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To get a panoramic view of Poverty Bay, the city, and the harbor and rivers, head for Kaiti Hill Lookout. It’s signposted at the northern end of Gladstone Bridge, and you can drive all the way to the brick semicircular lookout point. A statue of Captain Cook looks out to Young Nick’s Head, at the opposite end of the bay. At the foot of Kaiti Hill is one of New Zealand’s largest carved Maori meetinghouses, Te Poho-o-Rawiri Marae (tel. 06/868-5364). Visits can be arranged by appointment, providing an opportunity to see a living gallery of Maori art in the exceptionally detailed tukutuku (woven wall panels) and kowhaiwhai (painted scroll ornamentation) on the rafters.

The Tairawhiti Museum, 18-22 Stout St. (tel. 06/867-3832; www.tairawhitimuseum.org.nz), is one of the best small provincial museums in the country. It has displays on the Maori and European history of the area as well as geological and natural history, decorative arts, and maritime history. Admission is NZ$5 for adults and NZ$2 for children. It’s open Monday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm and Sunday from 1:30 to 4pm (closed Good Friday and Dec 25). The East Coast Museum of Technology, Main Road, Makaraka (tel. 06/868-8254; www.ecmot.8m.com), is 6km (4 miles) from the city. Its huge collection of vintage farm machinery, fire engines, and general equipment from a bygone era is open daily from 9:30am to 4:30pm. Admission is NZ$5 for adults, NZ$2 for children.

The internationally renowned Eastwoodhill Arboretum, 2392 Wharekopae Rd., Ngatapa (tel. 06/863-9003; www.eastwoodhill.org.nz), lies 35km (22 miles) and 20 minutes west of Gisborne. It is an extraordinary testament to one man’s passion for trees. This magnificent 70-hectare (173-acre) woodland park was the life’s work of William Douglas Cook, who began planting the bare site in 1910. Today, it holds more than 3,500 species of 750 tree genera, making it the largest arboretum in New Zealand. The arboretum is a haven for scientists, photographers, and garden enthusiasts alike—especially in autumn when the colors are lush and extravagant. It features over 25km of marked walking tracks, so allow at least 1 1/2 hours and plan to have a picnic under the maples. It’s open year-round daily from 9am to 5pm (closed Good Friday and Dec 25); admission is NZ$15 for adults and NZ$10 for seniors. Children 14 and under are admitted free. The 1-hour Curator’s Botanical Tour costs an additional NZ$15. Hackfalls Arboretum, 187 Berry Rd., Tiniroto, 1 hour from Gisborne (tel. 06/863-7083; www.hackfalls.org.nz), has one of the biggest collections of maples and oaks in New Zealand. It’s open daily; admission is NZ$5 per person. Gisborne Botanical Gardens, Aberdeen Road, is a pleasant distraction on the banks of the Taurheru River in the heart of town. Admission is free. Pick up the Gardens to Visit brochure from the Gisborne visitor center if you’re interested in even more greenery.

A Spot of Culture

Rotorua may have the most accessible concentration of Maori culture in the country, but Eastland is one of the few places in New Zealand where strong cultural and tribal affiliations are obviously evident in day-to-day activities. The Maori language is part of everyday life here.

The area is home to more than 100 working marae (village commons), which still form a focal point for most Maori communities. They are used regularly for meetings, celebrations, funerals, and family and tribal functions. Many can be viewed by arrangement, but there are two important rules to remember: You must not take photographs inside marae anywhere in New Zealand, and you must not smoke or take food inside. In many, you will also have to remove your shoes.

The remnants of ancient pa sites (Maori fortresses) abound throughout the region. Among the most notable are the one at Ngatapa near Gisborne and another in the hills to the north of Waikohu. The district also has a large number of kohanga reo (early-childhood education centers) and kura kaupapa (primary schools) where only Maori is spoken. Most other schools in the region have bilingual units.

You can see Maori culture at work and play in the many small communities around the East Cape Road. Just remember that these are ordinary New Zealanders, not museum exhibits, so be respectful of their privacy.

