Wellington Region

Wairarapa, the Kapiti Coast, Horowhenua, Manawatu, Wanganui, and Taranaki are all within a day’s drive of Wellington. The contrast between the arty, political capital city, and the areas immediately to its north is striking. Within an hour, the country’s rural heartland reveals itself with the numerous small, sleepy towns. Dairy and sheep farms continue to feature strongly in the region, but visitors can also see newer forms of land use, such as ostrich farms and vineyards. The Egmont and Whanganui national parks await the more adventurous.



Wellington’s compact central business district lies between the city’s foothills and its mountain encircled harbor. Partly built on land developed during reclamation projects begun in the mid- 19th century, the area today is the working environment of the country’s politicians and the national government infrastructure. Foreign embassies, the Court of Appeal, National Archives, National Library, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and the head offices of local and international businesses are among the institutions and organizations in its precincts. The city is known for its stylish shops, café culture, restaurants, and galleries, with an atmosphere that is both stimulating and unhurried.

Wellington’s premier shopping street, Lambton Quay runs through the heart of New Zealand’s political and commercial life. Known as Old St Paul’s, the Cathedral Church of St Paul is an outstanding example of an early English Gothic-style cathedral adapted to colonial conditions and materials. Opened in 1902 to link the hill suburbs with the city, the Wellington Cable Cars used on the route have been electrically powered since 1933. Stops on the way include Victoria University, with access to the Botanic Garden and Carter Observatory at the top. The Kelburn terminus has fine views over the city and harbor. Housed in the former customs house which was constructed in 1892, the Museum of Wellington gives an insight into the capital’s rich cultural and social history. The museum uses model ships, ships’ instruments, relics from wrecks, maritime paintings, old maps, and sea journals, as well as holographic re-creations and videos to tell the story of Wellington in the context of its harbor and surrounding coast.

With exhibition space equivalent to three football fields, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (“Our Place”) is one of the largest museums in the world. Committed to telling the stories of all cultures in New Zealand, home to the National Art Collection, and with ample gallery space for touring international exhibitions, the museum opened on its waterfront site in 1998. Te Papa’s collections include a number of significant Maori works of art and treasures, as well as a unique 21st-century carved meeting house.


Taranaki’s most westerly point, Cape Egmont is characterized by strong winds and choppy seas. The solitary landmark is the Cape Egmont lighthouse, transferred from Mana Island near Wellington in 1881. Powered by diesel generators until 1951, it now operates on electricity. Located 19 miles offshore from the cape, the Maui field produces gas, which is processed at Oaonui, 6 miles northwest of the town of Opunake. At the site of the processing plant, a visitor center provides details of the history of oil exploration in the Taranaki region. There are also scale models of ships and oil rigs. Visitors can use the binoculars at the center to get a good view of one of the platforms, Maui A, 21.5 miles offshore.


Egmont National Park is one of the most easily accessed parks in New Zealand. The centerpiece is the solitary 8,261-ft Mount Taranaki/Egmont, a dormant volcano. Ice and snow permanently cover the peak and upper slopes of this majestic and almost symmetrical mountain. Although weather conditions can change rapidly in the park, a 119-mile network of tracks offers excellent climbing, skiing, and tramping for the fit and well prepared. The park also has many tracks suitable for the average walker.


Situated at the foot of the Rimutaka Range, Featherston is the southern gateway to the Wairarapa area for those arriving from the Wellington side of the divide. Known for its antique shops and colonial buildings, it also houses several museums, including the Fell Engine Museum, home to the world’s only surviving Fell engine. Running on three rails, these ingenious locomotives used to climb up and over the Rimutaka Range in the district’s early days.


