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A scenic drive along the Pacific Coast Highway (SH35) around the East Cape reveals a world of sun-drenched surf beaches without the big crowds, a rugged coastline full of secluded hidden bays and a place with a rich cultural heritage not yet commercialised. Sometimes described as being stuck in a time warp, the East Cape hasn’t changed much for decades and is the best place to get a taste of New Zealand’s ‘chilled out coastal way of life’.
Why the East Cape should be on your NZ bucket list:
1) Be the first in the world to see the sun rise on a new day
The region’s largest city, Gisborne, is the first city in the world to greet the sun each morning and seeing it for yourself is something you’ll want to boast about to your friends. If you spend a few days exploring different parts of the East Cape (highly recommended), you will get a dazzlingly different sunrise experience at each new location, which more than makes up for having to wake up in the wee early hours of the morning on your holiday.
2) Discover New Zealand’s early history
The first Maori waka (canoes) to arrive on the East Cape reportedly landed at Titirangi Hill in Gisborne, and Captain Cook became the first European to set foot on NZ soil at nearby Kaiti Bay. The significance of these two events in NZ history is well covered at the Tairawhiti Museum. In addition to the rich Maori, maritime and colonial history of the region, the museum also features an art gallery with rotating exhibits.
3) Tick items off the NZ must do bucket list
Despite the remote location, the East Cape hosts a few iconic sights that simply cannot be missed when you visit. The longest concrete wharf in the Southern Hemisphere, 660-metre long Tolaga Bay Wharf, is located just 55km from Gisborne. It takes about half an hour to walk to the end and back and is an ideal fishing spot. Further up the coast the eastern edge of the country is marked by the East Cape Lighthouse. After climbing the 700+ steps to reach the lighthouse, not only will you be standing at the easternmost point of New Zealand, but you’ll also be treated to an unbeatable view of the rugged surrounding coastline.
4) Get away from the crowds and slow down
Considered well off the beaten tourist track, this region doesn’t receive as many visitors as other parts of New Zealand. Those who do make the trip can explore the spectacular surf beaches, lush bush walks and beautiful waterfalls without dealing with swarms of people. Being so removed gives this area a naturally slower pace of life that can only be appreciated by lingering for a few days. The small town nestled away in Maraehako Bay is an example of an ideal spot to kick back and relax on the coast without a care or the crowds.
How to get there
For those with a car, the drive from Rotorua to Gisborne (via SH30 & SH2) is about 3.5 hours. From Gisborne, the drive around the East Cape on the Pacific Coast Highway (SH35) back to Rotorua is about 6 hours, but you’re best off embracing the laid back local attitude and slowing down to take your time enjoying the beautifully scenic route.
For those who don’t have their own transport, Stray (who specialises in off the beaten track bus adventures) offers guided bus transport around the East Cape as part of its National adventure bus network. Known as the ‘East Coaster’, this 4 day guided trip departs from Rotorua and loops Gisbourne, Tatapouri and Maraehako Bay.
Departures are typically available 2-3 times per week between October - April.
The Stray Bus also visits the East Cape as part of the National 'Everywhere' travel pass and the North Island 'Jase' travel pass.