AFTER GORGING on the waterside temptations of Tauranga, I pointed the car west to stake out some of the Bay of Plenty's greatest treats.
First up, the sweetheart seaside village of Maketū, groaning with history and the landing place of the original waka of the Te Arawa tribe when they migrated from Polynesia nearly 700 years ago. The memorial was built for New Zealand's 1940 centennial celebrations of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi and the 600th anniversary of the landing.
Take a leisurely hikoi through the charming village and you'll discover two of New Zealand's oldest churches, St Thomas Anglican Church and St Peter's Catholic Church. St Thomas was built in 1869 and you can still see on the ceiling the handprints and footprints of children, long gone, who played on the kauri boards as they were being oiled before use. The churches form part of a marked trail that shares many of the historic tales steeped in Maketū history.
From Maketū, I headed to sun-soaked Whakatane, an instantly appealing town, with leafy tree-lined streets and a bustling town centre. The escarpment slopes backing Whakatāne are densely clad in bush and pohutukawa trees, promising a riot of crimson colour as Christmas approaches.
Last December's tragic eruption at Whakaari/White Island has left a huge hole in the town's visitor offering, given the enormous visitor magnet the island tours were. Seeing the tour boats, idle and lonely, all tied up at the wharf is a sombre reminder of the tragedy. With the prospect of a Commission of Inquiry pending, alongside the multiple investigations, no on-land tours of the island are in operation or a likely to resume any time soon. Scenic flights over the island are still available.
With White Island off-limits, Moutohorā /Whale Island has taken on far greater prominence. Accessible via guided tour only, this gorgeous wildlife sanctuary provides refuge to a host of rare and endangered plants, birds and reptiles. Just 9km offshore from Whakatāne, notable residents of this remnant volcano include saddlebacks, kakariki, North Island brown kiwi and tuatara.
The tour includes a visit to Onepū Bay/Sulphur Bay where geothermal hot springs bubble through the sand, allowing you to dig your own hot pool on the beach — not dissimilar to Hot Water Beach in the Coromandel. Moutohorā also provides exceptional kayaking, diving and snorkelling opportunities, particularly around Seafire, a ship especially sunk to create an artificial reef.
Back on shore in Whakatāne, I ventured to Mataatua: The House That Came Home. After more than 130 years away, not only is this New Zealand's most-travelled Māori meeting house, but the only one to be repatriated. It stands once again as the unifying soul of the Ngāti Awa people.
Constructed in 1875, Mataatua Wharenui travelled to international exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne and then to the Victoria and Albert Museum in the UK. On my enriching personal tour of Mataatua, my Ngāti Awa guide, Tame, remarked how its reassembly in Sydney was done incorrectly, whereby the interior walls were accidentally mistaken as the exterior walls, so all of the tukutuku panels and intricate carvings were exposed to the elements. Apparently, its assembly in London was done correctly.
After years in the UK, the meeting house was returned to New Zealand, parked up in Dunedin. Finally, in 2011 it was rebuilt in its place of origin, Whakatane, and lovingly restored.
It's a masterful sight, its beauty is breath-taking. All of the carvings and legends of Ngāti Awa are vividly brought to life through an enthralling digital light show, HIKO: Legends Carved in Light.
I completed my foray in Eastern Bay of Plenty by venturing to the neighbouring beachside bolt-hole of Ōhope. Bucketloads of sunshine, warm waters and safe swimming make Ōhope Beach the ideal summer holiday destination, repeatedly voted as NZ's Most Loved Beach. With 11km of easily walkable white sand beach from the Ōhiwa Harbour entrance all the way to West End, it's beachside bliss.
Be sure to take the 15-minute walk to the celestial cove of Otarawirere Bay. West End is certainly the most popular stretch, where the sand slopes into the sea very gradually, like a glorified lagoon.
For a great bite to eat, the latest head-turner in Ōhope is Moxi Café, strikingly cleaved out of a container.