Along the east coast of the North Island, and often overlooked by tourists, East Cape NZ juts out into the ocean. A piece of real New Zealand, an East Cape road trip is nature, history, and culture.
The dramatic coastal drive from Gisborne to Opotiki is 334 kilometres, a 5.5-hour drive over mostly paved roads. It can easily be driven in a day, but why?
That is the question that plagued us all day. Why did we allocate only one day to venture deep into a region steeped in Maori culture, beaches, and hiking trails? Everchanging coastal and mountain views are dotted with horses and Marae. We found it different here, rural, friendly, and even more relaxed.
Driving Itinerary: East Cape New Zealand from Gisborne to Opotiki along State Highway 35
The suggested stops below are featured on the map. Click the expand / collapse icon in the upper left corner of the map for the details.
Starting out in Gisborne in autumn at first light, we had fewer than 12 hours of daylight. We made the most of it. In hindsight, we should have stayed near Hick’s Bay or started from Tolaga Bay.
Our highlights and recommendations are below.
(starting point for our East Cape road trip)
(334 km from Opotiki)
We spent two nights enjoying Gisborne before heading off around East Cape NZ. There are plenty of things to do in Gisborne, ranging from relaxing (hot springs, the National Arboretum, and watching the east cape sunrise) to more adventurous (hand-feeding stingrays, natural rock slides, and surfing).
(29 km from Gisborne, 298 km from Opotiki)
Whangara Bay is 3 km off the main road and is now famous as it is home to the marae used in the New Zealand movie Whale Rider. We did not stop here.
(55 km from Gisborne, 279 km from Opotiki)
Tolaga Bay was our first stop from Gisborne to Opotiki. Here, we quickly discovered that things are different in East Cape NZ when the road sign read, “No Skateboards, Scooters, Bikes, and Horses to be ridden on the footpath.“
Our Tolaga Bay things-to-do list included a walk to the end of the 660-metre wharf. Completed in 1929 and restored in 2002-2006, the Tolaga Bay wharf claims to be the longest wharf in New Zealand and the second-longest in the Southern Hemisphere. Allow about 30 minutes to walk to the end, longer if you want to join the locals and drop in a fishing line.
NOTE: It may not actually be the longest wharf in NZ as Tiwai wharf on the South Island is much longer, according to this article.
Not far from the wharf is a trailhead marker for Cook’s Cove Walkway, a 2.5-hour hiking loop to one of the landing spots of Captain James Cook and his ship, the HMS Endeavour, as they circumnavigated and charted New Zealand.
In retrospect, we should have started out at first light in Tolaga Bay, ideally having visited the wharf and hiked Cook’s Cove walkway the day before. Historians and backpackers stay at the Historic Tolaga Inn, a 1930s original waiting for a renovation, and our recommended Tolaga Bay accommodation.
(91 km from Gisborne, 243 km from Opotiki)
Tokomaru Bay is home to another sizable wharf, this one still in need of restoration.
There is also an old freezing works, several heritage buildings, and multiple marae. We were too early to stop for lunch at the Te Puka Tavern and not even hungry enough to try a paua pie at Cafe 35 (the recommendation of a local boy we met on the street).
Te Puia Springs
(102 km from Gisborne, 233 km from Opotiki)
We couldn’t resist stopping at the charming Te Puia Springs Trading Post, where one could get pies, chicken, snacks, and just about any sweets you can imagine. We purchased a bag of hot peppers. Next door to the trading post was “KFC – Kai (meaning “food”) for Coasties. The “closed” sign was up so we never had a chance to see the menu.
As for the hot springs, we never found them. We knew they are near the hospital as it was built last century to capitalise on the medicinal healing properties of the springs.
(128 km from Gisborne, 206 km from Opotiki)
Ruatoria is the gateway to Hikurangi, the mountain overlooking the town. Near the top stand several pou carvings best seen at sunrise (this is another spot that boasts seeing the first sun of the new day). Four-wheel drive is required to get to the carvings, without it, you can get within a 1-2 hour hike. Many people spend the night in the DOC huts on the hill.
In town, we stopped at Hati Nati, a delightful cafe with a varied menu, delicious food, and the coffee . . . it was perfect. A family-run business, they went out of their way to suggest and create a meal for even the most restricted eater in our group.
