Stretching from Tauranga in Bay of Plenty to Hastings in Hawkes Bay, our East Coast section is packed with some of New Zealand's best beaches, most delectable fruits and most popular wineries. Towns like Mount Maunganui and Whakatane are major summer holiday destinations for Kiwis, backpackers and cruise patrons alike. Both destinations offer great surf, plenty of local attractions and an active cafe, restaurant and nightlife scene.
Further southeast, East Cape offers remote beaches, untouched and unknown. The beaches are good, but the harvest is even better. Bay of Plenty and Hawkes Bay are home to two of New Zealand's most lucrative horticultural industries, wine and kiwifruit. For visitors this means wine tastings, vineyard tours and eating some of the world's freshest fury fruits. For working holidaymakers or backpackers, it's a great opportunity for employment. The area has something to offer everyone, from relaxing beaches to extreme activities to some of New Zealand's very best food and wine.
So grab a surf board, and a bottle of chardonnay (why not) and get ready to explore the North Island's East Coast.
Don't forget to get your accommodation booked before your trip. Check out Wotif for the best deals on East Coast accommodation.
Destination East Coast: Getting There
This section of the North Island is very large and best experienced from the road, but major towns throughout the area cater to all means of arrival. Like most of New Zealand, the best way to see the East Coast is by car, which allows drivers to stop anywhere along the way, not just major towns.
Our recommended route to see the entire East Coast is Route 2 from Tauranga to Opotiki, then Route 35 around East Cape to Gisborne and finish the journey with Route 2 to Hastings. Alternatively, drivers can just follow Route 2 from Tauranga all the way to Hastings, skipping East Cape. This route will keep drivers inland for a few kilometers between Opotiki and Gisborne, but is much quicker. East Cape's beautiful beaches and rich Maori history are well worth the detour, but the meandering Route 35 will add at least another five hours to your journey. Make sure to fill up on gas before taking Route 35. The road does not have many gas stations and the ones it does have are quite expensive.
The next best way to see the East Coast is by bus. All major towns along the East Coast can be reached by national or local public buses. Though you'll be hard-pressed to find one bus route that runs completely along the East Coast. Local buses only go so far and national bus companies usually run through Rotorua between Tauranga and Whakatane.
Those arriving internationally will find most destinations featured in this section are driving distance from international airports in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington and Rotorua. Although Tauranga, Gisborne and Napier/Hastings also have airports, which can be reached domestically.
Destination East Coast: Orientation
Moving North to South, the main towns on the East Coast are:
- Tauranga :: In the past 20 years Tauranga's population has doubled, making it one of New Zealand's fastest growing cities. The Port of Tauranga welcomes hundreds of cruise ships a year to the city and local holiday destination to the east, Mount Maunganui. Once an active volcano, Mount Maunganui - or Mauau as its locally known - offers great views of the area.
- Te Puke :: About a 30-minute drive south is Te Puke, the kiwifruit capital of New Zealand and home to the famous giant kiwi at Kiwi360.
- Whakatane :: One hour south of Te Puke is Whakatane, one of New Zealand's best deep sea fishing destinations. This summer destination isn't just for fishermen. Pristine beaches like Ohope and exciting attractions like the White Island Volcano are just a few of this town's many lures.
- East Cape :: New Zealand’s most easterly point, East Cape is the first place to see the sun rise on mainland New Zealand. Off the tourist trail, East Cape offers remote beauty, frequent whale sightings and strong Maori influence. This is one of the first places polynesian canoes, Maori ancestors, landed in New Zealand hundreds of years ago and Maori culture is still very alive in this region today.
- Gisborne :: Located on Poverty Bay, Kaiti Beach in Girborne was Captain James Cook's first point of arrival in New Zealand in 1769. Clearly by the name of the bay, it wasn't the best welcome. Feuds with Maoris upon arrival sent Cook away. The city has an old-time feel to it and is abundant with history. It's located amongst farmland, golf courses, Te Urewera National Park and like the rest of the East Coast, beautiful beaches.
- Napier and Hastings :: Final stops on our East Coast journey, Napier and Hastings are the two main points of access to one of New Zealand's preeminent wine regions, Hawkes Bay. Known as "the twin cities", the two are located about 20 kms from each other offering brilliant food and of course wine. Differences between these two cities are that Napier is located on the water and seen as more of a tourist city, whereas Hastings is situated inland and really focused on farming. These cities are also known for their Art Deco architecture, which came about after the devastation of the 1931 earthquake that forced both cities to rebuild.
