From the eastern tip of the North Island, a mountainous backbone runs 650km southwest to the outskirts of Wellington, defining and isolating the east coast. The Raukumara, Kaweka, Ruahine, Tararua and Rimutaka mountain ranges protect much of the region from the prevailing westerlies and cast a long rain shadow, the bane of the area’s sheep farmers, who watch their land become parched, dusty and brown each summer. Increasingly, these pastures are being given over to viticulture, and the regions of Poverty Bay, Hawke’s Bay and the Wairarapa are world-renowned for their wine. Any tour of the wineries has to take in Poverty Bay, a major grape-growing region, where the main centre of Gisborne was the first part of New Zealand sighted by Cook’s expedition in 1769. Finding little – other than wary local Maori – he named it Poverty Bay and sailed south to an area he later named Hawke Bay, after his boyhood hero Admiral Sir Edward Hawke (the name of the surrounding province has since evolved into Hawke’s Bay). Here Cook clashed with Maori at Cape Kidnappers, now the site of an impressive gannet colony.
Hawke’s Bay has long been dubbed “the fruit bowl of New Zealand” and its orchard boughs still sag under the weight of apples, pears and peaches. The district is best visited from the waterfront city of Napier, famed for its Art Deco buildings, constructed after a massive earthquake flattened much of the city in 1931. Nearby Hastings suffered the same fate and wove Spanish Mission-style buildings into the resulting Art Deco fabric, though these won’t delay you long as you head south to the sheep lands of the Wairarapa and the temptingly accessible vineyards surrounding Martinborough.
Access to the mountainous interior of this region is limited, with only six roads winding over or cutting through the full length of the ranges. The tortuous but scenic SH38 forges northwest from the small town of Wairoa, the gateway to the remote wooded mountains of Te Urewera National Park and beautiful Lake Waikaremoana, which is encircled by the four-day Lake Waikaremoana Track tramping route.