The drive around Mt Taranaki is time-honoured tradition, and it makes no difference whether you travel clockwise or anti-clockwise, take the upper or lower routes, or a combination of both. But let’s start in New Plymouth and go clockwise, taking State Highway 3 south. On a clear day, the mountain is visible in symmetrical perfection, towering above rolling dairy pastures that reach up to the ring of dark rainforest at its base.
Ten minutes from the city, a right turn at Egmont Village leads to the North Egmont Visitor Centre, an interpretive centre and café that sits almost a kilometre above sea level. It’s one of three mountain access roads en route, all of which ascend gradually through farmland then twist upwards through dense vegetation that thins and becomes more alpine in character with altitude.
Staying on SH3, fans of retro toys will enjoy Inglewood’s Fun Ho! Toy Museum, which has displays of the original tough little matchbox vehicles and makes small numbers of new toys using the original plates and furnace. Just around the corner, McFarlane’s Cafe is a popular coffee and brunch stop.
Towards Stratford, the hump of Fantham’s Peak – the mountain’s secondary peak – gradually appears, piggybacking on Mt Taranaki’s southern slope. Stratford is the access point for East Egmont, which has a ski area as well as the Stratford Mountain House, which offers accommodation and a restaurant.
Romantics should arrive in Stratford at 10am, 1pm, 3pm or 7pm, when lifelike models of Romeo and Juliet deliver lines from the play at windows on the town’s Elizabethan-style clock tower and glockenspiel. Be on time though, because it only lasts five minutes. Stratford’s Percy Thomson Gallery is a public gallery that offers both community and touring exhibitions, and the town has plenty of cafes.
On the southern outskirts of Stratford turn right on Celia Street, which becomes Opunake Road. This joins with other country roads to make a “high road” around the base of the mountain. For top quality eco-friendly clothing, stop in at Envirofur at tiny Mahoe, which makes beautiful items from possum fur and leather using a natural tanning process.
Next is Dawson Falls, the mountain’s southern access point. It’s home to the atmospheric Dawson Falls Romantic Hotel, which offers unique accommodation in a stunning alpine setting. If you need a stretch, climb down to pretty Dawson Falls, or perhaps step quietly through the so-called goblin forest, a mysterious place where banners of soft moss drip from stunted trees.
The high roads lead to two public Gardens of National Significance. Hollard Gardens is near Dawson Falls at Kaponga, while on the northern side of the mountain you’ll find the world-renowned rhododendron garden Pukeiti on Carrington Road. Entry to both is free, and the latter has a good café.
Opunake Road hits Surf Highway 45 at Opunake, a popular surfing spot and a favourite place for beach holidays. Wander along the beach, and recharge at Sugar Juice Café, something of a local icon. Surf Highway 45 follows the curve of the coast, with mountain views in one direction and glimpses of the sea in the other. Side roads duck away to beaches that are characterised by black sand, rocks and piles of driftwood. Detour to Cape Egmont Lighthouse, or catch some surfing action at Stent Road, one of many renowned surf breaks in the area.
Breeze through small towns like Okato (Lahar is an excellent café) to Oakura, which has a safe swimming beach, a great pub (Butler’s Reef) and a number of decent cafes and craft shops. Just before New Plymouth, Okurukuru Winery occupies a spectacular coastal site with magnificent views of the sea and the mountain. Time it to catch a brilliant west coast sunset before the short drive back to town.________________________________________________________________