Taranaki Rhododendron Gardens - Kiwi Guide Stories
Join MoaTours Kiwi Guide Andre on his journey through the springtime gardens of Taranaki. Read his travel diary and see his favourite pictures from last season's trips.
Kia Ora, my name is Andre Booth, also known as Andre the Guide! I am a veteran Kiwi Guide with MoaTours and this is my take on the Taranaki Rhododendron Gardens tour, one of my favourite trips to lead.
When I left school, I spent three years studying botany and plant ecology, and have since gone on to work in several different roles in the outdoors. So, I was excited when MoaTours asked me to lead this trip as I know “Rhodos” are such a show stopper when in full bloom!
The Taranaki Rhododendron Gardens tour is perfectly timed to visit a generous sampling of hand-picked private gardens and established plantings that feature stunning rhododendron collections.
We visit the week before the Taranaki Rhododendron Festival, which is the perfect time to take advantage of all the preparations to make these sites look their best.
Also to our advantage, is getting to enjoy all the best features of the garden without the crowds of the Festival.
Day 1 – Auckland – Piopio – New Plymouth
Our tour kicks off with gathering our group and meeting up in Auckland before jumping on the southern motorway. Being a Lyttelton local, I fly up to Auckland the day before in preparation for the tour.
It’s probably a giveaway, but as I guide, I do love the opportunity to travel. Of course, I travel happier once I’ve paid my $4.55 to Air NZ to offset my carbon footprint. Got to keep those gardens green!
I find the real beauty of these tours is in the people and the mix of great New Zealanders coming together to explore our country and have some fun.
Once we’re all together it’s everyone aboard and their luggage loaded in our trusty trailer, and we are off heading south on the motorway.
First stop, (not including morning tea of course!) is Carmel Farm where Rachel, our host, welcomes us into her lovely, renovated farmhouse built in 1931 just north of Piopio. As we dine on a delicious light lunch we are overlooking the rolling hills of the Anselmi Farm.
Our second stop, brings us to our first proper garden visit just on the outskirts of New Plymouth; the Waiongana Gardens. For me, it’s such a boost after all the preparation and logistics before the tour.
We’re greeted by our hosts John and Diana with a couple of big, relaxed kiwi smiles! They show us around 10 acres of impressive plantings, somewhat formal in the centre area and encompassed within the boundary of a strong, fast-flowing crystal-clear river.
Diana and John always wander around with members of the group, happily answering their questions. I get excited when John points out a rare native grass tucked in among one of his rock garden plantings.
Before we head into New Plymouth to check into our waterfront hotel for the next three nights, we take in the impressive Te Rewa Rewa Bridge and sneak in a group photo.
Day 2 – New Plymouth Gardens
Today is a busy day in the best way, as it’s one where we get to experience a lot of variety.
First up we have the historic Hirst Cottage, and by historic I mean one of four built in 1864 in New Plymouth. Judi, our host, has it looking as if it’s straight out of a house and garden photo shoot.
Next up is one of my personal favourites, Te Kainga Marire which translates to “peaceful encampment” and indeed it is. The best feature of Valda Poletti’s garden (other than the playful dog), is the native plants. From the flowing kaka beak (Clianthus) out on the street front, this is a garden I could easily spend all day in. We take time to wander before taking the short drive on to Tupare.
Tupare is a house and garden open to the public and managed by the Taranaki Regional Council with full time professional gardeners. I know from my time at the Christchurch Botanic Gardens that if there are full time gardeners employed you experience a whole other level of horticulture, botanical expertise, and plant collections, and this is no exception.
After negotiating the steep drive, half of the group is guided through the house while the other half is guided through the garden to experience some serious rhododendrons bursting into flower among mature trees and other landscaped plantings. And then they swap places so everyone gets to share in the experience.
After lunch in town we pop next door and visit the Len Lye Centre/Govett-Brewster Gallery. It’s such a striking building and the collections have a contemporary feel, the unexpected is always a conversation starter. I’ve always appreciated the parallels between art and gardens.
Our last visit of the day is Pukeiti Gardens located on the side of Mt Fuji. Oh wait, yes, it’s actually Taranaki Maunga, but whenever it does reveal itself from behind the cloud, I can’t help but think of Tom Cruise and the movie, “The Last Samurai”, which filmed in the area and used Mt Taranaki as Mt Fuji.
The Pukeiti Gardens with its volcanic soils and high rainfall is really a “holy grail” for rhododendrons in New Zealand. There’s a rich history to the collections of rhodo species, cultivars, and propagation here. We have a guided walk with a senior gardener who helps us avoid the rain for the most part as I run back to the vehicle and grab an armful of our complimentary umbrellas.
