The Western North Island is wetter than the east, the prevailing westerlies dropping rain on a lush land that’s dense with bush in more remote areas and put to work raising dairy cattle on flatter country. Moisture seeps into cracks in limestone to dissolve out gorgeous caverns around Waitomo, falls as snow on the high peak of Taranaki, and works its way to the sea through the roadless tracts along the Whanganui River. The region’s rivers spill out into the Tasman Sea where huge rollers create magical surf breaks and have gradually carved a coastline of rugged headlands and sea stacks.
Much of the region’s appeal is tied to its extraordinary history of pre-European settlement and post-European conflict. It was on the west coast, at Kawhia, that the Tainui people first landed in New Zealand; the Tainui canoe in which they arrived is buried here, and the waterside tree it was moored to lives on. Kawhia was also the birthplace of Te Rauparaha, the great Maori chief who led his people from here down the coast to Kapiti Island and on to the South Island, to escape the better-armed tribes of the Waikato.
Approaching the region from the north, the farming country of the Waikato centres on the workaday provincial capital, Hamilton, which won’t detain you long, but has enough to soak up a couple of days’ exploration in the immediate vicinity. The nearby surfers’ paradise of Raglan has world-class surf as well as some great places to stay, eat or just unwind. Southeast of Hamilton on SH1, there’s a genteel English charm to Cambridge, while at Matamata, Hobbiton tours are an essential stop for Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film fans.
South of the Waikato, the highlight is Waitomo, where fabulous adventure trips explore otherwordly glowworm-filled limestone caverns. The adjacent King Country took its name from the King Movement, and was the last significant area in New Zealand to succumb to European colonization. Further south, the giant thumbprint peninsula of Taranaki is dominated by the symmetrical cone of Mount Taranaki, within the Egmont National Park. At its foot, New Plymouth warrants a visit for its excellent contemporary art gallery and access to a multitude of surf beaches.
Inland from Egmont National Park, the farming town of Taumarunui is one of the main jumping-off points for multi-day canoe trips along the Whanganui River, through the heart of the verdant Whanganui National Park. The river bisects Wanganui, a small, gracious and creative city whose river-port past can be relived on a restored paddle steamer. Some 60km to the southeast, the university city of Palmerston North lies at the centre of the rich farming region of Manawatu. A cluster of rural communities lines the highway south to the Kapiti Coast, where laidback beachside Paraparaumu is the launch point for boat trips to the paradisiacal bird sanctuary of Kapiti Island.