The Lonely Planet effect: What happens when a quiet little destination is named world's No.2 place to visit


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So what happens to a quiet little destination when it is named the No. 2 place to visit in the world? The answer is a lot.

It's known as the "Lonely Planet effect". A previously unheralded destination gets plunged into the spotlight thanks to the publisher including it in one of its annual Best in Travel lists.

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Last year it was Taranaki's turn. Historically, this region on the west coast of New Zealand's North Island wouldn't feature on many itineraries. Not only is it out of the way - 280 kilometres south-west of Taupo to be precise - but it's also surprisingly modest about its charms.

In October 2016, Lonely Planet put paid to that by naming Taranaki its No. 2 region in the world to visit during 2017.

So once you've dispensed with Choquequirao in Peru (the publisher's top recommendation), here's what you can expect to find in this overlooked gem.

CULTURAL CACHET

New Plymouth is the main city in the region - a dairy, oil and gas hub next to a busy shipping port. Not the obvious choice for New Zealand's only museum of contemporary art. Even less likely it would also contain the country's first museum dedicated to a single artist.

The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery has been exhibiting provocative contemporary art since the 1970s. In 2015, it gained a striking addition - the Len Lye Centre, a gallery housed in a futuristic building next door with a mirrored stainless steel facade. Lye was one of New Zealand's most prominent international artists and the centre showcases his experimental filmmaking and kinetic art. You can see one of his most famous pieces - Wind Wand, a 48-metre-tall kinetic sculpture - towering over New Plymouth's Coastal Walkway.

To familiarise yourself with the region's tumultuous history, drop into Puke Ariki, an award-winning free museum in the centre of the city. There's lots of interactive, engaging stuff for kids plus a confronting section on the Taranaki Wars, a series of brutal battles in the mid-1800s between local Maori tribes and colonial troops over land rights.

ACTIVE PURSUITS

Geographically, the region is dominated by the mighty peak of Mount Taranaki, a spectacular snow-dusted 2518-metre-high volcano. Unsurprisingly, the surrounding Egmont National Park is a magnet for walkers and contains more than 300 kilometres of trails. Popular options include the 10-hour trek to the volcano's summit, the multi-day 25-kilometre Pouakai Circuit and the 19-kilometre Pouakai Crossing.

Lonely Planet was particularly enamoured with this last hike, proclaiming that it is "arguably every bit as scenic as its rival [the Tongariro Alpine Crossing]". Having done both, I'd still say Tongariro has the edge, but the crossing serves up a wonderful variety of terrain, from enchanted moss-covered forests to marshy wetlands to tussock-strewn plateaus. And if you're looking for solitude, you'll certainly encounter fewer people.

Whichever option you choose, it's worth talking to local experts Top Guides (topguides.co.nz). Mount Taranaki might look benign, but thanks to its accessibility and the region's fickle weather, it's New Zealand's second deadliest mountain.

If you're after something less strenuous, New Plymouth's Coastal Walkway is a delightful way to spend an afternoon. Accessible by foot or by bike, the 13-kilometre paved trail skirts the coast from Port Taranaki to the suburb of Bell Block. Along the way you'll pass Lye's Wind Wand and Te Rewa Rewa Bridge - a striking installation that looks like a cross between a breaking wave and a giant rib cage (in a good way).

Another tempting stroll is the six-kilometre Te Henui Walkway, which joins the Coastal Walkway with the suburb of Welbourn. Don't let the fact that it starts from a sewage pipe outlet put you off; this scenic amble follows the tree-lined Te Henui River past several former Maori fortified villages known as pas.

GARDEN OF EDEN

Thanks to the region's rich volcanic soil and abundant rainfall, Taranaki has an extravagant bloom of gardens.

Te Kainga Marire began life as a featureless clay patch in New Plymouth's suburbs, but thanks to the efforts of Valda Poletti and her husband Dave Clarkson, it's now one of only six six-star rated gardens in the country. Their aim was to create a microcosm of the country's natural flora, and the result is a wonderfully intimate montage of native ferns, shrubs and grasses.

Rhododendron fans will want to make a pilgrimage to Pukeiti, a garden in the foothills of Mount Taranaki that's home to more than 10,000 of them (including 500 of the 800 known varieties) not to mention primulas, bluebells and a renowned collection of vireyas.

Another popular option is Pukekura, in the heart of New Plymouth, which features everything from native bush to a Japanese hillside forest. There's also a lake with row boats for hire, a 10-metre-high manmade waterfall and an adorable lakeside tea house for when you reach your tulip threshold.

For three weeks every summer, Pukekura is transformed into an illuminated wonderland for Festival of Lights, which this year runs from December 16, 2017 to February 5, 2018. Next door is Bowl of Brooklands, a natural outdoor amphitheatre that stages year-round concerts including the three-day international music festival WOMAD every March.

