East Cape Escape – a bucket list of over 10 things to do and see
Remote, windswept and soul-refreshing the East Cape of New Zealand offers the chance to get off the beaten track and exit the rat race.
It’s not difficult to find space, peace and quiet in New Zealand. With just 4.5 million people, in a country slightly larger than Great Britain, getting away from it all is one of its main attractions.
But on the East Cape, you can really disappear – from Opotiki to Gisborne, State Highway 35 (SH 35) is one of the world’s greatest, and least known, coastal road trips.
The drive is 334 km long, single carriageway the whole way, windy and around every corner there will be something new to see. If you want to give it justice, take a few days.
Stunning headlands, remote country, empty bays and coves, and bush clad peaks all mix together with remote settlements and farms to make this part of New Zealand the greatest place to replenish.
Locally known as ‘The Coast’ it has a high Maori population and you’ll see many Marae, or Maori meeting houses and grounds, with ornately carved gateways and architecture.
Like anywhere in Aotearoa, the Maori name for New Zealand meaning “the land of the long white cloud”, there are plenty of things to do along the way including fishing, diving, hiking and cycling, and of course spending time on the beach.
The best way to travel is by car to give you the flexibility to go where you please, when you want.
In a place like the East Cape you will definitely want to explore.
Opotiki – the gateway to the East Cape
Opotiki is a quaint coastal town with a population of around 9,000. It is rich in colonial and Maori history and the largest town before reaching Gisborne at the other end.
This is a good place to plan your trip.
Because of its remoteness East Cape cell phone coverage can be patchy so it’s recommended to download the Pacific Coast Highway Travellers’ Guide App before you go, an offline collection of maps and guides on things to do.
It’s also worth visiting the i-SITE at 70 Bridge Street to get advice from the friendly local staff.
This is one of the 80 i-SITEs nationwide and like all the others it brims with useful hints and tips, and tourist information.
And every person who works at i-SITE is a travel expert in their local town and area. They can answer all your questions and will take care of bookings, as well.
With SH35 being a coast road you will have lots of chances to head to the beach and have a swim.
But before you dip your toes in the water read the water safety code.
Most of the beaches on the East Cape are remote and quiet. You will often have vast stretches of sand to yourself, which is great but also means no lifeguards.
So if you want to swim it’s worth remembering a few tips to make sure you are safe:
- Confirm the beach is safe for swimming at findabeach.co.nz
- Watch the water safety code video
- Swim with others and ask locals about the beach – remember, people are very friendly
- Look out for safety signs and follow the advice
- Familiarise yourself with rips or strong currents of water running out to sea – we found this really good video about how to spot a rip current, which is worth watching. It’s from Surf Lifesaving Australia, but a rip is a rip, whether a Kiwi or an Aussie one!
- If in doubt, stay out
By now you will be ready to start on your East Cape road trip.
Head east out of Opotiki
You’ll find it difficult not to pull over and stop in the next 50kms simply because East of Opotiki there are just beaches and more beaches.
A mere 3.5kms into your trip along SH 35 you will reach the coast, your companion for the next 330kms.
First on the list is Hukuwai and Tirohanga Beaches two beautiful sandy bays, ideal for building a sand castle or two, playing beach cricket and both are safe for swimming.
17kms along the road is Opape where there’s more good swimming by the motor camp and a coastal walkway around the headland to stretch your legs after a picnic lunch. There is evidence here of early Maori settlement and whaling, and overlooking the ocean, in one of the best locations of any Marae, is the Muriwai meeting house.
Further on there is Torere Beach, with a magnificent carved Maori gateway at the entrance to the Torere School on the top of the hill as you leave the bay and Hawai Beach with excellent surfing.
Instead of driving you can switch to peddle power
For a taste of the coast just east of Opotiki another option is cycling The Dunes Trail, an 11km coastal stretch of the Motu Trails, a 90km loop cycle track starting at Opotiki, that goes clockwise along the coast, inland to ToaToa and then back to Opotiki.
The trail meanders through dunes with panoramic views of the sparkling Pacific Ocean, including New Zealand’s most active volcano White Island (Whakaari) and the East Cape ranges.
It is an easy (grade 2) trail for cyclists, and if you don’t want to bike you can walk all or part of it.
It’s great for children, with many places to access the beach for a swim or picnic. The return journey can be comfortably ridden in 2-3hrs. So a great all round day trip on two wheels, or two feet.
The Motu River
Fifty kilometres east of Opotiki is the mighty Motu River.
Motu is the Maori word for isolated and it’s very apt with the river passing through mostly uninhabited steep hill country, clad in dense rainforest.
