Whanganui (35,000) was an about a 1 hour drive to the coast but this year the road ihas a major slip and is not now passable. The River road via Pipiriki is an attractive rural country road but takes about 2+ hours. Whanganui is an old style Victorian city centre, Museum, Art galleries, cafes, etc.
Palmerston North (85,000) is a rural supply centre. About a 1.5 hr drive through Taihape and other small rural towns. The New Zealand Rugby Museum displays sporting memorabilia, including vintage All Blacks uniforms. The Te Manawa art, science and history museum Art , shopping, cafes.
Taupo (25,000) is at the opposite end of Lake Taupo. Lake Taupo is the crater of one of the largest eruptions known on the planet. About 2 hour drive and can drive around the lake. Geothermal tourist activities, boating, fishing, shopping, cafes.
New Plymouth (115,000) is about 2.5 hours drive so an overnight may be appropriate. On the way Mount Taranaki and bush walks, skiing, dairy farms, small rural towns. Pukekura Park, with lakes and formal gardens that grow rhododendrons and king ferns. Excellent art gallery, cafes.
Tokannu and Turangi are small towns on the other side of the mountains at the southern end of the lake. The Tokaanu Thermal Pools and the easy access to Lake Taupo make it a popular lakeside holiday destination. A short walking track through the thermal area leads to hot mineral pools and small mud pools in the native bush. Geothermal hot swimming pools, river trout fishing, white water rafting.
Hawkes Bay (170,000). This is a great wine area especially Shiraz and Chardonnay. A 2.5 hour drive over a most interesting sealed back road, Gentle Annie. Three cities each with their own character Napier by the sea with art deco architecture, Hastings a rural supply city and Havelock North an urban retreat. Probably an overnight stay to enjoy this area.
National Park is about 1/2 hr north. There are cafes and bars. Whakapapa ski field is on the opposite side of the mountain and turn right at National Park. It has a Gondola that operates all year up to a viewing and a cafe.
Waiouru is nearby about 15 mins is a road stop town which has the interesting NZ Military history museum. Taihape is small rural town a further 20 mins. It has a giant gumboot sculpture at its entrance as it is known as the "Gumboot Capital of New Zealand”, It is great base for walks, white water rafting, horse trekking and fishing!