I finally made it to Gisborne, New Zealand, a few days short of my 40th birthday. Apart from Invercargill, it was the only thing resembling a major centre in New Zealand that I had yet to visit. So, as much as anything, it was nice to tick that off the list.
My first impression of Gizzy is that it is incredibly isolated. After looking at it on the map, most people would be tempted to say: “Bollocks to that!” But the drive there does chew up a decent amount of your time. Spectacular and hard work at the same time.
The road in from the North West, via Opotiki, through the Waioeka Gorge, initially, then some sweeping hill country followed by the river plains, is typically spectacular kiwi countryside. As someone who sees this type of landscape all the time it’s easy to overlook. But it is very, very cool…particularly if you’re into that kind of thing.
Usually when I go somewhere for the first time I try to get some idea of the lay of the land as quickly as I can. Going up is always best for this. Gisborne has the ideal tool for that – Kaiti hill. I wouldn’t think there are too many more staggering views in this country that that achieved from this little lookout. The town, along with the entire Poverty Bay, is just spread out beneath you. When the sun’s out and the clouds are hiding this is something special. Even better, you don’t have to slog your guts out for this reward. Just drive there.
From here we spotted our potential hotel for the night. We made a point of not booking before or arrival, but we did do some research and nothing really grabbed our fancy. After we saw it, the Portside Hotel, sitting on the side of the port (yes, seriously), was a no brainer. It’s a relatively modern hotel, in a great location, with decent size rooms. A port view, as opposed to a car park view, room costs a little more but is worth the extra cash. It was nice to look down on the rowers slaving away on the river while supping a cold Becks’.
The Café Ruba was a nice spot for breakfast. The full-on super duper style meal (not its real name) set us up for the day. Gisborne seems well served with cafes and restaurants, so I wouldn’t think you’d go hungry there.
Wainui and its beach, just to the east of Gisborne, is famous for its surf. It’s a classic kiwi summer spot, all hot sand and blue sea. The beach was all but empty when we were there. That made it even more appealing.
Napier is a couple of hours drive down the coast. Getting there from Gisborne doesn’t disappoint, particularly when someone else is driving. There’s one particularly great piece of road, well south of Wairoa, where it dives then climbs and doubles back on itself, crests the hill then reveals a view for miles down the valley. Well, I liked it, at least. Check out Google maps and you’ll get a good feel for this particular drive.
Napier has a hill that’s worth a look as well – Bluff hill. You can’t miss it. Cool views over the port, city and Hawke’s Bay greet you at the top. The hill’s packed with houses and little windy roads, so the drive up is decent too.
We’ve stayed at The Nautilus a couple of times and I can’t really think there’d be anywhere much better to doss down in Napier. It’s on Marine Parade, like many other hotels and motels, so there’s an unimpeded view of the beach, which is right across the road. It’s a stony beach, though, which is a letdown after all the white sand to the north.
Central Napier is pedestrian friendly and full of places to eat and drink. I can’t recommend anything as I haven’t sampled them. But the Countdown (a supermarket) is big and has a good wine selection, so you’ll be okay. The best recommendation I’ve had is to take in some of the wineries that make this region famous, with Mission Estate, Craggy Range and Te Mata the pick of the bunch. I reckon the best time of the year to visit this part of the country is during the summer. When it’s hot, dry and content, the eastern North Island is a pleasant place to drive through and occasionally stop off at.
It’s a long way from Napier down to Wellington, but well worth going all the way in one day. You’ll drive through a number of small to mid-size towns such as Waipukurau, Dannevirke, Woodville, Pahiatua, Masterton and Carterton, which all have their stories but don’t really look like they’d be worth stopping the night at. I expect the residents of those towns would likely say the same about where I live so it’s no biggie. The Tui brewery at Mangatainoka, just north of Pahiatua, is an iconic kiwi building. It’s worth a stop for a photo, but little else (unless, of course, you’re into brown bottle booze that tastes like pish).
Before long you’re over the Rimutaka Hill and in to Wellington. The drive, while not being one you’d want to make every day, was worth it. Wellington: well, that’s another special story for another day.