(147 km from Gisborne, 187 km from Opotiki)
St. Mary’s Church in Tikitiki is one of the highlights of our trip around East Cape NZ. A visit to this Māori-decorated church topped my regional bucket list. Entry is by gold coin donation through an honesty box. Also, in Tikitiki is a giant waka in an open paddock.
(174 km from Gisborne, 160 km from Opotiki)
Near the midpoint of the driving time, Te Araroa is home to another great coffee shop, the Cape Manuka Café. We didn’t have time to visit the manuka factory on-site but did bring home a jar of our favourite manuka honey.
The two other things most people come to Te Araroa for are to see the giant Pohutukawa Tree and the East Cape lighthouse. The tree is easy to find along the beachfront.
Enthusiasts will want to see the sunrise from the lighthouse. The easiest way to do this is to spend the night at Nga Puriri B&B in nearby Hicks Bay and drive the 20 km partially unpaved road to the lighthouse early in the morning.
Then you will climb the 700 steps to reach the lighthouse and be rewarded with a sunrise from the easternmost point in New Zealand. It is one of the spots that claim to be the first in the world to see the sunrise each day. If you don’t want to get up early, don’t worry, the views are reported to be spectacular any time of day.
(183 km from Gisborne, 151 km from Opotiki)
Hick’s Bay is another town on East Cape NZ with an old freezing works and a wharf in a state of disrepair. However, it appears to be an ideal fishing spot. At about the halfway point on this New Zealand road trip, Hicks Bay is a great place to spend the night, especially if you want to climb up to the lighthouse for the first light. Reserve your stay at Nga Puriri B&B in Hicks Bay here
(216 km from Gisborne, 118 km from Opotiki)
Not a tourist stop for most people, but we live in the other Whangaparaoa, New Zealand. This one, on the East Cape NZ, is home to the spot where Tainui canoe first landed. It was one of the founding canoes that brought the Maori people to New Zealand.
(227 km from Gisborne, 107 km from Opotiki)
By the time we reached this lovely bay, it was clear to us that we would not get to see everything we had hoped to visit. Waihau Bay is the filming location of the New Zealand movie “Boy” and is home to the charming Waihau Bay Store.
The shorter autumn days meant sunlight was fading soon. From here, our stops were short and to the point.
(235 km from Gisborne, 99 km from Opotiki)
The sun was just about on the horizon as we drove into Raukokore, but we had no trouble locating the Christ Church Raukokore, an Anglican church with Maori decor. The door was open and welcoming, and a sign advised that the strange sounds may be coming from the penguins that nest under the church. There is a cemetery behind the church.
(246 km from Gisborne, 88 km from Opotiki)
One of many stunning bays along the coast, we had enough light for a quick look, but not enough for a decent photo. A region with its own subtropical climate, it is home to macadamia farms, however visiting offseason, they would have been closed even had we arrived much earlier.
(263 km from Gisborne, 71 km from Opotiki)
We arrived too late to enjoy this fishing village or even to see the wonderfully carved Maungaroa Marae at Maraetai Bay which has an old whaleboat on display. A bit beyond the boat is the gravesite of Princess Te Rangi Pai and her husband, John Howie.
After drinking too many coffees during the day, we were glad to find open public toilets. However, my enthusiasm drained when two pit bulls trapped me inside. We believe the dogs belonged to the owner of a van parked in the lot.
(334 km from Gisborne)
We reached Opotiki in time for dinner, where we enjoyed a meal at Kashish before spending the night at a bed and breakfast (that is no longer there). Opotiki is another place I would have liked to have spent more time, perhaps a full day to do the Motu Trails and hike out to the waterfall.
Things to Consider Before Driving East Cape NZ from Gisborne to Opotiki
- The road can be driven in either direction. We went from Gisborne to Opotiki as part of a longer drive that brought us from Wellington to Napier and Gisborne before the East Cape portion of our round-trip Auckland to Wellington road trip. The more popular direction is from Opotiki to Gisborne via east cape. That puts you on the coastal side of the two-lane road.
- Stop at an i-Site at either end and pick up a free Travellers Guidebook of the area. Note the guide was advertising based and is missing several free things to do.
- Give yourself time to relax and enjoy. Allow at least two days, or at minimum, start out from the historic Tolaga Inn if you are heading in the direction we drove.