Its scenic quality has been described as unsurpassed and the best way to get a taste of the area is to take to the river itself on one of the local adventure tourism pursuits, jet boating or white water rafting. But if you prefer a more sedate activity, how about some fishing?
Jet boating on the Motu River combines fun and exhilaration with a guided tour on the ecological, historical and cultural values of the area.
There are also multi-day white water rafting trips over grade 3-4 rapids (meaning you’ll get very wet) through the Raukumara Range wilderness zone. A river rafting trip can be up to 100kms long with overnights at river bank campsites, complete with gourmet camp cooking by rafting guides.
And if you prefer a less exhilarating activity try your hand at fly fishing the Motu River where you can find plentiful brown trout.
Back on the road the next 50kms is pure Pacific Coast highway touring, past bays and over headlands, as well as a few stops along the way.
At Omaio Bay there’s a General Store, petrol station and café, so stock up on a few items, especially if you are camping.
Ten kilometres on is Te Kaha, a popular holiday village with a shoreline of magnificent pohutukawa trees, perfect for picnic shade. Reputedly it’s the sunniest place in New Zealand and is a good place to stop for a night at the beach resort.
Whanarua Bay is a little further with an access road so steep and narrow it’s controlled by traffic lights, the only set you will see between here and Gisborne.
Back on the coastal road there is a Macadamia farm, café and shop with products for sale at orchard prices, a great place to pick up some presents and treats.
If you are camping there is a near perfect campsite at Maraehako Bay just a couple of kilometres on, right next to the sea. Here you will awake to the sound of the waves and it’s perfect for an early morning dip.
At the 100km mark from Opotiki you will reach one of the most photographed places on the East Cape, the striking century old white church at Raukokore situated on a rocky outcrop overlooking the sea.
Fishing at Waihau Bay
A coastal road trip wouldn’t be complete without a spot of sea fishing and from Waihau Bay you can get a fishing charter to the world famous Ranfurly Banks.
Here you will find big fish near the surface such as Hapuka, Bass, Kingfish, Trumpeter, King Terakihi and game fishing for blue and striped marlin, broadbill swordfish and various species of tuna.
Charters also leave from Hicks Bay another 50kms along the road.
Waihau Bay and the area surrounding it was made famous as the location where the New Zealand film “Boy” was set, starring James Rolleston, who was born and raised in Opotiki.
The East of the East Cape
About a third of the way to Gisborne you will pass from the western side of the East Cape to the eastern side.
Just before traversing the northern tip of the East Cape, Cape Runaway, you will reach Oruaiti Beach, great for a swim as one of the safest beaches on the western side of the Cape, which can be reached on foot over private land.
About half way from here to Hicks Bay you will find Lottin Point Road on the left, a mecca for surfcasters, or fishing from a beach. Even if you don’t have a rod with you it’s worth a visit to see whether the fish are biting.
Lottin Point also has some of the cleanest and clearest water anywhere in New Zealand so remember to take a snorkel and mask with you.
Then you descend into Hicks Bay, so called because Captain Cook’s Lieutenant Hicks was the first to “discover” it.
Here you will find a rich history including many Maori pa, or fortress sites, and a more recent remnant, the derelict remains of an old freezing works, an indication of the busy trading that took place here before the road was finished in the 1930s.
See the sunrise first at East Cape Lighthouse
If you’ve ever wanted to be the first in the world to see the sun rise, here’s your chance.
The lighthouse is 154 metres above the sea and to reach it there’s around 700 “easy” steps to climb.
For most East Cape travellers, a lighthouse visit is part of the pilgrimage to this part of Aotearoa, as the mainland’s eastern most point.
It’s almost a ghost town but there’s lots to do in Tikitiki
There are three big reasons for spending some time in Tikitiki about 25 kms further on from Te Araroa.
The first is St Mary’s Church, built in 1924 in memory of the local soldiers who died in the First World War, from the local Iwi or tribe, Ngati Porou.
It is considered one of the finest Maori churches in New Zealand, with its beautiful architectural design, carvings and tukutuku (woven panels).
The second is the opportunity to go horse riding along Rangitukia beach and the surrounding wilderness.
And the third is to climb Mount Hikurangi a mystical place and at 1,754m is the highest non-volcanic peak in the North Island.
At 1000m you will come across a stand of nine carvings of the legendary Maui and his family (whanau), the legendary figure who fished New Zealand out of the ocean. Mount Hikurangi itself is said to be the final resting place of Maui’s canoe or waka.
You can reach the mountain along Tapuaeroa Road, a turn off about 20kms from Tikitiki on the way to Ruatoria.
