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Whakatane may be the gateway to White Island, but that's not all it has to offer, as Joanna Mathers explains.

The sky's big down in this part of the world. From the ocean horizon to bush-clad mountains it stretches, illuminating a particularly spectacular slice of Aotearoa. This cerulean dome looms above me as I wait on the top deck of the ferry, Peejay IV.

Anchored in the Whakatane River, the trusty vessel is slowly being loaded with visitors to White Island. And though the White Island tour is probably what Whakatane is best known for, this place is so much more than just a gateway to this volcanic isle, as I'd discovered during my weekend break to the eastern Bay of Plenty.

When I arrived in Whakatane two days earlier, the small town instantly captured my heart. Nestled between the hills and the winding river, it's a charming spot with some excellent art deco architecture, cool cafes, and even a French deli. It's also is home to New Zealand's most travelled wharenui.


I'd discovered Mataatua Wharenui on my second day in Whakatane. Situated opposite the Whakatane River, this beautiful meeting house was built by the Ngati Awa iwi in 1875 and dedicated to Queen Victoria. My guide, William Stewart, shared what happened next.

"When the wharenui opened, there were three days of celebration," says William. "It had been built to unite the people of the area, and stood 24m long, 12m wide and 7m high."

Filled with beautiful ornate carvings and masterfully crafted, Mataatua was indeed worth celebrating ... but the celebrations weren't to last long.

"The New Zealand Government decided that the wharenui was so beautiful that it should be shown to the rest of the world," says William. "Against the wishes of the people, it was dismantled and taken to the 1879 British Empire Exhibition in Sydney."

"There is was reassembled inside out, so the carvings were on the outside and at the mercy of the weather, which caused much damage. After Sydney it was taken to London and erected in the Kensington Museum in 1881, and was stored in the Victoria and Albert Museum for many years. It returned to Aotearoa in 1925, but not to Whakatane. Instead it became a permanent exhibition at the Dunedin Museum."

It was only in 1996 that a Waitangi Tribunal Special Deed of Settlement saw the wharenui return home, and it was officially reopened last year.

Now fully restored, the Mataatua Wharenui is a fascinating place. Visitors are welcomed by members of the iwi, given a guided tour of the wharenui, and introduced to the ancestral carvings on display.

There is a truly spectacular light show inside the wharenui, and my experience ended with a feast of kawakawa tea, potato bread and manuka honey.

Next day I'm up early for the trip to White Island. I've always wanted to visit this geothermal hotspot, and the cloudless day is ideal for a boat trip. The people at White Island Tours have been taking brave souls to this volcano since the early 90s, and they know how to keep punters happy.

This is whale and dolphin territory, and the captain has an eagle eye out for these delightful mammals. Sure enough he spots a pod of tiny common dolphins, and passengers are soon "ohhing and ahhing" with delight as the creatures frolic in the bow wake.

We eventually anchor near the island and we clamber on the inflatable to go ashore. Kitted with gas mask and hard hat, I'm confronted by a moonscape. Rocks and stones litter black sand; sulphuric residue paints the ground fluorescent yellow; steam rises from sinkholes filled with bubbling water. It's a truly sinister place; you can almost feel the ghosts of the poor miners who were killed when a massive lahar wiped out all their buildings in 1914.

After 90 minutes on the island, I'm glad to get back to the boat and the packed lunch. The trip back is relaxing and fun; the whole day has been truly memorable. I know the big sky and the beautiful landscapes of eastern Bay of Plenty will draw me back; Whakatane has worked its magic.

What to do

• William Stewart and family run NATIVconnectioNZ, a company that specialises in cultural tours around the area. You can custom the tour to your interests; from tramping to golf, they can cater for all. It's an excellent way to discover more about the place, and the tour ends with a feed of delectable kumara chips at a local chip shop. For more info, see nativ.co.nz

• Maatatua Wharenui is located at 1 Mataatua St, Whakatane. Entrance to the visitor centre is free; an hour-long experience including a greeting, access to the wharenui and the light show is $30 for an adult, $10 for a child and free for an infant. Visit mataatua.com for more information.

• A trip to White Island, including a boat to and from the island, a guided tour of the island, and a packed lunch, is $199 for an adult. See whiteisland.co.nz for details.

Joanna Mathers was a guest of Mataatua Wharenui, NATIVconnectioNZ and White Island Tours.