- There are a variety of accommodation options on the East Cape, many with a personal touch that would have enhanced our experience.
- If you are travelling by camper, there are several campsites along the way, and also many areas that allow freedom camping.
- East Cape NZ is rural, with fewer facilities. Be sure you have plenty of petrol. There is a petrol station in Te Araroa, which is near the centre of the drive.
- There are toilet facilities in most NZ towns. Blue highway signs identify them. The few we stopped at were clean with flush toilets.
- If you are in a hurry, you can travel through the Waioeka Gorge from Gisborne to Opotiki, New Zealand. The distance is 144 km, and it will take you less than two hours. Be sure to check for NZTA road closures before you begin your journey, especially if it has rained heavily recently.
Read next: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures
Save on your NZ trip with these resources
We usually start with aggregator companies as they do the work for us by providing a list of options, prices, and reviews. However, we also added a few personal NZ favourites:
- Flights: we use Expedia for the best and cheapest flight options.
- Hotels: we use Booking.com as they consistently return the best rates and their reviews are from actual guests. However, for self-contained lodging in New Zealand, we use Bookabach.
- Cars and Campervans: we use RentalCars to find the best deals and dealer ratings. Use Jucy for small campervans.
- Activity discounts: we always check Bookme.com for discounts of up to 70% on selected tours, activities, restaurants and more.
- Travel Insurance: we start at InsureMyTrip as they are the best option to compare plans and find the right coverage for you.
Before you book the rest of your trip: Check out our travel resources page for more companies that we use when you travel.
We believe this list to be the best in each category. You can’t go wrong using them on your trip too.
Save our East Cape NZ itinerary for later
Pinterest is the perfect place to save a copy of this itinerary until you get to the east cape of New Zealand. Choose your favourite design:
Will you give yourself enough time to really enjoy this East Cape NZ coastal road trip?
For more on New Zealand, start here: New Zealand Road Trips: Itineraries for North or South Island Adventures, or you might like …
Disclaimer: We worked with Tairāwhiti Gisborne, the local tourism board. The opinions expressed here are strictly our own.
Wow, what a dramatic coastal drive, Rhonda! So many amazing places to stop and take photos along the road from Gisborne to Opotiki. I’d love to do that someday, if I ever make it to New Zealand. The road through the Waioeka Gorge sounds interesting also, even though it’s shorter. It must be really beautiful.
Hi there I was just wondering what time you left Gisborne that morning?
We watched the sunrise, ate a quick breakfast in our hotel room, and then headed out.
the hotel at te puia springs hotel has ahot water pool $5 entrance$2 for towel
At least 3 excellent adventures you have neglected to mention; Anaura Bay, Waihau Bay, Mt Hikurangi.
Add at least another day for each of these.
APRIL KEY RODE
New Zealand is in our top bucket list and reading a lot of NZ today made me want to go soon. I love how you tackle all the things you can do along the way very detailed and informative, especially for the first-time visitor.
New Zealand is a wonderful place to visit, so much to see and do!
This looks like such a fun adventure! What a beautiful place. I hope to make it to NZ some day!
Your photos are so beautiful, Rhonda. New Zealand is really high on my travel wishlist. I’m determined to visit one day. I’d like to find out more about the Maori culture too.
I love a good road trip. New Zealand is breathtakingly beautiful I can only imagine it’s the perfect backdrop for one. I appreciate your honesty in saying how some things you’d do differently, making it an informative guide for anyone who wants to do this road trip.
THat sounds like the perfect itinerary! Will definitely use this a a reference for when I hopefully get to go to NZ next year!
I have to admit to not knowing much about New Zealand and where to visit. But from your post, this area definitely looks like a worthwhile and beautiful area to go to. Stunning, in fact. I guess I need to plan a trip to New Zealand very soon.
Camila @ Adventitious Violet
This sounds like an amazing road trip! I dream of going to New Zealand! Maybe one day 😀
My problem with road trips is always that I give myself not enough time, like I think driving 1000km will be much quicker than it should be!
What a beautiful areas in New Zealand. I’m getting more and more interested in visiting one day, so making a list of places I’d like to see.
I’ve still never been to NZ but would love to go!
