Extending into the pounding Pacific Ocean, Eastland has a warm, dry climate and relaxed coastal lifestyle offering authentic Māori culture, vast outdoor spaces, and good food and wine. Sunrise here, the first place in the world to wake each day, is a unique experience.
In another significant first, Kaiti Beach in Gisborne, Eastland's main city, was the first landing site for both early Māori and European arrivals to New Zealand – although they were centuries apart. A fascinating city walk highlights many places of historical significance.
Gisborne is surrounded by fertile river valleys of vineyards, orchards, market gardens and farms. Away from the city, Eastland's landscape is wild and rural, with forests, mountains, beaches, rivers and lakes. Remote Lake Waikaremoana, in Te Urewera mountains, has a four-day walking track that is one of New Zealand’s nine Great Walks.
Māori living in Eastland can trace their ancestry back 24 generations. Oral history tells of the arrival of the Horouta waka – the first migratory canoe to bring Māori to Aotearoa New Zealand – at Kaiti Beach near Gisborne.
Early Māori arrivals settled at Titirangi, which they named after a mountain in their original homeland of Hawaiki. The land at Titirangi was fertile and its elevation provided a natural defence, so it was a prime site for a fortified Māori pa (village).
Early European history goes back to 1769, when British explorer Captain Cook first stepped ashore in New Zealand. Cook's landing at Kaiti beach was close to the spot where the first waka had arrived. Young Nicks Head, the rugged cliffs near Gisborne, is named after the crewman, Nicholas Young, who made the first sighting from Cook's ship, the Endeavour.
By the time of Cook’s arrival, the Titirangi pa was no longer occupied, but there were still villages around the base of the hill.
Eastland has a high Māori population. The tangata whenua (people of the land) are Ngati Porou in coastal regions, and Tuhoe in the inland Te Urewera region. Te reo Māori language is often spoken, and the traditional culture and way of life is a defining regional characteristic. Most towns and smaller settlements have traditional marae (meeting places) and churches.
St Mary’s church at Tikitiki is an architectural example of interwoven Māori and European culture. The church interior, designed in the 1920s by Sir Apirana Ngata, was a response to declining Māori art and craft skills. The church is decorated with carving and tukutuku / woven panels by local Ngati Porou artists, and the pulpit was a gift from the neighbouring Te Arawa people. Two years after it was completed in 1924, the church became a memorial for Ngati Porou soldiers killed in World War I.
Many Eastland places are tapu (sacred) to Māori, requiring local tribal permission for access. Sacred Mt Hikurangi (1,754 metres or 5,754 feet) is the legendary resting place of the waka used by Maui when he fished up the North Island. The mountain has uninterrupted views of the famous Eastland sunrise, but climbers need permission from the local Ngati Porou.
Food and wine
Gisborne is the Chardonnay capital of New Zealand. Newer vines of other varietals, particularly aromatics, are now also generating interest from wine lovers.
Planted by missionaries in the early 1800s, Gisborne’s original Chardonnay vineyards were the result of a regional mix-up. By the time the missionaries realised they were not further south, in the Hawke’s Bay region, the vines had matured and were beginning to produce great wine.
Vineyard tours in one of New Zealand’s sunniest regions are a popular activity. Most wineries have a café or restaurant offering lunch, and almost all have cellar door and tasting facilities.
Kaimoana (seafood) from the ocean is also plentiful in Eastland. The locals enjoy catching their own, either fishing from boats and the beach, or eeling in the rivers. Highlights include crayfish (lobster) or fish and chips from the local shop, both good for a picnic on the beach.
Adventure / outdoors
In the mountainous inland region of Te Urewera, the vast, pristine natural environment seems worlds away from civilisation. The four-day hike around Lake Waikaremoana is one of New Zealand's nine Great Walks. The region also has many rewarding shorter walks.
Wildlife frequently seen along the coast include seals, dolphins, stingray and sharks. Ocean game fishing charters chase hapuka, kingfish, snapper and tarakihi. The region also has excellent rivers for fishing for brown and rainbow trout.
The east coast is renowned for its wild surf beaches. Getting there can be challenging, but the rewards are spectacular land and seascapes away from any crowds. Horse-riding tours explore remote beaches, and sea kayaks follow otherwise inaccessible coastal routes. Off-the-beaten-track Rere rockslide is a 60 metre (196 foot) smooth, natural water slide.
And by the way...
The celebrated New Zealand film Whale Rider is set in Eastland and tells a local legend.
Tolaga Bay has New Zealand’s longest pier (660 metres or 2,165 feet).
According to folklore, Māori witnessing the arrival of Captain Cook’s Endeavour believed the ship was a large beautiful bird and the longboats bringing sailors ashore were its babies.