Escape the crowds on New Zealand's North Island and head east to discover rugged coastal scenery, deserted beaches, spectacular lakes and authentic Maori culture
New Zealand's North Island is home to some world-famous sights – from the Bay of Islands and the thermal pools of Rotorua, to Lake Taupo and the Tongariro Crossing. But it also has an undiscovered side. The East Cape region is a real escape from the crowds, with miles of unspoilt coastline as well as lakes, walks, wineries and plenty of Maori culture. So hit the road, head east and and get away from it all.
The Cape: culture and coastline
Instead of following the usual route south from Rotorua towards Taupo, take Highway 30 east instead, which winds its way through volcanic lakes before emerging on the coast at Opotiki. It's a good idea to stock up on fuel and food here as there aren't many shops between here and Gisborne. Leaving Opotiki, you join State Highway 35 – also known as the Pacific Coast Highway – which hugs the coastline past jagged cliffs and secluded bays.
A good stop-off en route is Whanarua Bay, home to Maraehaeko Bay Retreat (State Highway 35, Opotiki). Tucked away down a steep track, it has a stunning location right on the beachfront. There's a mixture of private rooms and dorms (NZ$25 dorm or NZ$70 double), and although fairly simple, they make up for it with location. It's a sociable place where guests often eat together and chat around the fire in the evening. Maori owner Pihi is really friendly, sharing his catch of crayfish and tarakihi fish with guests, and will take people out fishing with him in the mornings. You can also borrow a free kayak to explore the bay, and if you're lucky you might spot a dolphin. There's also some good bushwalks, with one leading to a secret swimming hole.
Detouring off the 35 at Te Araroa takes you onto the unsealed road right out into the heart of the East Cape itself. The track bumps along the gravel past wide windswept beaches and out to the most easterly point of the North Island. At the top of a hill here is the East Cape lighthouse. There's 700 steps to climb up to the top, but the panoramic views are worth the effort.
Back at Te Araroa, the road passes though Maori villages with their maraes – sacred areas of land often with intricately carved wooden buildings which are used for religious and social events. One of the villages, Whangara, was the location for the film Whale Rider. You can take a tour of some of the film's locations and meet the Maori cultural advisor from the village (see http://tipunatours.com for details). The route also passes Tolaga Bay, for years only accessible by boat as the coast is so rough here. This led to the building of a 600m-long wharf here, the longest in New Zealand. It's a scenic spot to stop off for a picnic, and from there it's 90km on to the city of Gisborne.
Gisborne: sunrise and sipping
Gisborne is one of the sunniest spots in New Zealand, which makes it perfect for grape growing. It's known as the country's 'Chardonnay capital', but also produces some good Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Pinot Noir. Probably the most famous local producer is Montana, but there are lots of smaller wineries to discover and you can do tastings at many of them – see www.gisbornewine.co.nz for information. In the city's harbour, The Works Café and Winery (41 Esplanade, Gisborne; +64 6863 1285; www.workscafe.co.nz) do a good range of local wines by the glass so you can try a few while you watch the boats come in.
Each December, Gisborne hosts the Rhythm and Vines festival, as it's the first city in the world to see the sun rise on the new year. Held at the Waiohika Estate vineyard, it features a mix of local and international bands. Originally it just took place over New Year's Eve but now runs from 29-31 December (tickets NZ$400, including camping; www.rhythmandvines.co.nz). And even if you're not in Gisborne for New Year, it's worth dragging yourself out of bed early to see the sunrise over the sea and be one of the first to see in the new day.
For a relaxing place to stay, Te Kura B&B (14 Cheeseman Road, Gisborne) is a large Arts and Crafts family house in a peaceful riverbank setting 10 minutes' walk from the city centre. There's a swimming pool and spa in the pretty gardens and only two bedrooms so you feel right at home (double rooms NZ$130).
Heading onwards from Gisborne, you swap the 35 for State Highway 2, which leads all the way to Wellington. A short detour takes you to the picturesque Mahia Peninsula. Originally an island but now connected the mainland by a sandbar, it's a popular holiday destination with locals but almost unknown by tourists. The peninsula is surrounded by golden beaches and turquoise sea, and is renowned for its surfing and diving. There are plenty of sandy coves to explore, and if you're there outside peak season you can often find one all to yourself. Stop off at Cafe Mahia for a coffee, cake and some spectacular sea views (476 Mahia East Coast Road, Mahia; +64 6837 5094).
Lake Waikaremoana: trout and tramping (but beware of the campfire...)
Back on the main road, follow the coast as far as the town of Wairoa before turning inland and even more off the beaten track on another stretch of unsealed road leading towards Lake Waikaremoana. Stretching over 50km, the lake is surrounded by mountains covered with native forest, dramatic rock formations and waterfalls. It forms part of Te Urewera National Park – which literally translates from the Maori as 'burnt penis'! Legend has it that a chief out hunting in the area rolled over in his sleep a bit too near to the campfire and burnt his groin!
Lake Waikaremoana is home to one of NZ's 'Great Walks'. The 46km track is rated as 'moderate' and follows the lakeshore through forests full of bird life – if you're lucky you might even spot a kiwi as there's a conservation programme to increase their numbers in the area. It normally takes about 3-4 days to walk the route, stopping overnight at huts along the way. See www.doc.govt.nz for more information. If you're not up to the full tramp then there's also plenty of shorter walks, including those to the beautiful Aniwaniwa and Papakorito waterfalls, or to Lou's Lookout for sweeping views across the lake.
Or for a less energetic way to enjoy the scenery, just find a spot on the lakeshore, take a glass of wine or a cold beer and watch the spectacular sunsets.
Right on the lake, Lake Waikaremoana Motorcamp (State Highway 38, Waikaremoana) has a range of accommodation, from campsites to chalets (camping pitches NZ$12 and chalets for 4 with kitchen NZ$78). There's a small shop but it's a good idea to stock up in advance, or you can try your luck at catching a trout from the lake – you can't buy trout in NZ so it's the only way you'll get to taste some! Ask at the motor lodge for details of guided fishing trips.
The final stretch
Once you've backtracked to Wairoa, it's only another 120km to the end of the East Cape route – the city of Napier. Largely destroyed in an earthquake in 1931, it was rebuilt in Art Deco style and many of the buildings still remain. Its a lovely laid back place to spend a few days, with walks and tours by the Art Deco Trust (www.artdeconapier.com) as well as plenty more wineries to visit around Hawkes Bay.