Tanja/The Red Phone Box travels
Really enjoyed this post, I would love to visit New Zealand.
The décor of St Mary’s Church in Tikitiki looks so intriguing. However, I particularly liked your photo of the Raukokore Anglican Church, I have a bit of a fascination with cemeteries and churchyards they hold so much history & it’s interesting to see how different cultures portray this.
New Zealand is at the top of my list and I love this driving itinerary! It looks like such a beautiful country, perfect for road trips.
I make the same mistake sometimes, Rhonda. I allocate too little time to a destination and when I see how much there is to see there I’m filled with regret. The drive from Gisborne to Opotiki looks absolutely spectacular. I think visiting Christ Church Raukokore must have been quite interesting. I’d love to see some Maori decor. I am not acquainted with their culture at all.
Fabulous post with beautiful pictures! I really want to visit NZ someday, so pinning this for whenever the day comes!
Handmade Jewelry Haven
Well I had to google the Tolaga Inn as this is the type of place that I LOVE to stay! One day……
But tell me…when reading about the bar, it mentions ‘Off License’.
What does that term mean?
Thank you again for sharing such a wonderful trip!
Off License means that they can sell liquor to be taken away.
Lydia C. Lee
YOu’re very thorough in your adventures! Lovely pics!
First I was excited about that wharf or what looks like a very long pier, but then I saw that 600 year old tree, and then the lighthouse! So many amazing sights to see and experience. Fabulous post!
New Zealand would be a wonderful place to visit. Wouldn’t it be nice if I was about to get dressed to go to New Zealand rather than work. 🙂
What a lovely drive full of so many unique things to see! Those pews are definitely more different than anything I’ve ever seen before!
I’m such a fan of road trips, Rhonda! And this one looks awesome! Thanks for sharing it. I’ve pinned it for my future trip to New Zealand.
I need to to that trip, we’ve been talking about it for ages. There’s something about Maraes and old buildings that fascinate me.
Wow, you sure chose a place with some fabulous scenery for sure! Thanks for sharing with us.. those are absolutely fantastic!
New Zealand is a perfect road trip destination, Rhonda! I haven’t been to East Cape when in NZ but that part of the island seems mesmerizing! Now I have one more reason to return to this magical place as soon as possible!
My husband and I are dying to make it out to New Zealand! Looks absolutely gorgeous! Thanks for all the inside info!
Such beautiful landscape and that 600 year old tree is amazing
Wow, Rhonda – this is a stunningly beautiful place! I would love to visit there.
Renata - www.byemyself.com
I do want to visit New Zealand – but it will be a project since it’s so far from Europe. But this is a destination that I don’t feel a rush to go since it might become impossible to visit for political or climate reasons like other destinations ‘you never know’. So – please wait a sec, NZ, it will be a moment.
Another fun adventure with you as we travel the world. Thanks Rhonda – it was fun!
I have always wanted to visit New Zealand! My moms been like 3 times. Thank you for all of your tips and places to go.
Join your mum on her next visit.
I would definitely enjoy the stop in Te Puia Springs. Who doesn’t like sweets!?!? What kind of hot peppers did you buy? Was it like a candy hot pepper? It’s too bad you weren’t able to find the springs. I love going to hot springs in Japan as they are so relaxing and good for your overall health 🙂
The peppers were red hot peppers. I bought them to add to cooking, but my hubby ate them straight out of the bag.
Wow, this is definitely another reason to visit NEw Zealand real soon. I love all the panoramic views while driving in the East Cape New Zealand, which seemed to be really incomparable. I love all the concise description of each place you’ve visited above and the Tolaga Bay is something I should never miss If I get the chance to visit here soon. I love that you guys walk up to the end of the 660-meter wharf, which seemed to be interesting beacause of the rich history of the place. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.
Tolaga Bay is really a neat little town, and if I get back there I would love to complete the hike. It’s a town to spend at least a night in, and to really enjoy.
New Zealand is absolutely beautiful! I love all the art and the scenery there. I would like to go there again someday. You take really good pictures too.
Did you visit the East Cape when you were here?
Kay L. Davies
I’ve also never been to New Zealand, but I have been to Australia… (most of Queensland plus an overnight in Sydney to see a play at the Opera House)… but am always amazed, even now, when I see photos, because New Zealand is so different from Australia. To a Canadian, they appear to be close together, but the Maori are so vastly different from the Aboriginal Australians. It is still hard to understand how two places so close to one another (again, through the eyes of a Canadian) can be a million miles apart culturally.
