Gisborne, New Zealand: the North Island’s Hidden Gem
By Kurt Jacobson
I stumbled upon Gisborne in a most unusual way in 2002. After my wife and I had visited New Zealand for our second time I was convinced I wanted to own real estate there.
I scoured the internet for two full years researching all regions of New Zealand before deciding on Gisborne. I had never been to Gisborne but was not deterred by that.
In my research what made Gisborne stand out was it’s one of the sunniest places in New Zealand and boasts a Mediterranean like climate.
My first stop would be Auckland where I’d attend a real estate investor’s seminar. I didn’t know how I’d get to Gisborne, a six-hour bus ride from Auckland after the seminar, but I hoped to meet someone there for more on-the-ground-knowledge of Gisborne.
I lucked out and met the only person in the audience that lived and invested in Gisborne. Her name is Catherine and she agreed to drive me back to Gisborne when the seminar was over.
A Gorges Drive!
Catherine took me by way of her usual route, State Highway 2. The drive from Auckland to Gisborne is nothing to write home about until you get to Opotiki and the Waioeka Gorge on Highway 2. It’s my favorite of three possible routes for its scenery and speed. Have your camera ready for the lush landscapes in the Gorge and Pacific Ocean beaches beyond.
If you like trout fishing the Gorge has several streams with trout averaging 1.5 kilograms! Guide books list several points of interest on the way to Gisborne, but my favorite highlight is Anaura Bay. I have been to beaches all over the world and single out Anaura Bay as the most beautiful beach I have ever seen!
This white sand paradise is seventy one kilometers north of Gisborne. It’s a great place to camp, swim, walk the beach or just relax at the B&B. There is also a holiday park with 75 spaces if you are camping. You can walk two miles of beach and have it to yourself most days unless it is peak season, or weekends. It’s a bit isolated so don’t expect much in the way of services.
Walk the Famous Wharf
Tolaga Bay Gisborne Next stop on the road to Gisborne is Tolaga Bay, a small village 45 kilometers north of Gisborne. Here you can walk the longest wharf in the southern hemisphere that was built in 1926 to haul local products on large ocean going ships. Tolaga Bay has services for travelers such as: cafes, lodging, grocery store, and camping.
Cooks Cove is nearby and offers an interesting hike to see where Captain Cook anchored his ship in 1769 in a secluded cove. The hike is 5.8 kilometers and takes about 2.5 hour’s round trip.
Driving south to Gisborne, Wainui Beach-6 kilometers north of the city center– is a fun place to kick off your shoes and go for a walk before arriving in town. Wainui is a well-known surfing destination with good surf throughout the year.
Sport fishing boats launch nearby in search of prized big game fish that the writer Zane Grey came to New Zealand for many years ago. Enjoy a walk on the beach while watching the surfers ride the waves under clear blue skies.
In Gisborne you will find a typical New Zealand town with some great amenities. Just a few blocks from downtown is Waikanae Beach offering walkers, beach combers, swimmers, or sunbathers a respite from city life.
This white sand piece of heaven is usually uncrowded except for the two hottest months of the year, January and February. The view of Young Nick’s Head from Waikanae Beach is one of historical interest.
The young cabin boy for Captain Cook was said to be the first to spy land on that famous voyage of Cook’s in 1769. There is a statue of young Nick pointing towards the Poverty Bay headland he spied from Cook’s ship that now bears his name. Poverty Bay got its name because Cook’s crew didn’t find much in the way of provisions in the area.
Gisborne’s population of about 35,000 is well served by numerous restaurants, hotels, parks and a decent regional airport.There are three rivers that flow through town including the Turanganui River-the shortest river in New Zealand.
At the Tatapouri Fishing Club on the Gisborne harbor you can gawk at the trophy sized marlin displayed on their walls from successful outings. After your look at the fishing club The Wharf Cafe and Bar is close by for a glass of local wine and a snack. If the weather cooperates, which it usually does in this sun drenched town, you can sit outside enjoying the best waterfront-view restaurant in Gisborne.