Part of Taranaki’s rural heartland, Hawera boasts a number of interesting places for visitors. The 409,000-sq-ft Hollard Gardens were laid out in the late 1920s by farmer Bernard Hollard and presented to the Queen Elizabeth II National Trust in 1982. The gardens are at their most colorful from September to November. Perhaps the best way to appreciate this beautiful region is from the air by taking one of the helicopter flights organized by Heliview Taranaki, a family-owned company specializing in passenger flights. They can pick up and drop off from any local hotel, motel, and campsite using their minibus. Fly over the city, the amazing coastline, over the summit of Mount Taranaki or the Pouakai Ranges. The best option is one of their 60-minute flights which can include a landing to allow visitors to enjoy one of the sights close up, for example, Mount Damper Falls. Near Hawera is the Fontera Dairy Factory, which is the largest single-site, multiproduct milk processing plant in the world. It is not open to the public. Hawera and its surroundings can be viewed from the top of the town’s water tower, built after a series of fires in the 1880s, one of which razed most of the main street. In 1914, a month after the tower was erected, an earthquake caused it to list 2.5 ft to the south. The fault has now been reduced to 3 inches. The Tawhiti Museum, claimed to be the best private museum in the country, recreates many aspects of early life in South Taranaki. Housed in the town’s former cheese factory, exhibits range from the early land wars to the development of the fledgling dairy industry. The life-like figures in the exhibits, modeled on the faces of local volunteers, were cast at the museum’s on-site workshops. A bush railway takes passengers on a reconstruction of the logging railways that used to operate in Taranaki.


Kapiti Island, lying about 4 miles from the mainland, dominates the Kapiti Coast. The 6-mile long island has been a protected wildlife reserve since 1897. Access to the island is very limited although a permit to visit by charter boat can be obtained from the Department of Conservation in Wellington. All parties are met by the resident ranger. Trips around the island and diving or fishing in the surrounding waters can be done at any time. Making their home on the island are birds rare or absent from the mainland, such as saddlebacks and takahe. Less rare, but twice as cheeky, are the wekas, which are likely to steal anything unattended.


Levin sits on a fertile plain that is one of the largest vegetable-producing areas in the country. Its main street, lined with shops that service its farming hinterland, epitomizes much of traditional small-town New Zealand. Owner-operated outlets on the outskirts of the town offer “pick-your-own” freshly grown produce direct from the fields and orchards.


Established in 1881 by Irish immigrant John Martin, Martinborough was once reliant for its prosperity on the surrounding farming community. Since the late 1970s, the town has become internationally known for its grape growing and winemaking. It is now a fashionable weekend destination for wine lovers and those attracted by its cafés, bars, restaurants, and thriving arts community. Most of the area’s 20 boutique wineries are within walking distance of Martinborough’s picturesque town square.


Ninety minutes’ drive from both Wellington and Palmerston North, Masterton is Wairarapa’s largest town. It hosts a number of events during the summer, including an annual hot-air balloon fiesta, a biennial air show, and also a traditional shearing competition known as the Golden Shears which is held every year. Masterton is home to the Shear Discovery Centre, a museum dedicated to New Zealand’s shearing heritage and also a recreation center. The town also has the region’s art and history museum, Aratoi, and a Farmers’ Market on Saturday mornings. Queen Elizabeth Park has playgrounds, a boating lake, a golf course, and many other facilities.


Administered by the Department of Conservation, this center, located 19 miles north of Masterton, gives visitors the chance to get close to and learn about some of New Zealand’s most threatened native birds. Priority species, including the stitchbird, kokako, and takahe, live in uncrowded aviaries. Bushwalks to view ancient plant species lead through a last remnant of the forest once known as “Forty Mile Bush”, containing native rimu, rata, kamahi, nocturnal kiwi, and tuatara, while eels often sun themselves on the mud near the center’s river bridge.


At the heart of the Manawatu region, Te Manawa is the only institution of its kind in New Zealand to unite a museum, art gallery, and interactive science center. The constantly changing exhibition program features nationally significant collections as well as innovative hands-on shows. The museum forms the heart of the complex and recalls the long occupation of the region by Maori, as well as exploring the history of the Manawatu. The interactive science center features changing exhibitions that are popular with children. From 2011 the New Zealand Rugby Museum will also be located at the complex.


The principal center of the Taranaki region, New Plymouth is situated around the only deep-water port on New Zealand’s west coast, surrounded by surfing beaches along the North Taranaki Bight. The massive cone of Mount Taranaki/Egmont towers behind the city. Agriculture, with a strong emphasis on dairying, as well as heavy engineering, the marine industry, and forestry are among the mainstays of the local economy. The area is also the base for the country’s major oil, gas and petrochemical industries. New Plymouth is recognized for its many beautiful parks, gardens, and reserves, and is an ideal base from which to explore Egmont National Park.


