Danielle Wright discovers a small town with a big history.

Driving the coastal road from Whakatane to Opotiki, we pass horses being ridden near elaborate driftwood shelters and plenty of places to stop for the juiciest feijoas, piled high on trailers. It's a beautiful drive with plenty of pretty sections and leafy canopies.

The centre of town is a cluster of faded, majestic old buildings, reminders of a long-gone boom period when Opotiki was the largest and busiest port in the Bay of Plenty. To get a sense of this past, we visit the sprawling Opotiki Museum and neighbouring Shalfoon and Francis Museum.

Museum volunteer Wallace Parkinson, whose family arrived in the area in 1866, shows us around the building; once a stable, then a bus depot, now a three-storey, modern museum filled to the brim.

On the top floor, lit by solar energy, there are wood carvings, photographs of everything from marching girls to whaling adventurers. Twelve heritage rooms range from a ship's cabin to a sewing room, a Victorian bedroom (a little girl doll prays at her baby sibling's cot) to an Art Deco room.


There's also a haunting war room with images of young Maori soldiers from the area who gave their lives for our country. Their shining black eyes and shy smiles tell of excitement and nerves before embarking on the biggest adventure of their lives, soon to be their last.

The middle floor holds a collection of the museum's designer, Peder Hansen's, paintings — lovely explosions of colour that he kept hidden from the world. Wallace tells us no one knew Peder painted, until his death last December.

The bottom floor has an original Heidelberg letterpress from the Opotiki News, milking sheds, a wool press and a delivery van from 1938, which was used as a wartime emergency ambulance.

Wallace tells us the museum owes much to a "little old lady" who bequeathed her fortune to the group: "Like all little old ladies with lots of money, Elvira Sundell didn't look like a millionaire. We just need another hundred little old ladies."

Further down the road we hear of another humble local, George Shalfoon, a Lebanese with an unassuming manner. He owned many of the important shops in town.

With his brothers Anthony and Stephen, and cousin Elias Francis, they started the business from a shed, then converted a house into a shop and ended up with a retail business selling groceries, hardware, furniture, drapery and jewellery — represented in the Shalfoon and Francis Museum.

It's a hands-on museum and our children love to play on the vintage typewriters and try out a World War I dentist chair that a teenager of today wouldn't fit in — unless they were very slim.

There are also nails and screws in boxes in the hardware section and nostalgic food tins sitting on 100-year-old shelves in the grocery section of one of the country's oldest Four Square stores.

George's old back office is exactly how he left it. There are handwritten account books to flick through and huge piles of paper. Bunting hangs from one wall with the letters cut out "Welcome Home George", still there since his return from World War II.

Our host, Jan Willis, tells us of an old man she met at the Zespri factory packing kiwifruit. He seemed too old to be working but, at the museum, she noticed his name: the artist of many intricate bone carvings.

People are not always what they seem in this small town. There's much more to Opotiki than meets the eye.

Stay at: Fruit Forest, the home of Jan and Ewen Willis, who are as interesting as their organic fruit-growing property.

Eat at: Arigato Mum's Sushi. Locals rallied round this Korean couple when immigration officials told them Opotiki didn't need a sushi shop because there was one just down the road in Whatakane.

Visit: Taketakerau, the 2000-year-old "burial" tree in Hukutaia Domain. Read about it in Marnie Anstis' soulful children's book, The Millennium Tree.

1. Morrinsville/Waitakaruru for two outstanding (yes, really) art stops: sculpturepark.co.nz and morrinsvillegallery.org.nz.

2. Tauranga, Papamoa

Danielle Wright stayed in Opotiki courtesy of Fruit Forest.