Taranaki: Growing creative genius

by Jenny Nicholls / 20 October, 2017

A magnolia tree bursting with blossom in a North Taranaki garden.

Gardens of Invention

Jenny Nicholls goes to Taranaki to smell the roses – and the creativity.

“So, where are you from?” asked the Auckland taxi driver, who was from Abuja, Nigeria. 


“I have heard of it,” the Abujan said, politely.

“On a map of New Zealand, it is the left-hand bulge,” I explained, tracing an unconsciously salacious gesture in the air. “It is very green. You can grow anything there.”

“Mangoes?” he asked, hopefully.

Tall mango trees would defeat the most ambitious Taranaki glasshouse owner. Nonetheless, the province that plunges into the Tasman Sea like New Zealand’s green thumb is almost ridiculously fertile.

I grew up on two dairy farms in North Taranaki, and our milk tank sometimes overflowed. Evergreen paddocks and plenty of rain kept my father’s friesians fat and their udders full.

I was amazed when, as an adult, I saw spidery irrigation devices in Canterbury. Irrigating dairy farms?

Taranaki’s dark loamy soil, a volcanic gift from the mountain, is rich and free-draining. Here, money grows not on trees but rolling pastures. And studded between these verdant paddocks, sheltered from prevailing westerlies by belts of trees, are hidden gardens of Impressionistic lushness and imagination.

Each year in spring, some of the most ingenious gardeners in Taranaki open their gates for a festival that’s 30 years old this year (October 27-November 5, www.gardenfestnz.co.nz). Tootling around the mountain to see the rhododendrons at Pukeiti is getting to be as much of a seasonal tradition here as new potatoes, Womad, or being cast face-first into black sand by a dumping summer wave at Wai-iti Beach.

On your road trip, you’ll find acres of blowsy rhodos, roses and clivias, hostas, ferns and palms in every shade of green, mad floral borders and grass tennis courts, dreamy orchards, fancy-wancy clipped parterres, and hanging baskets dripping with a painter’s colours.

As the years pass, the garden festival has transmogrified into the “Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular”, and this year boasts 47 gardens. To see them all requires a trip around Mt Taranaki, from Waitara to Opunake to Hawera, and back up through Eltham, Stratford and Inglewood to New Plymouth. Three great gardens on your supplied map are owned by the Taranaki Regional Council: Hollard, Tupare and the dazzling rhododendron-fest Pukeiti, which is a bit like being trapped in a Karl Maughan painting. Like the stunning, 52ha, Victorian-era Pukekura Park in the centre of New Plymouth, these are open all year.

Back when I sweated over algebra at New Plymouth Girls High, the mountain was still popularly named after an English earl, and the Magog motorcycle gang held court at the elegantly disintegrating White Hart Hotel. A traumatised friend who stayed there once told me he thought New Plymouth was a “tough town, a macho town”.

How times have changed. In the past decade, the city has quietly become groovy.

The Len Lye Centre – a contemporary art museum with architecture to beat anything in Auckland or Wellington – gleams magnificently downtown. Reflected in its shimmering, rippling flanks is a chic, refurbished White Hart Hotel, with an atrium that attracts enough hipsters on a Tuesday to resemble Ponsonby Rd on a Friday.

Truly great restaurants such as Social Kitchen, housed in a renovated Salvation Army Hall in the centre of town,
are perpetually booked. Don’t expect to walk in and find a table at night. You won’t.

The Coastal Walkway is a civic marvel: a sea-edge promenade along the entire length of the city, from Bell Block to Port Taranaki. The groovers you saw the previous night over Bang Bang Chicken Salad at the White Hart’s Snug Lounge cycle past in swarms – black lycra on electric bikes.

The Te Rewa Rewa Bridge on the walkway really does look like a whale’s skeleton, and frames Mt Taranaki in its ribs as photogenically as the fire engine-red Victorian Poet’s Bridge in Pukekura Park.

Taranaki might be rubbish at growing mangoes. But creative genius is another thing entirely.     

“Bird Catcher Dreaming”, a painting by North Taranaki artist John McLean.

Keen surfer Logan Gieni grew up in Saskatchewan, Canada and didn’t see the sea until he was 21. Now he and wife Marlise own Escape cafe and roastery, where you can find skateboard and surfing supplies, yoga classes and an indoor skate bowl. The couple recently invited into the building non-profit initiative Bike Kitchen, which teaches locals how to repair their own bike. “It creates more of a community around here and that’s what we’re going for,” says Marlise.

Daniel Fleming, general manager at uber-cool boutique King & Queen Hotel Suites. Above right: The Bean Store cafe and Ozone Coffee roasters in King St, a hidden gem behind the White Hart Hotel.

The Skatebowl at Escape Cafe

Social Kitchen, housed in a former Salvation Army Citadel, uses a charcoal oven to prepare delicacies such as “12-hour spiced wild goat” with “Zany Zeus organic yoghurt, and medjool dates”. Bookings essential.

A view of the mountain from the old cemetery at Opunake

The folded curtain wall inside the Len Lye Centre.

Taranaki’s coast collects 180 degrees of ocean swells. The surfing beach at Stent Rd, just south of Warea, helps give Surf Highway 45 its name.

North Taranaki artists John and Chris McLean outside their gallery in Urenui (open by appointment). The gallery is next to John’s studio on the lovely Mimi River estuary. His painting “Bird Catcher Dreaming” opens this story: “I never lose the sense of privilege there is in stepping into my studio to make work on this beautiful block of Taranaki coastal land, with its regenerating bush, the river and estuary, and surf beach.”

Jennifer and Ken Horner’s Puketarata Garden near Hawera, which has stunning views and is open to the public during the Powerco Taranaki Garden Spectacular in October. Below: Jennifer Horner.

Jennifer Horner.

Ann and Vince Naus’s riverside garden in Brixton, near New Plymouth, which is also part of the festival.

Barbara Valintine in her remarkable vintage store The Bank, housed in a historic building in Eltham.

This was published in the October 2017 issue of North & South.



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