You can also have a guided tour up Mount Hikurangi with Ngati Porou Tourism, well worth it as there’s nothing better than hearing local history from a local.
Tee off at Te Puia
For any golfer, Te Puia Springs Golf Club can’t be missed. Not only is this the most eastern golf course in the country but at $15 a round it’s also some of the best value.
On the way here you will go through Ruatoria, where it’s worth filling up with fuel and then head out to Waipiro Bay, great for camping as one of the most scenic of isolated coastal settlements.
It’s just 6km off the main road and it used to have a movie theatre, shops, hotels and even a maternity hospital but it’s a shadow of its former self. However, it’s still a great place for chilling out and you can freedom camp as long as you check with the local i-SITE first.
A wharf, a great bar and a longer whar
You will now be able to sense you are closing in on civilisation.
The next two bays along SH35 are Tokomaru and Tolaga.
Tokomaru has signs of a busier past with remaining facades of businesses and banks signalling a history before people were pulled away by the bright lights of Gisborne and beyond.
Go for a drive along Beach Road to Waima, once a thriving port serving a meat processing factory. This closed in 1952, the port in 1963 and the people left.
The scenery and peace remain with a highlight being the lively and historical Te Puka Tavern. Right on the Pacific this is one of the last remnants of former years and has operated since 1873.
Even Cyclone Bola in 1988 didn’t stop the hospitality after the original pub was swept off its foundations and had to be rebuilt. It’s so popular now it attracts a lot of day trippers from Gisborne.
Then another 40kms on is Tolaga Bay the largest village on the East Coast. The one thing you have to do here is walk the 660 metres out along the Tolaga Bay wharf, just south of the town.
Built in 1929, it is New Zealand’s longest wharf and a good place to dangle a fishing line. As you near the end of your trip around the East Cape, this is a rite of passage!
You can also re-enact Captain Cook when he visited this part of New Zealand’s coast in 1769 – on foot.
Very near to Tolaga Bay wharf is Cook’s Cove and the Hole in the Wall, a 5.8km return walk through farmland to a small bay on the headland and a great way to stretch your legs.
The home run to Gisborne
Gisborne is a City steeped in Maori culture and the self-styled Chardonnay capital of New Zealand.
Over the 50kms drive to the end of your trip you will continue to see yet more beautiful bays such as Pouawa where you can snorkel in the 2450 hectare Te Tapuwae o Rongakako Marine Reserve.
Then just around the corner is Tatapouri, where you can go on a reef tour famous for feeding and even swimming with stingrays. This is one of the most unique experiences you can have in New Zealand.
You could spend a few days exploring Gisborne and its surrounds.
Just north are Wainui and Makorori surf beaches; next to each other, there’s a lot of ocean between here and South America making them a haven for those who seek great surf and the life that goes with it.
Kaiti Beach is the site of Captain Cook’s first landing in New Zealand in October 1769.
Nearby is picturesque Te Poho O Rawiri Marae and if you’re interested in indigenous culture, Gisborne is an essential port of call on your itinerary with a lot of Maori culture and tradition evident in many parts of the city.
Gisborne also has a wine tradition stretching back many decades and it’s not just about Chardonnay.
Names like Millton, Montana, Corbans, Penfolds, White Cliffs and Matewhero have all played a role in local vintages, with many winning national and international awards.
It is also home to the internationally acclaimed Rhythm and Vines three day music festival. Held over New Year it attracts some of the world’s best musicians to play in one of the most picturesque venues in the world.
Driving is the only way to see the East Cape
The pace of life on the East Cape will mean you will want to go the same speed – slowly.
So the only way to travel is by car.
It’s quiet so you will also want to blend in and feel like a local.
At New Zealand Discount Car Rentals our cheap rental cars mean you can go bush, as much as you can in a car. You won’t find a better NZ car rental deal.
Our cars look like any others on the road, with no bright branding that draws attention.
They also come with 24 hour roadside assist so wherever you are, even in remote locations like East Cape, you will have support if needed.
And if you hire a cheap rental car to get around you will have the freedom of the open road but also some extra cash in your back pocket to spend on having some fun.
Our daily rates start at $14.95 for a short term rental and could be as low as $9.95 a day for a minimum of 40 days.
And with a large fleet of high quality vehicles from small hatchbacks to people movers you will find a car and rental period that suits your plans.
Enjoy your time exploring New Zealand and please take extra care.
There is plenty of information about safe and enjoyable driving in New Zealand.
One of the main driving safety initiatives is DriveSafe, a website full of important and useful tips and great advice, and practical hints and videos.
Remember, we drive on the left side of the road.