I would really love to visit New Zealand but I think it’s getting too late in my life to consider flying for 30 hours or more, so I am enjoying seeing it through your eyes and your camera lens, and I will continue to be amazed.
Thanks for sharing.
An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel
Actually, they are not that close. New Zealand has no close neighbours. The distance from the closest point between New Zealand and Australia is about 2000 kilometres, very similar to the closest points between Canada and Mexico.
I really want to visit New Zealand it just sucks, because it is so far from Norway. the landscape and culture looks so beautiful and interesting. Tolaga Bay seems like a must visit in East Cape. St. Mary’s Church in Tikitiki looks like a beautiful church. I love that you include Things to Consider Before Driving East Cape NZ from Gisborne to Opotiki. That is so useful. Thank you for sharing. 🙂
We visited Norway when we spent a year and around the world, therefore it wasn’t such a long journey to get there.
Wow, this route has so many things to see! The Tolaga Inn looks so neat. It seems like the sort of trip you could really take your time on…or try to squeeze it in a few days. That’s the best sort of road trip, where there’s a lot of flexibility and a lot to see!
I agree. That inn looks so charming. We would have been much better off visited the wharf and hike the day before, spent the night in Tolaga Bay and gotten an early start from there,
This is an excellent itinerary, especially for me as I’ve not travelled to New Zealand before. I won’t pretend I’ll remember all the Maori names of the towns, but from your descriptions, they sound like towns ai’d like to see and photograph for myself. Plus, I agree with your tips that you need to enjoy road trips, and allow sufficient time to really see everything.
You don’t need to remember the the names, just follow the map 🙂
What a lovely place I like the old buildings especially the Anglican church 🙂
Thanks for the tour have a capetastic week Rhonda 🙂
The two churches were both amazing. The Anglican church stood out in the distance, this beautiful white architecture in the rugged wilderness.
Beautiful images of beautiful scenery. Love the unique buildings. cool tree.
It is such a rugged and natural beauty.
L. Diane Wolfe
So many photo opportunities. I could’ve spent days exploring those areas.
I wish I had spent days exploring. It was too quick the way we did it.
Most beautiful adventure. You sure do exploring right. How fun and what an adventure. I would love to explore here too.
Have a fabulous day. ♥
Once again you have proven that there is so much to see in New Zealand. I love that church and my goodness that tree is incredible! Someday I hope to come to New Zealand with all your post bookmarked and then hit the ground running.
There is SO MUCH to see in New Zealand. The East Cape was a new area for me, and one which I hope to have time to more fully explore again in the future.
A fascinating trip and information. Great photos too
A ShutterBug Explores
What a fascinating world ~ love the totem poles and great photos of your journey ~
Happy Week ahead to you,
A ShutterBug Explores,
aka (A Creative Harbor)
It is a fascinating portion of New Zealand, and one worth exploring.
Hicks Bay looks beautiful. I really love that old wharf. And the designs in Tikitiki’s St Mary’s Church are so intricate.
I am only sad that you were not able to join us on this adventure.
Alex J. Cavanaugh
That church is amazing.
Take hiking books for all those trails and walks next time.
Hiking boots and a few extra days for next time.
Good stuff Rhonda! We drove to Te Kaha and enjoyed lunch on the bay, cannot recall the name of the hotel and restaurant. What a magical journey. So beautiful, raw, rugged and wild in many ways. Maori country fascinated me. It offers a different feel from any other place I have visited in New Zealand. The Hukutaia Domain is well worth a visit in Opotiki. One of the oldest trees in NZ – over 2,000 years old – and a preserved ancient forest among the farm lands. Really neat. Thanks for sharing 🙂
We missed the Hukutaia Domain, maybe next time. And as for Te Kaha, I wish I could have also had a good experience there. Lunch restaurants would have been closed and it was too dark to enjoy the views.
Lydia C. Lee
That’s like untouched NZ back in time – all the pics I see now are so modern and steel & glass chichi architecture. This is quaint – lovely.
Yes, that is exactly what it felt like, untouched, unspoilt New Zealand. I just loved it.