Destination East Coast: Hot Spots
This section of New Zealand will have you yearning to soak up the sun and explore the outdoors. It's not just the weather that's warm here. Unlike most of New Zealand, the East Coast has warmer ocean water, allowing visitors to jump in without cringing. Be sure to check out any or all of these spots during your time exploring the East Coast.
Whale and Dolphin Watching Tours
Once an active country in whale trade, New Zealand is now on the forefront of whale protection. It's very common to spot wild orcas, pilot whales, humpback whales, seals and various breeds of dolphins along the East Coast. Sometimes these sea creatures can even be seen from land. Several organizations in the area operate sightseeing tours.
Travel along rows of grape vines, stopping at beautifully-designed cellar doors to sample each estate's best wines. On a crisp Autumn day, Hawkes Bay is one of the best places to be in New Zealand. Vineyards in the Hawkes Bay Region have been making wine for over a hundred years. Wineries like Mission Estate Winery and Vidal Wines are some of the oldest wineries in this region and most well-known around the world. Known for its chardonnays and cabernet sauvignon, the area boasts over 90 vineyards, most boutique-size, allowing for a more intimate, wine tasting experience.
There is a plethora of ways to see this region. One of the most interesting and most affordable is by bike. A number of companies offer wine tours by bike including bike, helmet, lunch, a detailed map of the area and even full vehicle support for those who drink too much to continue the tour on two wheels or just want their wine picked up. The East Coast has something to offer beer enthusiasts as well. The Filter Room in Napier allows guests to sample local ales and ciders. Not to mention Gisborne, home of Gisborne Golde, is on the East Coast. The brewery is open Monday to Saturday 9 a.m.-6 p.m. offering free tasting and tours by appointment only.
Diving and Fishing
Being such a heavily active marine area, visitors have the opportunity to see fish underwater or catch them for dinner. While diving in New Zealand may require a much thicker wetsuit than other island destinations, some of the dive sites here are well worth it.
Those seeking more thrills from their underwater experience should try cage diving with mako sharks in Tatapouri. Fishing is available all over the North Island's East Coast as well as rod rentals and bait shops. The most affordable fishing option would just be to fish from protruding rocks on the beach, from the beach or out of ports. However, the most exciting way to fish around this area is by boat. Whakatane is renowned for its fishing. Attracting fisherman from all over the world, people can expect to catch everything from Yellow Fin Tuna to Marlin. It's not a cheap activity, especially on a backpacker budget, but highly recommended if you're at all interested in fishing.
Experience Maori Culture
Maori culture and language is alive on the East Coast, especially in the East Cape area. Just visiting the area is a great opportunity to learn about the first people to land in New Zealand and their traditions. Just north of Gisborne, Whangara is still heavily influenced by Maori culture. The 2002 film Whale Rider is about this small beach community and was based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, originally from here.
Gasp at the Gannets at Cape Kidnappers
When Captain Cook was in the area, local Maoris tried to kidnap his Tahitian servant boy at the cape - hence, it became known as Cape Kidnappers. Today, it's known not for the attempted kidnapping, but rather for the gazillions of gaggling gannets that frequent the cape each year.
Each year from late September until late April or early May, thousands of big birds come to nest on the beach. The birds arrive in late July to collect driftwood and create nests. They lay the eggs about October and they hatch approximately six weeks later. Early November and late February are the best times to visit.
Fabulous weather, abundant land and an active community, allow for great outdoor adventures. The North Island's East Coast offers everything from surfing to hiking to kayaking and more. Here is a quick round up of all the outdoor activities offered that we have not yet covered. Climb Mauau and Mount Hikurangi. Try white water rafting on Motu River. Explore Te Urewera National Park and Raukumara National Park. Ride your Mountain Bike on the Motu Trails. Horseback ride along the remote beaches of East Cape. Of course, surf some of New Zealand’s best waves from just about every beach along the coast.
Destination East Coast: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
We can offer a few tips of advice for this region that will help shape your East Coast journey and budget. We'll start with the freebies. Gisborne is one of the only places in New Zealand to still allow freedom camping.
Now it's not exactly free, but really affordable. It's only allowed during warmer months of the year, usually September to April. Those interested must apply for a permit online or at various i-Site tourist information centers in the area. Campers can expect to pay as little as $10 for two nights camping. Those looking for even cheaper accommodation should try WWOOFing (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in this area. With its abundant farmland, WWOOFers will find quite a wide range of places to stay for free accommodation and food in exchange for a few hours work a day. WWOOF is a great way to learn more about the country and locals.
Finally, while it's pretty much a given that most places in New Zealand are better in the warmer months, this especially holds true for the East Coast. Try and visit here in summer to take full advantage of the area's beaches, festivals and holiday spirit.