North Island road trip: Rotorua - Gisborne - Napier

Greg Fleming hits the track and heads off towards the east coast.

Take a road trip to the east coast, you might be surprised what you find. Photo / Greg Fleming
Take a road trip to the east coast, you might be surprised what you find. Photo / Greg Fleming

There's nothing like a good drive to a great destination.

I always look forward to a road trip. Even these days when cheap airfares set local holiday spots in competition with easy-access meccas like the Gold Coast and Bali — but there's nothing like a good drive to a great destination. Even in winter. Four days and around 1000 kms all up meant a lot of car-time — so first thing to get sorted was the music.

A 2016 seven-seater Holden Captiva (diesel) would be our wheels and various Spotify playlists our entertainment (remember to download to your device before leaving otherwise you'll be left music-less in a gorge).

While the playlists met with some debate ("Dad — more jazz? — can we listen to something we all like?" says the twelve-year-old from the back seat) everyone loved the Captiva; it turned out to be the perfect car for a long haul family holiday — sturdy, powerful and a beast on the open road. Thanks to the crisp infotainment touchscreen — navigating using Google maps, and playing music via bluetooth was a breeze and sounded great — and six hours in the car can traverse a lot of musical territory everything from RL Burnside to Lee Morgan through to the back seat requests of Selena Gomez and Leon.

Our first leg — Auckland to Rotorua.

Rotorua

Why this route and not the more direct through Whakatane? — lunch at Ciabatta Bakery — (first rule of the road — always plan your travel around food).

This modest Swiss-owned bakery, tucked away in an industrial section of Fenton, makes great pretzels (the mustard are divine) and produces some of the best bread and pastries in the country. We'd been here before and it's just as good as we remembered.

Gisborne's Sponge Bay. Photo / Greg Fleming
Gisborne's Sponge Bay. Photo / Greg Fleming

These days Rotorua's busy reinventing itself. While the iconic attractions of boiling mud pools and Maori culture remain, the growing city is utilising its forestry, wildlife parks and thermal spas to attract a new kind of visitor, one bent on outdoor activities and ecotourism. So if you have time hit one of the mountain bike trails at Whakarewarewa Forest. Another option — also involving trees — a canopy tour of the nearby Mamuku Forest by zipline. All ages and skill-levels catered for.

The three hour drive from Rotorua to Gisborne passes through some beautiful country (gas up at Lake Rotoiti), though the Waioeka Gorge is a trial (logging trucks galore) but Gisborne's worth it.

Gisborne

It's a small city — around 30 000 — and yes it's the first in the world to see the sun-rise, but there's a warmth here that has nothing to do with that ball in the sky.

Locals take life at their own pace and — to a car load of jaded long-commute Aucklanders — that's a welcome change. Hospitality here is less provincial charm, more no-BS Kiwi courtesy. It's Gissy man, slow down.

Of course the optimum time to visit is in the summer when you really can appreciate and utilise that wonderful coastline. Head north out of town and there're beaches galore. Makorori and Wainui are world famous for the consistency and quality of their surf and you can get up close to the sea-life at Tatapouri Bay with some stingray feeding.

The winter option is to stay close and explore the city by bike. Cycle Gisborne can provide bikes and gear and even a guide should you wish. Bordering our hotel was the scenic coastal walk/cycle way to Waikanae beach — this was a great easy ride, splendid at sunrise. We then doubled back and biked along the river as the sun-set, exploring nearby suburbs, ducking our heads as we rode under bridges.

You'll pass a statue commemorating James Cook's troubled landing in New Zealand — the first cultural exchange was going well until traditional challenges were misunderstood and Cook's men killed several Maori.

Barista Nat at Raglan Roast Gisborne. Photo / Greg Fleming
Barista Nat at Raglan Roast Gisborne. Photo / Greg Fleming

Napier

Early the next day we drove the three hours south to Napier — Gisborne's tonier, more cosmopolitan, cousin. Napier boasts some great cafes (try F G Smith Eatery in Ossian Street, Ahuriri) and a superb restaurant in Mister D. It's also rather beautiful — the pageant beauty next to Gissy's more laidback charm.

Its calling card is its Art Deco architecture (there are tours available which delve into the history (the 1931 quake and the resulting architecture if that's your thing) but you may, like us, keep returning for its food and cultural life — the MTG Art Gallery had a superb Nigel Brown retrospective on display.

But the highlight of this leg of the trip was lunch at Mister D. We always eat here when in Napier and it's always good, but that afternoon's meal was exceptional — beautifully cooked fish (Blue Nose — fresh from the port at Ahuriri) for me, and a rich mushroom flavoured risotto topped with a piece of eye-fillet poached in olive oil for the wife and kid; exceptional — even the vege side-dishes were spot on.

To finish we tackled the famous Mister D injectable donuts (the waiter brings you a syringe with your filling of choice — you do the rest). It's a nice piece of theatre and one our 12 year-old videoed for Instagram. The donuts are pretty good too. It's bistro-style dining, casual and relaxed — and at $145 for three — great value.

The drive back to Gisborne on State Highway 2 gave us uninterrupted music time as the 12-year-old slept off the doughnut sugar-high — Future, Howlin' Wolf, and Napier's own post-rock trance merchants Jakob were on high rotate.

We returned too late to visit the Dome Cinema — the fully licensed art-house movie theatre (complete with bean-bags and pizzas), but it's a beacon in the — let's-face-it — pretty quiet Gisborne nightlife — especially if you have kids in tow.

The following day as we drove out of town through the vineyards and mandarin-laden orchards of Ormond, we were surprised by how much affection we'd built-up for this often misunderstood city.

My advice? Leave your passport at home this summer, gas up and hit the road — Gissy may just surprise you — just don't try to do it in four days.

What to do

Rotorua

Zipline it with a treetop canopy tour
Mountain bike in Whakarewarewa forest

Gisborne

Take a bike tour — Cycle Gisborne — have everything you need. They'll even bring your bikes to your hotel.
Feed the stingrays — Dive Tatapouri
Dome Theatre — drinks, pizzas and beanbags — oh and movies, great if you've got kids in tow.

Napier

Feed the penguins at The National Aquarium
Take a drive to Havelock North — great deli, wonderful orchards
Take an Art Deco tour of the city

Where to stay

Portside Hotel, Gisborne — clean, modern accommodation and a great location. Friendly staff, comfortable rooms, free Wi-Fi and a salt-water pool.

Where to Eat

Rotorua — lunch at Ciabatta Bakery, White St, Fenton.
— Try dinner at Leonardo's Pure Italian (opposite Eat Street — great, unfussy Italian food.)
Gisborne — try lunch at Albie and Frank's. Great sandwiches — Ballance Street. Do dinner at Tamarind Indian restaurant on Gladstone Road — try the lamb madras.
Napier — coffee at F G Smith Eatery' target='_blank'>Smiths cafe, Ahuriri. Lunch and dinner at Mister D, Tennyson Street.

Best Coffees

Raglan Roast — 116 Wainui Rd, — no contest — new to Gisborne and perfectly placed for summer surfers, and fantastic coffee.

The Music

Subscribe to your preferred streaming service, download your fave albums or make your own playlists for the road.

Lee Morgan - Greatest Hits
Future - EVOL
Howlin' Wolf - Greatest Hits
Jakob - Solace
Leon - Treasure EP

The Wheels

A 2016 7-seater Holden Captiva. You can pay a lot more for an SUV, but why would you when the Captiva has it all: heated (front) seats, up-to-the-minute infotainment and safety features — and it's a beauty to drive.

- NZ Herald

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