Situated on a beautiful stretch of Taranaki coastline 9 miles west of New Plymouth, Oakura is one of a number of small, scenic towns typifying the rural aspect of New Zealand. It has the traditional fixtures of such towns – the main street row of shops, service stations, recreation grounds, churches, pubs, and a war memorial. A train carriage restaurant in the main street is a novelty. The Crafty Fox, a neighboring shop, sells works by the many artists and craftspeople who live in the area. The beach at Oakura is well known for its beautiful sunsets (in Maori, Oakura means “the place of flashing redness”). It is also a prime spot for swimming, windsurfing, and surfboarding.


The thriving center of a rich dairying district, Opunake is the largest town on the west side of Mount Taranaki/Egmont. The beach at Opunake, situated along the small, sheltered Middleton Bay, is regarded as Taranaki’s best beach. It teems with tourists attracted to its safe swimming and its surfing during the summer months.


Before the European settlers’ arrival in 1840, Otaki was heavily populated by Maori. It had the finest Maori church, Rangiatea Church, in New Zealand. Built in 1851, it was destroyed by fire in 1995. Construction of a replica of the church on the site began in 1998, and it opened in 2003. Just south of Otaki is the Hyde Park Museum. The museum has Maori artifacts from pre- European days, colonial memorabilia, and exhibits from present-day New Zealand. Included are a Royal Room with displays from the 1953 visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip, old farm machinery, and a grocery shop with over 3,000 items marked at 1937 prices. South of the town, the 12-mile Gorge Road leads to Otaki Forks and the Tararua Forest Park. Along the way are walking tracks.


Situated on the Kapiti Coast, 40 minutes’ drive north of Wellington on State Highway 1, Paekakariki is the first of four townships spaced evenly along 25 miles of sweeping, sandy coastline known as the “nature coast”. A main attraction at Paekakariki is Queen Elizabeth Park, which encompasses a stunning coastline, sand dunes, streams, peat swamps, and bush walks. A tram ride from MacKays Crossing north of Paekakariki takes visitors through the 2.5-sq mile park. At the Wellington Tramway Museum in the park, visitors can view displays of some of the forerunners of the trolleybuses that still run on Wellington’s streets, and see trams being refurbished.


From the mid-1960s, pastoral farming has been the stimulus for the development of Palmerston North, Manawatu’s largest town. Lying in the center of a broad, fertile coastal plain stretching from the Tasman Sea across to the Tararua and Ruahine ranges, the city is a major crossroad for the southern part of the North Island, with three main roads converging near it. New Zealand’s largest university, Massey University, and several colleges and research institutes are based here, giving Palmerston North a pleasant university town atmosphere.


The main center on the Kapiti Coast, Paraparaumu has shorefront shops, cafés, and restaurants. It also has a developed beach, with a park and playgrounds. The town is the departure point for boat trips to Kapiti Island. The area’s major attraction is the Southward Car Museum, which holds the largest collection of vintage and veteran vehicles in the southern hemisphere. The collection of bicycles includes an 1863 boneshaker. Marlene Dietrich’s limousine is one of more than 250 classic and quirky vehicles dating from 1895. Racing boats, home-made vehicles, motorcycles, early motoring curios, and traction engines are also housed on the site. A highlight is a 1950 Cadillac Gangster Special, once owned by an employee of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano. It boasts a bomb-proof floor, armor-plated doors, bulletproof windows, and a hinged windscreen to enable firing from inside. The Lindale Tourist and Agricultural Centre, set around a New Zealand farm, is a good place to bring children. The center offers sheep shearing demonstrations as well as hands-on opportunities to milk a cow, bottle-feed lambs and goats, play with chickens and baby deer, and observe exotic species like llama and emu. There are farm walks and a golf driving range for the more active. A shop showcasing the award-winning gourmet Kapiti Cheese and Kapiti Ice Cream is located on the site, along with galleries, shops, and eating places.


