I reckon they should erect a statue at the entrance to the Eastwoodhill Arboretum in Gisborne featuring a fit old gentleman clad only in a straw hat and a single gumboot. Oh, yes, and he probably should be brandishing a sherry bottle.

If that sounds a little strange, well, William Cook who founded the arboretum was a little eccentric. An enthusiastic nudist, he often did his gardening unimpeded by clothes, apart from the boot he wore to help with digging holes, and visitors soon learned that it was a good idea to phone for an appointment.

But, then again, it probably does take someone outside the ordinary to establish such a remarkable institution, spending all his money buying trees and shrubs, and most of his time planting them on the farm at Ngatapa he won in a government settlement ballot in 1910.

The plant collection he started nearly a century ago now comprises more than 4000 species and more than 15,000 individual plants, covers 135ha with 25km of walking tracks, holds the largest collection of northern hemisphere trees in the southern hemisphere, and is officially recognised as both the national arboretum and a garden of national significance.

It's a wonderful place to spend a day strolling around, enjoying the colourful flowers and foliage, marvelling at the amazing variety of plants (some of them quite unusual), resting in the many leafy glades, contemplating the meaning of life in the cathedral-like groves and admiring the wonderful views from the high points around the property.

But, I have to confess, I arrived late and in a hurry and did none of that. Instead I took the motorised tour, in a cut-down four-wheel drive donated by a local supporter, which allows you to whiz around the highlights in an hour.

Our driver, Ross Gaukrodger, who manages the farm associated with the arboretum, was a fund of entertaining stories, as well as knowing all the most interesting plants, beautiful glades and spectacular viewing points.

One minute he was showing us the newly planted glade with about 50 varieties of New Zealand flax. The next he was letting slip that another of Cook's little quirks was to take a break from showing round a tour party, pluck a bottle of sherry from under a bush and enjoy a reviving swig, or line up two trees, dig in the ground and extract a bottle of wine (though I notice the park history suggests: "It is more likely he did this to amuse the visitors than it being a regular habit").

Gaukrodger thought that my idea of erecting a statue of the gumbooted nudist at the entrance to the arboretum was very amusing but I was actually quite serious.

Anyway, Gisborne has a bit of a history of putting up eccentric statues of people called Cook. Up on Kaiti Hill, beside a spectacular coastal lookout, is a bronze figure erected in 1969 in the belief it was Captain James Cook but later turned out to be some little-known Italian admiral. It's worth the climb or the drive just to enjoy the joke ... and when you've finished chuckling there are some fabulous views over Poverty Bay to be savoured.

Another statue of the great navigator, apparently showing what he did look like, was erected in 1995 on the city's waterfront.

The city council has recently completed a great new walkway which allowed us to stroll alongside the three waterways which meet at the heart of the business area - the Waimata, Taruheru and Turanganui Rivers - past the statue of Cook, which sits opposite the port, and down to the rolling surf of Waikanae Beach.

It's a delightful walk, past busy boats and amateur anglers, and there are plenty of good spots to eat a lunch from one of the city's many nice cafes.

Halfway along, just in case you hadn't got the message that this is where Cook made his first New Zealand landfall in 1769, is another statue, this time of Nicholas Young, the 12-year-old cabin boy credited with making the first sighting of land, pointing out towards the headland named after him, Young Nick's Head.

In fact, historians now think Young Nick almost certainly sighted another headland further south, but the peninsula that bears his name still gets all the publicity, it does look impressive, its white cliffs gleaming in the sun, and it's another reminder of the whimsical approach to life in this part of the world.

Getting there: Air New Zealand has regular services to Gisborne from all around the country.

Things to do:
Eastwoodhill Arboretum
Ph (06) 863 9003.
Dive Tatapouri Ph (06) 868 5153.

Wineries: There are plenty of great wineries in the Gisborne area but two favourites are: Kirkpatrick Estate Winery and Bushmere Estate.

Further information: See Eastland Tourism, ph (06) 868 6139.

Jim Eagles visited Gisborne with help from Air New Zealand and Express PR.