Taranaki: An introduction

Taranaki, on the North Island's rugged west coast, is dominated by Mt Taranaki. It has a varied landscape and numerous outdoor activities within easy reach.

Taranaki has been hailed as a rising international destination for 2017 after the travel publisher Lonely Planet ranked the region second in the world in its Best in Travel 2017 yearbook.

This fertile farming region on the North Island's western extremity is noted for its internationally significant gardens, major art collections and cultural events, and alpine-to-surf adventures.

A near-perfect volcanic cone, Mt Taranaki (2,518 metres or 8,261 feet) is a year-round outdoor destination offering more than 300 kilometres (186 miles) of walking tracks, winter skiing and snowboarding, and heritage gardens.

Taranaki has some of New Zealand’s best surf, and the south-to-north-facing coastline means the surf is usually up somewhere. Surf Highway 45, a scenic coastal road between New Plymouth and Hawera, travels to the top surf spots.


Taranaki is an historically significant region. The New Zealand land wars that opposed Māori and Pakeha started in the town of Waitara, while the passive non-violence movement resisting land confiscation and colonisation originated in the village of Parihaka.

Taranaki – one of New Zealand’s earliest inhabited areas – was settled by four Māori tribes that trace ancestry back to the Tokomaru canoe: Ngati Tama, Ngati Mutunga, Ngati Maru and Te Atiawa. However, in the early 19th century, invasion threats from northern Waikato tribes forced a major exodus of Māori from the region.

The first British immigrants arrived in 1841 and, while the Māori population was reduced, started buying up land. When they returned from exile, Māori objected to the land sales and the first shots of the New Zealand land wars were fired in Waitara in 1859. 

Frequent signs of Taranaki’s rich history give a sense of the challenges faced by early Māori and Pakeha (European) settlers.

Māori culture

Mt Taranaki is a spiritually important landmark for Māori, and Māori pa (fortified villages) dotted throughout the region tell stories of the region’s culture and history.

Taranaki means "Gliding Peak". Māori legend recounts how Taranaki, who once lived with the other great North Island volcanoes (Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe), was banished after falling in love with Tongariro's wife, Pihanga. As Taranaki travelled west towards the setting sun, his tears carved out the Whanganui River. According to legend, Taranaki is hiding his tears when cloud covers the mountain.

In the 1860s, the Māori passive resistance movement against British colonisation began with the Parihaka prophets Te Whiti and Tohu, who are celebrated for encouraging their people to use non-violent resistance to protest against the confiscation of land.

The scenic coastal route Surf Highway 45 passes historic battle zones and hilltop pa sites where visitors can explore and learn first hand about the region. 

Nature and wildlife

Mt Taranaki – the North Island's second-highest, most-climbed and most accessible mountain – has a commanding presence over the region. At lower altitudes, its steep slopes and volcanic soil are covered in native flora and fauna.

The Goblin Forest, on Mt Taranaki’s southern slopes, showcases the mountain’s special natural environment. This lush rainforest thrives in the region's high rainfall and mild coastal climate, where hanging moss, ferns and gnarled tree trunks create a mystical ambience.

The Forgotten World Highway, New Zealand’s oldest heritage trail, follows ancient Māori trade routes from the region's pioneering days, with stunning mountain backdrops and passing historic sites.

Rhododendrons thrive in Taranaki's climate and the region has many gardens of national and international significance. The annual Garden Festival is an international event supported by a more eclectic Fringe Garden Festival. 

Adventure / outdoors

Taranaki’s diverse natural landscape offers endless opportunities for activity. Mt Taranaki is located in Egmont National Park, where there are many walks and alpine treks on the mountain slopes. The Kamahi track is an easy 10-minute nature walk, while the boardwalk path to Wilkies Pools offers a scenic one-hour stroll. 

The Pouakai Crossing – New Zealand's newest guided walking trail – is a thrilling hike through a primeval volcanic and alpine landscape that also has a significant cultural history. The 19 kilometre (12 mile) wilderness trail traverses the picture-perfect volcanic cone of Mt Taranaki (2,518 metres or 8,260 feet) and is rapidly becoming known as one of the country's top one-day walks.

The west coast’s consistent waves rival the world's best and provide a natural playground for surfers. Surf breaks on Surf Highway 45 range from fast sandy beaches to epic rocky points, and the geography ensures constant surfing opportunities.

Art and culture 

Taranaki's rich heritage has inspired many museums and collections. From Puke Ariki, on New Plymouth's waterfront, to South Taranaki's remarkable Tawhiti Museum – considered New Zealand's best private museum – and dozens of smaller private museums in between, there are many opportunities to learn Taranaki's fascinating stories.

The region's vibrant visual arts scene has the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery / Len Lye Centre at its heart. This art museum has presented the latest national and international contemporary art since 1970. The Len Lye Centre, opened in 2015 as a NZ$14 million extension to the Govett-Brewster, is New Zealand’s first institution dedicated to a single artist and a fine example of destination architecture linked to contemporary art. It holds the globally significant collection and archive of pioneering Kiwi filmmaker and artist Len Lye, whose 45 metre (147 foot) Wind Wand has pride of place on New Plymouth's Coastal Walkway.  

Puke Ariki, on the waterfront of New Plymouth, is an award-winning museum and library that holds more than 6,000 Māori taonga (treasures) and tells Taranaki’s complex tales in a captivating way.

Summer months see world-class sporting and performance events and festivals take advantage of Taranaki's many parks. The biggest is WOMAD, which transforms New Plymouth's inner-city Brooklands Park into a three-day festival of global music, arts and dance. At the same time, the annual Festival of Lights brings Pukekura Park alive after dark.

And by the way...

  • Mt Taranaki is a dormant volcano. Its last major eruption occurred in about 1655.
  • The first people to climb Mt Taranaki were Ernst Dieffenbach, a young German naturalist, and whaler James Heberley in 1839. However, they had no flag or anything to write with to leave proof of their successful expedition. 
  • Māori didn’t climb to the summit until much later because of their belief that the mountain was tapu or sacred.
  • "Ginger the cat" became the first feline alpinist to climb Mt Taranaki unaided in 1917.
  • The Warner Bros blockbuster film The Last Samurai featuring Tom Cruise was filmed in Taranaki, with Mt Taranaki standing in for Japan's Mt Fuji.
  • Taranaki has been labelled "the Garden of New Zealand" since pioneering days. It is home to one of New Zealand's 6-star gardens and six 5-star gardens.
  • Whangamomona, the central township on the Forgotten World Highway, declared itself a republic in 1989. Thousands of visitors attend the biennial "Republic Day" when the town's 30 residents vote in the president. A goat was once elected president.