Whanganui (35,000) is an hour drive to the coast. The Parapara road to Whanganui is an attractive rural back country road. Old style city centre, Museum, Art galleries, cafes, etc.
Cn also drive down the River Road along the scenic Whanganui River.
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.