Keep sea, sun and fun in your sights on this tour of the North Island's east coast
Sarah Bennett & Lee Slater
One of New Zealand's iconic scenic drives, the Pacific Coast Highway traces the North Island's east coast from Auckland to Napier. This itinerary heads as far as Gisborne, then loops back to Auckland for a salt-tinged trip taking a week or so (around 1200km/16 hours driving time).
1. Discover Coromandel gold Just two hours' drive from Auckland and gateway to the Coromandel, the old gold town of Thames is an easy first pit-stop, with cafes, shops, and waterside boardwalk. If time allows, explore the peninsula's wild interior at Kauaeranga Valley, which has walking trails and back-to-nature DOC campsites.
2. Hit the east coast beaches Head over SH25 to Whangamata, a sweet beach town with a surfy vibe. Further south is another stunner, Waihi Beach, which has two fab holiday parks – Bowentown and the Top 10. The nearby Hauraki Rail Trail offers easy cycle trips through a very groovy gorge.
3. Get the big-town buzz There's heaps to do around the fun-loving city of Tauranga, capital of the Bay of Plenty region. The centre packs in shopping, waterfront nightlife and a neat (and free) art gallery. Just out of town is McLaren Falls Park, a lovely spot for a lazy afternoon or cheap, leafy camping.
4. Hang out at the Mount A sandy peninsula crowned with a 232-metre-high hill, Mount Maunganui is beach-bum heaven. Its action-packed adventures include surfing, kayaking and indoor rock-climbing, and there's vibrant nightlife, too. Walk up the Mount for spectacular views.
5. Wend to Whakatane Travelling east from Tauranga, the rural and coastal scenery will wow you. Te Puke's Kiwi360 offers a feast of NZ's fuzzy fruit, then head to Whakatane for a wander and stock-up on supplies for the remote leg ahead. Between Ohope and Opotiki is gob-smackingly gorgeous Ohiwa Beach Holiday Park.
6. Head Out East The winding drive around the East Cape to Gisborne takes 4–5 hours, but allow a couple of days if you can. Deserted beaches, walkways, a macadamia nut farm and cashmere clothing factory – Eastland is full of surprises. It's also rich in Maori culture – look out for beautiful, carved gates and buildings.
7. To the Lighthouse East Cape lighthouse beams from a knoll on New Zealand's easternmost point. It's glorious at any time of day, but if you want to be first in the world to see the sunrise, camp at Te Araroa (don't miss the ancient pohutukawa tree!) and head off before daybreak – it's a 30-minute drive and 25-minute (steep) walk.
8. Go to Church After Te Araroa, the Pacific Coast Highway takes a southerly turn and tracks through farmland to Tikitiki, site of St Mary's Church. Amongst its many amazing features are stained glass windows, Maori carvings and woven flax panels. Not far away is Eastender Horse Treks, a memorable place to tick riding off your wish list.
9. Enjoy a meal with a million-dollar view Sacred Mount Hikurangi – the region's highest mountain at 1752m – watches over you as you drive through the rural settlement of Ruatoria, through to Tokomaru Bay. Walk the waterfront, then pop into Te Puka Tavern for a slice of East Coast life, topped with an eyeful of ocean.
10. Aye Aye Captain! Legendary eighteenth-century explorer Captain Cook spent time around here, dropping anchor and watering his crew. He was wowed by Anaura Bay, and you probably will be, too. Soak up the scenery on the two-hour scenic reserve walkway.
11. Walk the old wharf Tolaga Bay/Uawa is yet another special spot with surprises in store. The town's dear old wharf – the longest in the Southern Hemisphere – is situated next to Tolaga Bay Holiday Park. Just down the road, Cooks Cove Walkway has information panels recounting tales of discovery and settlement.
12. Visit Gizzy With a bright civic centre, great beaches, parks, wineries and plenty of other attractions, Gisborne is a laid-back and lovable small city. Enjoy free fun in the sunshine, but be sure to absorb the area's fascinating history at Titirangi Park, the Cook Monument and Tairawhiti Museum.
The quickest route back to Auckland is via SH2 back to Opotiki, through Waioeka Gorge. Alternatively, keep following SH2 towards Wairoa for the turn-off to SH38 through Te Urewera National Park, or trundle further south to the wonderful Hawkes Bay.
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Freedom camping is permitted in a handful of spots within the Gisborne District (from Waipiro Bay south), but only with a pre-paid permit