This Taranaki city’s famous wind wand may not be magic, but the sea spray, shopping and a selection of very social kitchens certainly cast a spell on Fiona Fraser.
The lobby of the King and Queen Hotel is dark and interesting. It feels a bit exotic – and it smells good.
Just outside the sliding glass doors is a small precinct of bars and eateries where New Plymouth’s young and hip come to sip cocktails and evaluate Tinder dates. We’ve already got a table booked for later. Luggage is dumped, silky dresses hung, phones charged and hair briefly brushed before we venture out into the streets to see what’s changed in the city in the decade since we were last here.
We’re in the West End, at the top of the rise, a streetscape punctuated by the mesmerising mirrored exterior of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and a clock tower that we’re not allowed to climb up.
The tower is pure frustration because a) it looks like it would offer the best view in the city, and b) you can see the interior stairwell from the street, practically calling your name. Oh well, we shrug. An amble along the Coastal Walkway will soon give us our bearings.
Off we trot, as parents pushing buggies and students wearing earbuds step out alongside us, and speeding cyclists whizzing past from time to time. It’s a compulsory stop at Len Lye’s Wind Wand, which is looking quite bent, such is the stiff (but warm) breeze whipping our hair into our mouths.
My friend and travel buddy Robyn recalls she was working as a young journalist at the Taranaki Daily News on the eve of the new millennium, when the light at the tip of the sculpture was first illuminated. There was a competition to find a local to switch it on, she tells me, won by her good friend and former journalism tutor Virginia, who embraced the honour – much to the dismay of a number of others who thought the structure was a mad idea. These days, you’re hard-pressed to find a resident who doesn’t love the wand, which pays tribute to the late avante-garde film-maker and kinetic artist Lye, who would split his time between New Zealand and New York.
Tartan Rose Cakery does a fantastic toasted sandwich. Famished, we order one each and it’s everything a toastie should be – buttery slices of brioche crammed with mushrooms and melted provolone, spiked with pesto. When in a cakery, it’s essential to sample the item for which the business is named, we tell ourselves, so we split a rhubarb and ginger number with thick buttercream icing. That should tide us over until dinner.
Oh, it’s dinner already? We’ve parked ourselves at Snug Lounge, under my hotel window, and are watching the bachelors and bachelorettes (literally – Dr Lesina from season one is having a cocktail and sharing smiles with a handsome beau at the table next to us. Let’s hope he’s here for the right reasons), and now we need to make our way around the corner to Social Kitchen. Everyone has been telling me Social Kitchen is mandatory – that it’s incredible, the service is outstanding, and the food is impeccable. It’s super annoying being told you must love something, and I’m naturally contrary, so I resolve to find fault. But I absolutely can’t, because Social Kitchen is perfect. We’re a group of three tonight (with one of us vegetarian) and it’s such a joy to find varied and interesting meat-free plates to choose from – deeply satisfying aubergine parmigiana, sticky baked pumpkin and sweet kūmara with crispy chickpeas and goat curd, and some ouzo-cured salmon with pickles for the fishy ones. There are some disturbing hog heads and stuffed birds in the window – a little bit Brooklyn, a whole lot of Chinatown – and I love everything about it.
Today is the day I will see Marita Green. I’ve been stalking this talented potter on Instagram for a couple of years, and I’m totally into her style, her irreverence and wit. So, I’ve DMed her, as you do, and we’re hooning over for a cuppa and to peek inside her studio. Marita only opens up her converted garage to the public a couple of times a year, but she’s made an exception and even allows us to buy a piece or two of her end-of-line items. I choose a beautiful plate, glazed in soft pink and oyster, and decorated with Marita’s hand drawings of botanicals and sunbursts. We listen to her yarns – navy life, motherhood, the merits of foul language – and then we pile back into the car, waving as we head back down the hills into town.
But Marita is everywhere! As we stop in at the beautiful Kina Gallery, where the rear of the building is set up as an illustrator’s studio, we see more of her ceramics on shelves, among pretty blown glass, art prints, jewellery and gift cards. And we spend much too long at The Virtue, where founders Brooke Lean and Gina Fabish curate a tantalising array of vintage furniture, flowers and bespoke scents. Brooke tells me the country of Cuba is their muse, and there are certainly echoes of the Caribbean throughout the store: art prints, ’70s vases and throws, flickering candles and smoky fragrances. I try them all, but when Brooke bustles out the back, emerging with a bucket of shells and seaweed – inspiration for the pair’s new scent, Back Beach, conceived of during lockdown – that’s the one I choose. It’s salty and minerally, like driftwood drying in the sun. It’s also available as a limited edition hand poured candle housed in – you guessed it – a Marita Green pot.
We just have time for a quick coffee at Ozone Coffee Roastery – expertly pulled – and a visit to the Len Lye Centre at Govett-Brewster.
Time for lunch before we leave. State Pasta is a brand new eatery producing handmade pasta from its busy kitchen. We devour plates of focaccia smeared with ricotta and honey, spaghetti and clams, and ravioli with chicken and sage butter, all under the watchful eye of the late, great Antonio Carluccio, immortalised in a black and white photo on a shelf above our table. Chef Carl Maunder met Carluccio at an event while working for Sean Connolly at Auckland’s Gusto – a pivotal moment, and one that’s informed the special food he’s creating here. He’s also brought his experience from Singapore and Dubai home to Taranaki (on the last flight home pre-lockdown) with his wife Jade, and is cranking out tasty, simple, fresh food that the godfather of Italian cuisine himself would be proud of. With full tummies, satisfied smiles – and an affogato for good measure – we’re heading home from the new New Plymouth.