Lying to the east of Mount Taranaki/Egmont, 25 miles south of New Plymouth, Stratford is named after Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford upon-Avon, and many of its streets are named after Shakespearean characters. The Taranaki Pioneer Village in the town comprises restored or re-created buildings, including a schoolhouse, jail, railway station, and about 50 other buildings that relate to the area’s local and provincial history.


Established as a marine protected area in 1991, the Sugar Loaf Islands lie between 2,300 ft and 1 mile off New Plymouth’s Port Taranaki breakwater. The stacks and reefs that make up the islands are the oldest volcanic features in Taranaki. They consist of eroded andesitic domes produced around 1.75 million years ago, lying at depths of between 16 ft and 98 ft. Of the eleven islands or groupings of islands, the two largest are Motumahanga and Moturoa, located at the northern end of the park. They are often referred to as the “outer islands”. Four rocky islets close to the mainland at Paritutu are known as the “inner islands”. The islands support a wealth of wildlife and plants. Among them are 80 recorded types of fish, at least 19 species of birdlife, rare and endangered native and introduced plants, and 33 species of sponge. Fur seals are present on the islands all year round, with common and Maui’s dolphins and killer, pilot, and humpback whales also seen at times. Although the best way to explore the islands is by charter boat, Round Rock, one of the “inner islands”, can be accessed on foot from the beach during mid- to low tide. Snapper Rock, another “inner island”, is accessible from the shore only when the spring tides are very low. The relatively deep water, a wide variety of marine life, and spectacular underwater scenery make the park a popular venue for divers. Visibility often reaches 65 ft during the summer and autumn months. Recreational fishing is also very popular in the park, although there are fishing restrictions. Blue cod, kingfish, and snapper are among the most frequently caught species. Game fishing further offshore for tuna, marlin, and mako shark usually takes place during summer and early autumn.


Nestled between the foothills of the Tararua Range and the Kapiti Coast, Waikanae is primarily a retirement center, known for its craft shops and magnificent gardens. Burnard Gardens, recognized as one of New Zealand’s most formally designed English-style gardens, is located here and viewings can be arranged. The Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve is home to over 63 species of birds (though some of these are migratory and so will not be there all year), such as shags, dabchicks, Caspian terns, royal spoonbills, and pukeko. Fires, hunting, and mountain and trail biking are forbidden.


The area around Wanganui was first settled by Maori about AD 1100. By 1840 the New Zealand Company, unable to provide sufficient land in the Wellington district for the steady flow of new colonists, began to negotiate with Maori for land in Wanganui. The town became a distribution center for the area extending to Waitotara in the west, Marton in the east, and up the Whanganui River Valley in the north. Less than an hour by road to Palmerston North and only two and a half hours to Wellington, Wanganui’s thriving arts scene sits alongside a variety of export-oriented industries.


Established in 1987, the three main sections of the park lie within the catchment of the Whanganui River. Broadleaf podocarp forest surrounding the river forms the heart of the park. Tree ferns and riverside plants are also a feature, as is the birdlife. The river is rich in fish. Visitors can choose from a variety of energetic activities, including canoeing, kayaking, rafting, jet-boating, and tramping. There is also fishing and hunting for deer and goats. For a more leisurely trip, visitors can enjoy a cruise on the 19th-century paddle steamer Waimarie.


The Whanganui River is the longest navigable and the third longest river in New Zealand. The 180- mile river begins its journey high up on Mount Tongariro in the center of the North Island, and meanders its way down through the Whanganui National Park to Wanganui and the Tasman Sea. Up until the 1920s, there was a regular riverboat service carrying passengers, mail, and freight into the interior, and a thriving tourist trade operated between Mount Ruapehu and Wanganui. Today, the river, with its deep gorges, sheer cliffs, and 239 listed rapids, is New Zealand’s most canoed waterway. The main entry and exit points for journeys on the river by canoe, raft, or jet-boat are Taumarunui, Pipiriki, and Wanganui. The 90-mile journey from Taumarunui to Pipiriki takes about five days by canoe. From October to April, visitors must obtain hut and campsite passes from the local Department of Conservation or other sales outlets. The river can also be followed by road from Wanganui to Pipiriki. Good side tracks lead to historic sites, early Maori villages, waterfalls, and lookouts.