know its dangers. Poor physical, mental and attire – all contribute to bad decisions. For now, having hiked the wonderful Pouakai Crossing, on a clear sunny day, with my family, was comforting. I did manage to get ‘that iconic image of Taranaki’ that was in my mind, after I completed the Pouakai Crossing. There are several tracks in Egmont National Park.

For more information, please see DoC – North Egmont Walks , DoC – East Egmont Walks and DoC – Mt Taranaki Summit Track

(4) White Cliffs

White Cliffs

On our return from Tongaporatu to New Plymouth, we detoured towards a small village of Waiiti (reached from the main road via Pukearuhe Road). At the end of this road is the Pukearuhe boat ramp. This is the beginning of the White Cliffs Walkway. It was late evening, around 1700, when we arrived here. Beyond this ramp are private farmlands. The White Cliffs Walkway continued through the farmlands and beach walk , around 6.5km (return). Be aware of the tide as there is no exit along the beach. Today, it was closed due to lambing season.

Fortunately, the tide was still out and the sun just above the horizon. From the black sand beach, the soft white, brown and creamy cliffs towered above. Towards the north, a small water fall cascaded from above the cliff where the hardy vegetation steadfastly held on. Moss colonised the wet surface walls below. The constant pounding of Tasman Sea eroded the soft walls. In places, it looked like someone had cut the cliff wall with a knife. It is all temporary and a matter of time before the landscape is changed forever.

White Cliffs


We stood at the river mouth amongst wet shifting sand and rounded rocks. The white wall extended south. The cloudy sky created some dramatic coastal views at sunset. Within 30 minutes, dusk engulfed this wild coastline against a surreal but captivating horizon. The surrounding landscape became gloomy and dark.

Refer to DoC – White Cliffs Walkway

(5) Tongaporutu

Tongaporatu

We arrived at Tongaporatu at 1400. I love planning and organising my travel. However, on this occasion, I callously failed to obtain one critical information – the tide timetable. We went past neat arranged wooden baches along the Tongaporatu River. Walked down into the shallow river over rounded rocks and black sand with puddles of silt. I could hear the ocean nearby. At the river mouth, water flowed out fast and was impossible to get across.  The glittering and velvety black sand was inviting. Fortunately, the tide was just going out. As a guide, two hours before and two hours after the low tide is the safest option to walk in this beach. Beware, if the weather is stormy, take caution as the waves can reach the cliffs. There is nowhere to go.

Tongaporatu

Soft limestone coastal cliffs, layered with hues of brown, beige, orange and cream, held their ground but losing everyday from the continuous lashing of waves of the Tasman Sea. Cliff walls have been stripped and battered to create dramatic sculptures with each ebb and flow of the tides. The sea was calm but the sky was dark and rain was imminent. Towards the south, the cliffs with prominent sculptured caves, archways, stacks and islets that resembled pinnacles, separated from the parent cliffs. Far beyond that, Mt Taranaki, apart from its wide base, remained obscured. The receding sea glowed and reflected the cliffs and cloudy sky. It was an incredible. It was addictive. It was captivating. It was picturesque. I was lost – what to see and where to go.

Tongaporatu

Over time, with natures creations – the locals began naming these eroded stacks – famously the Elephant Rock and Three Sisters. Due to the constant natural erosion, the elephant’s trunk and one of the sisters had disappeared into the sea. However, this phenomenon had also created newer forms of arches, caves and perhaps another pinnacle. The views constantly changed as I walked around. I even saw four pinnacles at one point! Therefore, the allure of this dynamic and spectacular coastline will never cease.

Further north along the coastal road is a small village of Mokau. At the right time, whitebait fritters are dished out in the two cafes’ here.

(6) Coastal Walkway

Coastal Walkway

At 0730, it promised to be a dry day in contrast to the weatherman. One of the delightful things to do in New Plymouth is walking along the 13km paved Coastal Walkway, from Port Taranaki to Bell Block Beach. It was close to my accommodation. The rising sun was obscured by dense black clouds casting a dark shadow on Fitz Roy Beach in the east. Tasman Sea pounded onto its black sand beach. In the west, I had clear views of the port, Paritutu Rock and two Sugar Loaf Islands.

Coastal Walkway


The sun reflected strongly from a nearby glass clad building. Unexpectedly, a rainbow developed above the water as the visibility of the islands gradually deteriorated. Extraordinarily, another rainbow developed. It was stunning. The situation was very fluid. Pleasantly, a 180° rainbow evolved. The islands had disappeared. Then , the inevitable happened. The havens opened up and it rained. The weatherman got it right. I had only walked 0.5 km. It was 0800.

One evening, on the south, sunset views of Paritutu Rock and Sugar Loaf islands is rewarding.

(7) Pukekura Park

Pukekura Park

This 52 ha. delightful and premier botanical garden, established in 1876, is in the middle of New Plymouth. It rained this morning and the gloomy cloudy day continued. It was quite refreshing walking amongst lush vegetation accompanied with birdsong. Many sections with themes and features like fernery, Japanese inspired gardens, tea house, bridges and lakes is inspiring.  it is a great place to wander at leisure. A place of learning as well as relaxing. A people’s park indeed.

(8) Fitz Roy and Bell Block beaches

Fitz Roy Beach

At low tide, walking along this black sand beaches is uplifting. As the sea water breaks just meters away, the sound is soothing. Drift wood, rounded rocks of different shapes and sizes, and people are fascinating to look at.

(9)  Paritutu Rock

Beach-Sugar Loaf Islands


Paritutu Rock, overlooking the busy Taranaki port  on the mainland, act a sentinel over the Sugar loaf islands. I arrived here in rain and the track uphill was soaked. I decided not to climb it today. The climb is uphill and steep. Can be tricky in wet and windy weather. howvever, it promised a fantastic vies of the sea, land and Mt Taranaki. If the weather gods are kind.

(10) New Plymouth City

City

Located on the west coast of north island, it is a compact city. Surrounded by farmlands and the omnipresent Mt Taranaki. It is not a “tourist” town. I asked the locals where the people are? There are hardly any traffic, both people and vehicles. The residents seem to like its underdog status compared to the Tongariro Crossing (National Park) and Queenstown. There are no high rises along the coast. Yet, the coastline is a magnet for walkers, surfers and “to get away”. Personally, this town is overlooked by many as “it out of the way of the tourist trail”. The are street art, wonder and quaint cafes and eateries. A great place to retire too, I thought. Then, there is the interesting Len Lye building, amongst others. In mid-March, this sleepy town becomes alive with WOMAD (music) festival. If you are planning to to come here, why not take The Forgotten World Highway.

Taranaki region is gaining popularity through publicity by a major travel guide. The key question, however – is New Plymouth ready to cope with influx of visitors? Are they ready or want to change the look and  feel of the city? For now, I like it the way it is right now.

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