Gisborne has what the rest of the world has lost... or is looking for.
Prosperity, joie de vivre, space, peace, quality of life and an awareness among the people who live here that they share a secret, a precious key to nirvana.
It’s most evident on the faces of the people who have come from faraway lands to settle in this most easterly city in the world. It’s good to mingle with such folk because they refresh our sense of wonder at how blessed we are to call this place home.
The new arrivals love the laid-back, cruisy lifestyle, long sunshine hours and the generous, down-to-earth, unassuming, practical Kiwis who live here. There’s a groundedness and a complete absence of pretension among the inhabitants.
The ‘imports’ are amazed at the abundance of cheap, fresh produce, kaimoana, and wines and craft beers, baskets of which arrive on the doorstep when a friend has a surplus. One recent arrival, a veteran surfer, was stunned to find himself the only person on the beach with his pick of perfect world-class breaks. And they can’t believe the real estate values are such that they don’t need to forfeit their souls to buy a beautiful beachfront property. The average house price here is under $300,000 and a Wainui beachfront property costs less than a two-bedroom unit in West Auckland.
An American friend of mine says the fact the ozone layer is thinner here is a blessing because prayers are answered in record time... the evidence being that all her prayers have all been answered here. ‘It’s closer to Heaven here,’ she says.
Gisborne, known to the locals as Gizzy, is a compact city of 36,000 people where everything is close-by. A trip across town takes five minutes and we think twice about driving 15 minutes to visit friends at Wainui or Pātūtahi. People in Gizzy think they are hard done by if they can’t find a carpark right outside the shop, hair salon or restaurant of their choice, or if they are held up in rush-hour traffic, a queue of maybe ten vehicles at the main set of lights in the CBD. We are spoilt!
To gain a big-picture perspective of the area before exploring the town and hinterland, drive or walk to the top of Titirangi Reserve (Kaitī Hill) and take in the sweeping views across the bay and the fertile flats dissected by three major rivers. It’s a superb vantage point to view Young Nick’s Head (Te Kurī a Paoa), named after Nicholas Young, Captain James Cook’s cabin boy on the HMS Endeavour, who first sighted the dramatic headland with its sheer white cliffs on October 6, 1769. You can visualise the tall masts of the HMS Endeavour anchored in the bay and Cook coming ashore at a site marked by a tall obelisk near Te Toka a Taiau, a rock in the Tūranganui River where the first meeting between Māori and European actually took place. There’s a controversial statue at the top of the hill which may or may not be an accurate representation of Captain Cook, depending on who you listen to.
To go more deeply into the history of the region, visit Tairāwhiti Museum and Art Gallery which has a well-earned reputation as one of the very best, most innovative regional museums in New Zealand. The museum has excellent permanent exhibitions about Māori and colonial culture, as well as regularly-changing contemporary exhibits including an upcoming series celebrating the tribal identity, rich history and thrilling stories of the Rongowhakaata iwi.
Next door to the museum, is the 28 Māori Battalion C Company Memorial House, a profoundly moving tribute to the Māori men of Tairāwhiti who served in WW2. About 1000 men from the region volunteered for the Company representing six local tribes. Their war effort is famous in Tairāwhiti.
To feel the pulse of Gisborne, visit the Saturday morning Gisborne Farmers’ Market. I stopped to buy flowers there last week and left an hour and a half later, laden with fresh produce to last a whole week, and a smile on my face... the latter seldom happens when I visit the supermarket.
The market has been operating for ten years and has grown to incorporate vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread, muffins, baking, honey, free-range eggs, meat, fish, pickles, pestos, sauces, jams, nuts, flowers, seedlings, hand creams, soaps and wine... of course. Much of the produce is organically grown and there’s also gluten-free breads and crackers and biscuits.
Food stalls range from mussel fritters to steamed Japanese dumplings and delicious burritos.
Set up in a large carpark near Tairāwhiti Museum, it has become a popular gathering place on a Saturday morning. The coffee and juices are superb, there are lots of yummy tastings to nibble and if you are lucky, Muru Kirikiri, the big man with the velvet voice and mellow guitar will be entertaining the crowds with his astounding repertoire.