Thanks to this botanical bounty, thousands of green-fingered visitors descend on the region every spring for the annual Taranaki Garden Spectacular - a 10-day festival that showcases more than 50 of the region's best gardens. It's so popular it's even spawned a fringe version (the Taranaki Fringe Garden Festival), which provides access to 60 plus gardens, many of which are privately owned and only open during this time. Both events run concurrently.

WINE AND DINE

New Plymouth's White Hart Hotel was once one of the country's most notorious bikie hangouts, but thanks to a comprehensive restoration it's been returned to its Victorian-era glory and is now the centre of a buzzy dining precinct called West End.

The historic timber-fronted building is home to three venues: The Public Catering Company - a bakery that makes a diet-derailing range of donuts (don't miss the creme brulee one); Snug Lounge - an intimate Japanese-themed cocktail bar; and Ms White - a lively pizza and craft beer joint in the hotel's courtyard.

Nearby is Ozone Coffee Roasters, where coffee aficionados can drool over small batch speciality blends, plus a buzzy South American-inspired bistro called Social Kitchen that cooks with an authentic charcoal oven.

Also in the CBD is Chaos Cafe, which serves a mean brekky, and Polpetta, a tiny, cute-as-a-button restaurant specialising in meatballs and decadent build-your-own desserts.

Restaurants attached to museums aren't often noteworthy, but Arborio, a swish Italian joint next to the Puke Ariki Museum, and Monica's Eatery, a stylish all-day eatery inside the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, are welcome exceptions.

TOURING ROUTES

If you decide to drive down from Auckland, consider taking State Highway 1 to Taumarunui then joining the Forgotten Highway, a 155-kilometre-long heritage trail that follows an ancient Maori trade route to Stratford. The drive offers panoramic vistas from four elevated saddles and passes through the pronunciation assault course that is Whangamomona. In 1989, this quirky town declared itself a republic (complete with its own passport) and every two years holds a presidential election. In 1999, they elected a goat called Billy Gumboot.

Another popular drive is Surf Highway 45, a 105-kilometre route that shadows the coastline from New Plymouth to Hawera. Although the road itself is set back from the foreshore, there are numerous turn-offs that lead to the coast. Even if you're not a surfer, it's worth visiting the popular surf breaks at Kumara Patch and Stent Road to see the locals in action.

One of the highlights of this route is that it takes you past Tawhiti Museum, often referred to as New Zealand's best private museum. Former art teacher Nigel Ogle has spent the last 40 years transforming an old cheese factory into an extraordinary showcase of the region's history. Notable events are re-enacted using hundreds of life-size and miniature figures, all painstakingly handmade by Ogle in his workshop.

In 2010, he added Traders and Whalers, an immersive Disney-style underground boat ride that illustrates the early interactions between Europeans and the local Maori in the 1820s.

All in all, it's an unexpected delight that's well worth making a detour to visit. Much like Taranaki itself.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN THE REGION

CLIMB PARITUTU

Don't fancy the 10-hour slog to the summit of Mount Taranaki? It's only 15 minutes to the top of Paritutu Rock, a distinctive 100-metre-high volcanic outcrop near Port Taranaki. The reward is a sweeping 360-degree view along the New Plymouth coastline.

VISIT CAPE EGMONT LIGHTHOUSE

Built in London in the mid-1880s and shipped to New Zealand in 1865, this striking 20-metre-high lighthouse stands on Cape Egmont, the region's most westerly point. Lighthouse tours available by appointment - call +64 6 763 8507.

CRUISE WITH CHADDY

Explore Port Taranaki and the nearby Sugar Loaf Islands marine reserve on a cruise with local legend Dave "Chaddy" Chadfield in his converted Liverpool lifeboat. See chaddyscharters.co.nz

PIONEERING SPIRIT

Step back in time at the Taranaki Pioneer Village in Stratford, which features 40 heritage buildings dating from 1853 plus a replica stream train. See pioneervillage.co.nz

ART AND ABOUT

Every June, more than 60 artists open their studios to the public as part of the annual Taranaki Arts Trail. In November, artists in the small town of Oakura welcome visitors over two weekends for the Oakura Arts Trail. Self-guided tours also available year-round. See taranakiartstrail.co.nz; oakuraarts.co.nz

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/new-zealand

visit.taranaki.info

FLY

Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to New Plymouth via Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au

STAY

Opposite the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, King and Queen Hotel Suites offers free parking, bike rental and Wi-Fi. From $NZ184 per night. See kingandqueen.co.nz

Rob McFarland travelled as a guest of Air New Zealand and Venture Taranaki.

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