It's a little out of the way, but well worth the journey for a fun family holiday, writes Jesse Mulligan
Gisborne is unique in New Zealand - a decent-size city three hours' drive from any other one and a full day away from either Auckland or Wellington. There are downsides to this isolation - outside of festivals like Rhythm and Vines it's rare to see touring acts stop here for gigs, for example.
But mostly there are positives - locals (the OGs and the newly arrived) are rightly proud that many of the region's treasures remain unknown to outsiders. Discovering the best stuff requires you to make an effort to get here; it's a town where nobody arrives by accident.
After researching Eastwoodhill Arboretum I knew it would be a property of national significance but after taking a tour it's clear that it is internationally important too. A 131-hectare property with tens of thousands of mature trees, Eastwoodhill has become a repository for species that are threatened or extinct in their home countries.
Beyond its environmental value (an aspect the arboretum plans to build on in the coming years) it is simply a cool place in which to wander - each stand of trees feels like a different country - sometimes a different planet. You don't need any sort of botanical knowledge to enjoy the park, though if you get the opportunity to enhance your visit with an expert tour you should take it.
The arboretum is half an hour's drive from town and while you're out that way you should check out Rere Falls and the famous Rere Rockslide (check out NZH Travel's channel on YouTube to see what it's all about). I searched for some time for the company that runs this slide before realising that I had the wrong end of the stick - the attraction is natural and "self-catered", so you may want to take some local advice before you literally take the leap.
Many of the region's vineyards are conveniently positioned on your trip home from Eastwoodhill: Millton is a particular favourite and one of New Zealand's organic originals, while Matawhero does food and music on Sunday afternoons over summer.
If you're in town on a Saturday, drop into the farmers' market, where the best coffee is in the back corner of the carpark (roll two sixes to get your order for free), and where you can pick up some great food to enjoy now or later. I loved Waimata Cheese, the venison salami guy and the corn tortilla stand (she is proudly low-tech, and makes the tortillas with pedal power) but you will find your own favourites.
Gisborne has a few good restaurants and cafes - search out Flagship and Ussco, which are next to each other in the city, while The Works also comes recommended for dinner. There is plenty of good pizza in town - we loved the food, the vibe and the tap beer at Neighbourhood, and heard great things about Neptunes. Or for fish and chips to take down to the beach try London St takeaways or Captain Morgans next to the holiday park. There are also signs of a new generation of eateries emerging - Zephyr Wainui is an entirely plant-based cafe (though if you try the "sausage" roll there's no way you'd be able to tell).
The stingray experience run by Dive Tatapouri is just wonderful - an exciting and special experience for most of the family (they accommodate for the very young but it's most appropriate for around age 7 and up). After donning a pair of waders you step on to the reef at low tide and are soon surrounded by giant, gentle stingrays.
The animals are wild and free but seem to enjoy the attention (and the food), and you can carefully stroke their massive backs, helping to groom them after their hard day patrolling the sandy floor of the bay. Each of the rays has a different personality, and the guides' commentary on the various individuals is one of the highlights of the tour.
While you're that side of town consider a roadie up to Tolaga Bay, a combination of natural beauty and man-made tenacity - the 660m wharf is the longest in New Zealand.
Some takeaways are available from Broad Bills, the local food truck, or you can continue up the line to Tokomaru Bay where you'll be rewarded with a famous pāua pie (on the right day you can cheat by finding something similar from a roadside hāngī vendor in Gisborne). The Okitu Bay shop is a great place to stop for an icecream on the way back to Gisborne.
If you're looking for an ocean swim, Wainui Beach is a great choice, or go one step further and book a surf lesson at Waikanae Beach in town. It's not as hard as it looks! Our two girls took up the challenge and were both on their feet riding waves within the hour. It was 35C on the day of their lesson so, for them, the word "Gisborne" now evokes memories of sweltering heat and walking on water. They can't wait to go back, and neither can we.
Waikanae Beach Top 10 Holiday Park is ideal for families. top10.co.nz