Two very good Maori-owned-and-operated tour companies will offer you a unique insight into Maori culture. Tipuna Tours, P.O. Box 19, Tolaga Bay (tel. 06/862-6118, or 027-240-4493; www.tipunatours.com), can take you to the Whale Rider film location at very pretty Whangara, just north of Gisborne (NZ$80 per person); or they will customize half-and full-day tours that include marae visits, ancient pa sites, beautiful bays, and possibly a marine reserve. Waka Toa, 36 Potae Ave., Gisborne (tel. 06/868-5425; www.wakatoa.com), has 1 1/2-to 2 1/2-hour tours that will give you an insight into Maori history and culture. The 2 1/2-hour tour includes a cultural performance and light refreshments. It costs NZ$131 for adults and NZ$72 for children age 5 to 15. They operate daily on demand (closed Dec 25 & Jan 1).

Exploring the East Cape

State Highway 35 between Opotiki and Gisborne is a memorable 334km (207-mile) journey. The road is etched into the coastline, rewarding the traveler with an ever-changing vista of the South Pacific. In summer, scarlet pohutukawa trees border the bright blue bays, and all along the way you’ll see deserted white-sand beaches that afford innumerable opportunities for walking and fishing.

Make sure you get a copy of Jason’s Pacific Coast Highway Touring Guide (www.jasons.com), free from visitor centers throughout the North Island. As well as providing a detailed, very readable map, it illustrates highlights along the way.

The route is also a genuine cultural experience. Many of the larger bays are centers of Maori settlements, usually surrounding their home marae. At Te Kaha, the Tukaki meetinghouse in the marae has an elaborately carved lintel, which you can view by asking permission. Whangaparaoa is where the great migration canoe Tainui landed, and Potaka is the northern boundary of the Ngati Porou tribe. Hicks Bay, not quite midway, has marvelous views and the Tuwhakairiora meetinghouse, one of the finest examples of carving on the cape. The carving was carried out in 1872 and is dedicated to local members of Ngati Porou who died in overseas wars. Turn left at the general store to reach the meetinghouse.

Not far from Hicks Bay, the road descends to sea level and follows a narrow bay to Te Araroa. Here you’ll find the country’s oldest (600 years) and largest pohutukawa tree and a wealth of Maori history. A 20-minute side trip from here will bring you to the picture-book vista of the historic East Cape Lighthouse. The track to the 1906 lighthouse must be covered on foot; it leads up 700 steps.

The next settlement is Tikitiki, where the historic St. Mary’s Church, stands like a sentinel above the road. Built as a memorial to Ngati Porou soldiers who died in World War I, it is one of New Zealand’s most ornate Maori churches. It should not be missed—the interior craftsmanship is breathtaking.

Next stop, just a short diversion off the main road, is Ruatoria, the center of Ngati Porou. Although scattered around the country, they compose New Zealand’s second-largest Maori tribe. For more information on the local Ngati Porou tribe, check out the website www.ngatiporou.com. It lists a network of indigenous tour operators on the east coast, from Gisborne north to Potaka, who are committed to providing authentic, culturally appropriate experiences, which can include stays at a marae.  

Sunrise at Mount Hikurangi -- At 1,839m (6,032 ft.), Mount Hikurangi is the first point on mainland New Zealand to see the sunrise each day. At the summit are nine carved sculptures. A walking track to the top crosses private property, but because it is sacred to the Maori, you must gain permission from Te Runanga o Ngati Porou, who have offices in Ruatoria (tel. 06/864-8660; www.ngatiporou.com). An excellent alpine hut on the higher reaches allows early-morning climbs to see the sunrise. Hut fees are NZ$5 per person; bookings are essential. It’s best to take the Ngati Porou 4WD tour with tourism coordinator, Paora Brooking, to see the magnificent carvings on top of the mountain. He will give you a unique perspective into this mystical place.

There are four marae at Tokomaru Bay, plus a glorious sweep of beach and a selection of interesting old unused buildings. Take care when swimming in the ocean here.

The road then leads to Tolaga Bay, which has one of the longest free-standing jetties in New Zealand, plus, rather unexpectedly, the Tolaga Bay Cashmere Company, 31 Solander St. (tel. 06/862-6746; www.cashmere.co.nz), which produces fine merino, cashmere, and silk knitwear. The company’s high-fashion garments are renowned throughout Australasia. This shop, which specializes in wholesale prices and seconds, is open in summer Monday through Friday from 9am to 4pm, and Saturday from 10am to 3pm. It is closed on winter weekends. Tolaga Bay is 54km (33 miles) north of Gisborne.

The Ernest Reeve Walkway, at the northern end of Tolaga Bay, leads to a lookout on the cliffs, overlooking the bay. The stunning views are worth capturing on film. Allow an hour for the roundtrip walk.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.