Visiting Whakatane, Elisabeth Easther discovered two isles literally fizzing with fabulousness.
For a lot of us Auckland people, Whakatane is a little off the beaten track. But as two mothers on the run from family life discovered, it is well worth making the effort to go there. Much as it was tempting to laze the days away, activities beckoned and there's only so much you can write about snoozing on beaches.
Hitting the ground running, we headed straight for The Strand to leap aboard PeeJay's tour to Moutohora, aka Whale Island, a dormant volcano that's still waxing thermal today. This Department of Conservation nature reserve is bursting with birdlife. Before we boarded the boat, our bags were searched for fruit (no illicit planting, thank you) lighters (no fires either) and mice and rats (no pests on this paradise).
Only 9km from shore, Moutohora has enjoyed a relatively chequered history, occupied by miners, sealers, whalers and farmers. It was nibbled to a nub by goats, rats, cats, mice and rabbits and been ravaged by fires but, for the past 50 years, it has been returning to its original vegetative state.
A wildlife refuge since 1964, Moutohora was purchased by the crown in 1984 - scuppering Sly Stallone's plans for a fishing lodge. These tours started last year, with a portion of each ticket sold going to DoC and the coastguard.
Clad today in healthy pohutukawa, whau, kawakawa and kanuka, the island is blooming, with seals, kingfishers, grey-faced petrels, sooty sheerwaters, little blue penguins, New Zealand falcon, kaka and kiwi all calling it home. Within a minute of our landing on shore, our guide Jenny pointed out a set of kiwi prints in the sand, evidence that one of the 25 breeding pairs settled here had been playing on the beach.
There are also 84,000 pairs of muttonbirds on Moutohora. The local Ngati Awa people are now able to harvest 200 chicks every year, in keeping with cultural traditions.
Lizards and skinks dig island life too and we saw some whopper geckos too. Sharp-eyed visitors might spot tuatara nesting in abandoned muttonbird burrows.
Our personable host, Patrick of PeeJays, showed us weta hotels and we even got to hold a brown kiwi egg. Amazing.
A steep-ish 15 minute walk up the saddle is worth it for the commanding views out to White Island and over to Gisborne.
But the best was yet to come. As we walked a narrow, winding track that hugged the coast, the smell of sulphur grew stronger and we discovered before us a lunar landscape running down to the sea. No prizes for guessing how Hot Water Bay got its name. A swim was essential - but don't dig too deep, unless you want to deep-fry your toes.
Keen to tick off that other, better known island, we took another PeeJay's tour the following day to White Island or Te Puia o Whakaari (the dramatic volcano). Disembarking on this barren landscape, following a 90-minute boat ride accompanied by frolicky dolphins, was like nothing on Earth.
Suited and booted, wearing hard hats and gas masks, we proceeded to the crater's edge, genuinely glad of our gas masks. The well-informed guides were brilliant. We learnt about geology, the island's mining history and the men who lived, worked and died here.
Staying that night at White Island Rendezvous, we were pretty buzzed to have been so close to the elements but, ensconced in our quiet, comfortable digs, we soon settled down for the night.
Before jetting back to reality, we had time for one last adventure, a visit to Mataatua Wharenui - The House That Came Home. The cultural tour at Te Manuka Tutahi Marae includes a powhiri, a short walking tour and a glimpse into the history of the eponymous whare. Built in the 1870s as a symbol of unity, the ornately carved house was dispatched to Sydney for the International Exhibition in 1879. Then, in 1881, it was dismantled and sent to London where it stood in the grounds of South Kensington Museum and then gathered dust in the basement of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was acquired by the Otago Museum in 1926 and finally came home in 1996.
The light show that plays on the panels today, animating and illuminating the carvings, deserves to win all manner of awards. Using ancient and modern story-telling techniques, this is as thrilling an encounter as visiting White Island.
Whakatane, you are well worth the trek.
NEED TO KNOW
White Island Tours: Offers a wide range of tours including those to White Island and Moutohora.
White Island Rendezvous: Super accommodation and PeeJays Coffee House, open for lunch and breakfast, serves outstanding food, and no tourist prices either.
Top 10 Holiday Park, Ohope: Glamping, camping, cabins and kids' activities, right on the beach. Check out the Kids Stay Free family packages at all the Top 10s for the perfect autumn break (April 1 to June 30, excluding Easter weekend).
Mataatua wharenui and marae visit: Delightful guides open a window into local culture.
Also try: Flatout Riding, a new classic motorcycle tour company based in Whakatane. Take self-ride guided tours on classic 1975 Norton Commando MKIII through some of the Eastern Bays' quiet touring roads.
Elisabeth and Sarah were guests of Tourism Bay of Plenty.