If fine dining is your preference try The Marina Restaurant at the confluence of the Taruheru and Waimata Rivers. The Marina occupies an elegant, nearly hundred year old former ballroom, serving French themed local fare. As a trained chef food is very important to me and The Marina has never disappointed me or my guests.
Time for Wine
Gisborne is New Zealand’s third largest producer of wine, yet rarely shows up on a wine trail for some ridiculous reason. With the gleaming blue-green Pacific ocean for a doorstep and a backdrop of forested mountains that turn into a light show of color in the fall, Gisborne rocks! Chardonnay is the dominant grape variety here with several other high quality whites being produced, and a few reds.
Chances are if you go wine touring you will be met by the owner of the vineyard, or a family member to show you around these less pretentious wineries.
Consider a stop at Bushmere Estate for the wine, food and hospitality. It was at Bushmere where my wife and I had the best appetizer platter ever!
They have a lovely tasting/dining area that looks out onto the Mediterranean like vineyard and gets consistent high ratings for food and wine on travel websites. Milton Vineyards is another good place to try some of the best Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc wines of the Gisborne region.
Milton won a gold medal at the 1992 Intl. Wine challenge in London for their chardonnay. Their Clos de Ste. Anne is one of the best chardonnay wines I have had from any winery in New Zealand. They adhere to biodynamic growing practices, using no pesticides, or chemicals on their vines.
Milton’s tasting room is open 9am to 5:30 seven days per week, and is one of the most pleasant tasting facilities in the area. Another winery worth a visit is the KEW (Kirkpatrick Estate Wines). KEW is a small vineyard out in the country with few frills, but a nice picnic area overlooking the vineyard. Call first in the winter months, they are happy to have you visit.
South of town you have some tough choices to make if your time is limited. First up is Eastwood Hill Arboretum, Morere Hot Springs and on to Te Urewera National Park-home of the Lake Waikaremoana Track. All are worthy of further research for a perfect trip to this hidden wonderland of the north island.
In Te Urewera Park my wife and I hiked two hours round trip to Lake Waikareiti for a perfect day trip and picnic lunch. We had this sparkling mountain lake to ourselves for a memorable wilderness getaway in the north island’s largest forest. I highly recommend this hike if you don’t have four days to do the Lake Waikaremoana Track.
Just because Gisborne and the East Cape are off the beaten track doesn’t mean it’s not up to par with the rest of this spectacular country.
I believe if you have the time you will be well rewarded with a visit to this less traveled part of New Zealand. Let’s hope that too many travelers won’t find it and ruin it for those of us that like it the way it is.
Where to Stay:
2 Reads Quay
06 869 1000
71 kilometers north of Gisborne at Anaura Bay
021 633 372
4 Clifford St
027 460 6379
Where to Eat:
Marina Park, Vogel St
06 868 5919The Wharf Café and Bar
06 868 4876
Local Wineries with Cellar Doors:
166 Main Road State Highway 2
06 868 9317
Kirkpatrick Estate Winery
569 Wharekopae Rd
06 862 7750
Milton Vineyards & Winery
119 Papatu Rd
06 862 8680
Gisborne is New Zealand’s smallest city, and the downtown area-including the boat harbor- are easy to explore on foot. If you can afford it hire a guide to drive you to the vineyards, or rent bicycles if you are reasonably fit.
If you are okay driving on the left side of the road do what I do and rent a car. Just make sure to have the passenger in front keep a look out for veering back to the right side of the road. I had a close call on my first trip driving the mountain roads of Queenstown on the wrong side of the road. If the car behind us hadn’t come close behind flashing their lights we might have wound up a traffic statistic!
How to Get There:
Air New Zealand flies to Gisborne and currently offers four direct flights per day to and from Auckland for $79 to$159 NZD each way. The flight time is one hour.
InterCity Bus Company offers one trip per day from Auckland to Gisborne and two from Gisborne to Auckland for $43 NZD. Consider the FlexiPass if you want the freedom of hopping on and off at your whim. The FlexiPass is great if you have a week or more and plan on seeing many regions. I’ve used InterCity twice and find their buses clean and comfortable with friendly drivers.
Kurt Jacobson lives in Baltimore, Maryland, and spent many years as a professional chef. Now he travels the world and shares his stories here and on other travel websites.