Day 3 – Taranaki Farmhouse Gardens
From 2021 we’ve added an extra day to the tour and that’s what we’re doing today. This extra day allows us to experience four new gardens: Maureen Brophy’s Hikurangi, Maria van der Poel’s Garden, Elaine Sanderson’s Garden, and Openlands with Marie Mills and her family.
It’s thanks to MoaTours’ brilliant owner and tour designer, Ena, for extending the trip so we can take in even more of what New Zealand gardens have to offer. I’m especially excited as I’ll be guiding two of the upcoming Taranaki Rhododendron Gardens tours this year.
Day 4 – New Plymouth – Cairnhill Garden – Hawera – Whanganui
In the morning we set off from the Millennium Hotel New Plymouth Waterfront which, from my point of view, ticks all the boxes for a four-star hotel, and make our way to Pukekura Park.
Strolling in past the iconic terraced cricket ground it feels like we couldn’t get any more of a quintessential New Plymouth experience than this. Next to the café sits a million-dollar vista, looking down the lake over the red Poet’s Bridge with Mt Taranaki in full view as the backdrop. The rhododendron dell is a highlight for our group.
We head out of New Plymouth to Cairnhill Garden east of Stratford, at the start of the Forgotten World Highway, and get spoilt during morning tea with home baking and a verdant garden, all shared by our warm hosts June and Colin Lees.
A bit further down the road is Puketarata garden with Jennifer and Ken Homer. What I find fascinating about this garden is the fact they have found pre-European hangi stones on the property. Jennifer and Ken have also printed a booklet on the history of both the property and garden which some of the group take away as a souvenir.
On our way to Whanganui for the night we stop in Hawera at Gravetye Garden hosted by Jenny and John Pease. Now one of the fantastic things about an organised garden tour is that not one garden is the same and these wonderful differences are highlighted as we go along. Gravetye is no exception and the hedges here must to be seen to be believed. Another very worthy stop.
Day 5 – Whanganui – Cross Hills Gardens – Tongariro National Park
Today we make our way to Cross Hills Gardens at Kimbolton in the Manawatu where our guide gives us a great introduction to the area and then it’s time to wander with map in hand (or not) through this impressive garden.
As for rhododendrons, Cross Hills has it covered well and truly. Being a foodie, I have to mention the lunch in the old-fashioned style tearoom, reminiscent of the ones that used to be dotted all over New Zealand. Don’t get me wrong I love our modern cafe culture but there is something very comforting about the Cross Hills cafe with the sandwiches, savouries, and slices washed down with a pot of tea.
On our way to Whakapapa village, I always like to stop at The Wool Store at Utiku. I’m a big fan of supporting New Zealand made products especially wool products as both my parents grew up on sheep farms in the South Island. In saying that, it has definitely been encouraging to witness the resurgence of merino wool in the last couple of years; and with that in mind, it’s almost certain that I’ll buy two pairs of locally made merino socks!
As we turn off the main road up towards the Chateau into New Zealand’s oldest, and the world’s fourth oldest National Park, Tongariro, I always like to joke that tonight we’re staying in a backpackers. It’s impossible to keep a straight face for long though as the Chateau Tongariro Hotel looms into view. It’s always a special event to stay a night in a national park.
Day 6 – Tongariro National Park – Aramatai Gardens – Crosshills Garden – Auckland
We depart the hotel and make our way to Aramatai Gardens, a five acre oasis of ponds and plantings where we go for a wander with our host, Jill Mouat. It never ceases to amaze me how down to earth and humble all our hosts and gardeners are and it makes guiding incredibly enjoyable.
The last stop on the tour is Crosshills Garden, not to be confused with our Cross Hills Gardens yesterday, and definitely not to be confused when navigating with google maps otherwise we will be driving in the wrong direction!
No, this Crosshills is a farm in Otorohanga, with Debbie and Fraser Robertson. After a splendid lunch and impressive garden visit we head northwards through the spring countryside to Auckland.
Discover Taranaki’s Rhododendron Gardens for yourself
I hope you’ve enjoyed my pictures and stories from Taranaki.
As the rhododendrons bloom in springtime it’s always one of the first tours of the season, which is another reason I love it. Getting out in the countryside in spring is a great uplift after winter and the sight of all those amazing rhododendrons in flower will warm anyone’s heart!
As well as the beautiful rhododendrons, what I always remember from these trips are the people. Our warm friendly hosts who welcome us into their gardens and share their life’s work with us, and of course our amazing guests, who come together from all parts of the country to make this journey a once in a lifetime experience.
It’s sharing this time with great people which makes these tours special.
See more about our Taranaki Rhododendron Gardens tour here and come find out for yourself this spring, I’ll see you there!