A friend and I are in Gisborne, staying at the harbour mouth in a lovely open, apartment-style hotel, with views across the water to where kids fish from a sea wall. Synchronized rowers slide by; walkers with dogs take the path around the coast to the city’s beach – and late afternoon, so do I.
On the way, I stop to talk to a couple of old guys fishing off a bridge. One tells me he caught a kingfish "yay big" – stretching his arms wide – off the point over there, just off the path.
At Waikanae Beach, soft light shines on after-work surfers enjoying a mild swell. The hunger-inducing aroma of fish and chips and happy chatter from the beachfront camping ground permeate the evening.
It’s many years since I’ve been to Gisborne. The wide, shaded main street and clattering fan palms are familiar – as is the super-tempting been-there-forever Muirs Bookshop – but it’s been joined by many more seductive distractions. Upstairs on Grey St, for example, the Paul Nash Gallery is wall-to-wall fascination by various local and national contemporary artists. And, in The Dome, formerly the Poverty Bay Club- house on Childers Rd, is a buzzing café, a cinema, an art space, a shop selling Turkish fabrics and ceramics, and another selling New Zealand-made craft and clothes.
But the road is calling. Gisborne is our kicking-off point for a road trip, one with a loose itinerary, based on rooms booked and a shared appreciation for a relaxed pace and good finds.
At Morere we stop for cups of tea and toasted sandwiches. Lovely old crockery decorates the walls of the tearooms and we spot familiar patterns: the one with the autumn leaves is the one I grew up with. My travelling companion finds hers in the mix, too.
Over the road, we pay our $10 and run through the rain, up a bush path, to hot pools set among nikau palms and birdsong. The pools are small, but hot and delicious, and the rain makes the bush smell of pure goodness.
In Wairoa, we swing off the main road to check out the stretch of shops opposite the river. It’s a sweetheart town, with a friendly vibe. Near the museum is a shop filled with vintage clothes that distract us for a good while. I nearly buy a jacket. The woman running it, originally from Melbourne, tells us her shop has become a destination for Wellington bargain hunters and I believe her.
We need to get back on the road though – as Napier awaits. Once we’ve checked into our hotel right on Tennyson St, we wander toward the sea and find an excellent meal at the Emporium in the old Masonic Building. On the way back to the Viceroy, window displays keep catching our eye: deco jewellery, local art, stripy cushions, handmade ceramics, shoes, coloured glass. We make time the next morning to retrace our steps when the shops are open.
Gather is an inspiring little shop dedicated to knitting, run by Nikki who creates yarns from recycled wool, uses natural dyes, and designs her own patterns. Her shop decor involves bright woolly pom-poms; her shop sign is a painted bicycle with knitted accessories.
We get lost for an hour in a huge antique shop on the corner of Tennyson St and Cathedral Lane. We go to A&E gallery of art and craft and jewellery, and upstairs to Paper-works to drool over contemporary, upmarket art. We find an art co-op, with café and photography studio attached, where recent graduates of the Eastern Institute of Technology are exhibiting.
Back on the road, we roll through Hastings and on down the line – stopping eventually on the outskirts of Waipawa at Artmosphere, a recently opened gallery in a relocated house, with many rooms linked with hallways and alcoves and crammed with surprises – drawings of dancing figures, garden art, copper, glass, photographs, sculptures made of bits and pieces.
In Waipawa itself, another classic café catches our eye and we eat fish pie and drink hot tea before visiting Grey Goose gallery. On the gallery roof are pages from newspapers and several standard lamps being decidedly non-standard, as they are hanging upside down. Waipawa also has second-hand shops loaded to the gills with fabulous finds.
We travel through more towns with sweet cottages growing old among cerise rhododendrons and masses of blousey roses. The houses all seem to have rocking chairs on sunny verandas. Their owners surely meander down the street, baskets over their arms, to gather supplies from the butcher, baker, wine cellar. Probably it’s travellers like us who get most excited about the shops stuffed with antiques, floral frocks and original sunhats.
We head south past Whangaimoana, past Ngawi, drive to the end, where wild country and high-edged landscape leans into the wind and the ocean spits at craggy black rocks.
We keep getting distracted and progress is slow; we need a week, not three days. Near Greytown, we stop for fresh strawberries. In this sunny little town, vintage furniture and contemporary interior designs fill shop windows. A steady stream of women heads to an old church with a red roof and bright blue door, which turns out to be Minx, a New Zealand shoe and accessories brand. Across the road is another fashion outlet store and a delicatessen.
It’s Martinborough for the night for us though, so we veer off SH2, drive the last stretch in high spirits and, with sincere joy, book into the town’s iconic hotel. My suite is in the garden, past a bright starburst of climbing clematis, behind a bed of white roses. It is, in a word, divine.
Over the road, we find a wine bar that offers tasting, so we settle in with a rack of pinot noir, the last of the sun for company, mulling over the day. It’s a town to walk in, so we do, and end up at Circus for dinner where we consider catching a movie but are happy, in the end, to chat.
Back in Napier, we recalled, the woman in the knitting shop – Nikki – telling us about the baby seals at Cape Palliser. She’d held her palms parallel, maybe a foot apart, to demonstrate their size. Leaving Martinborough early, we head south past Whangaimoana, past Ngawi, drive to the end, where wild country and high-edged landscape leans into the wind and the ocean spits at craggy black rocks. Hunters in utes head inland; hardy fishers in woolly hats and gumboots lug surfcasters to the shore.
There are quite a few of us, tourists with cameras, looking for the baby seals. We could smell them well before we saw them. This coast would be fantastic in a storm, we decide. Dramatic and exciting; possibly quite scary. We stop to look, longingly, at a cliff-edge bach with a For Sale sign nailed to its fence.
Time is up. After three days of toasted sandwiches, gallery hopping and vintage shopping – after three nights of lovely hotel rooms – home calls. I photograph the bach, note the phone number, just in case. Then, we head over the Rimutaka ranges to Wellington.
Where to stay
The Portside Hotel Gisborne and The Martinborough Hotel are part of the Heritage Boutique Collection. Find out more on the Heritage Hotels website.
Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Autumn 2017 issue