Time-wise, it’s a far less efficient way of doing your weekly shop than the supermarket but the quality of the fresh produce, social interaction and bonhomie are unsurpassed.
The market takes place every Saturday morning from 9.30am–12.30pm regardless of weather, on the corner of Stout Street opposite the museum.
For wine aficionados, the best place to get an overview of the region’s magnificent wines is the Gisborne Wine Centre, right on the waterfront in the inner harbour.
Sheltered by hills and mountain ranges, Gisborne’s warm dry climate is moderated by the nearby ocean, with the cooling afternoon sea breezes, typical of many of the world’s great wine-growing regions. These breezes preserve natural acidity and tropical fruit flavours in the wine, and fine clay and silt loam soils create full-flavoured aromatic wines with ‘a haunting marine note’, thanks to the nearby ocean.
Reliable spring rain and long dry summers, combined with both alluvial and heavier clay soils, allow the growing of a wide range of grape varieties, most notably Chardonnay, for which the region has long been famous. Few regions in New Zealand compete with the sheer diversity of varieties produced in Gisborne. White wines range from classic central European grapes like Chardonnay and Viognier to aromatic Gewürztraminer and Pinot Gris, and newer varieties like Arneis, Verdelho and Albariño. The red wines of Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhone Valley, Northern Italy and Spain love living here too, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot, Malbec, Syrah, Temperañillo and Grenache.
An extensive range of Gisborne wines is available for tasting each week at the Gisborne Wine Centre, highlighting the diversity of the brands and varietals produced in the region. Gisborne wines, along with locally-brewed beer and local ciders, are served by the glass or bottle.
The Gisborne Wine Centre Cafe also has a selection of delicious platters.
Knowledgeable staff can recommend wines, make bookings for visits to Gisborne’s boutique cellar doors, arrange wine tours and suggest a range of wine tourism experiences. Go there early in the evening and watch the sunset with a glass of chilled rosé.
If you happen to be in Gizzy over Labour Weekend, the Gisborne Wine & Food Festival is the place to be. The event has just celebrated its 20th year and is still going strong.
Gisborne is not all about the wine though. Beer connoisseurs are well-catered for by the Sunshine Brewery which has been making delicious batch-brewed beer using all natural ingredients since 1989. They are among the oldest independent breweries in New Zealand and now have a new base close to Waikanae Beach.
With 30 percent of New Zealand’s best surf breaks within 10 minutes of the city, surfing is a big deal in Gizzy so it’s a great place to learn.
There are many excellent surfing instructors here but I like this one. In addition to teaching able-bodied people to surf, Simon Parkin, who has an autistic son, offers surfing experiences to children with physical and intellectual disabilities. You are in good hands with Simon. He has more than 40 years’ surfing experience, 10 years plus surf instructing, has international surfing certification and has undertaken surf life-saving and First Aid courses. Simon says surfing assists with concentration, coordination, motor skills, confidence and communication. ‘It’s great therapy as the children have fun and release stress while at the same time improving many skills.’ He instructs children and their families for a small koha fee of $5 a person or family.
Never underestimate this little town.
It’s full of eye-brow raising surprises – the internationally-renowned Paul Nache Gallery displays a collection of contemporary art that you would expect to find only in bigger city centres; Gisborne bar and gig venue Smash Palace won the Best Music Entertainment Venue at the 2016 Hospitality New Zealand Awards in Auckland; and the wildly-zany annual Terrier Race Against Time, a fundraiser started by a group of friends ten years ago over a bottle of bubbly, has raised more than $100,000 to help Tairāwhiti women battle breast cancer.
Gisborne’s iconic Rhythm and Vines music festival will soon celebrate its 18th year at Waiohika Estate. The event was founded in 2003 by a group of university mates and has grown to become one of the top venues in the world to celebrate the New Year. The three-day event runs from December 29 to January 1.
Did you know?
Gisborne is home to New Zealand’s oldest bookshop, Muirs Bookshop, opened in 1905. It’s also one the country’s largest independent bookstores. They take books seriously there. I love the plaque on the wall: A room without books is like a body without a soul: Cicero. Upstairs, they have a cool café with a balcony overlooking Gladstone Road, Gisborne’s main street.