Exploring The East Cape

State Highway 35 between Opotiki and Gisborne is a memorable 334km (207-mile) journey. The road is etched into the coastline and the traveler is rewarded with an everchanging vista of the South Pacific. In summer, scarlet pohutukawa trees border the bright blue bays, and all along the way you'll see deserted white-sand beaches where there are innumerable opportunities for walking and fishing.

Make sure you get a copy of Jason's Pacific Coast Highway Touring Guide (www.jasons.com), free from visitor centers throughout the North Island. As well as providing a detailed, very readable map, it illustrates highlights along the way.

The route is also a genuine cultural experience. Many of the larger bays are the center of Maori settlements, usually surrounding their home marae. At Te Kaha, the Tukaki meetinghouse in the marae has an elaborately carved lintel, which you can view by asking permission. Whangaparaoa is where the great migration canoe Tainui landed, and Potaka is the northern boundary of the Ngati Porou tribe. At Hicks Bay, not quite midway, there are marvelous views and the Tuwhakairiora meetinghouse ^f^f, one of the finest examples of carving on the cape. The carving was carried out in 1872 and is dedicated to local members of Ngati Porou who died in overseas wars. Turn left at the general store to reach the meetinghouse.

Not far from Hicks Bay, the road descends to sea level and follows a narrow bay to Te Araroa. Here you'll find the country's oldest (600 years) and largest pohutukawa tree and a wealth of Maori history. A 20-minute side trip from here will bring you to the picture-book vista of the historic East Cape Lighthouse . The track to the 1906 lighthouse must be covered on foot and it leads up 700 steps.

The next settlement is Tikitiki, where the historic St. Mary's Church stands like a sentinel above the road. Built as a memorial to Ngati Porou soldiers who died in World War I, it is one of New Zealand's most ornate Maori churches.

Next stop, just a short diversion off the main road, is Ruatoria, the center of Ngati Porou, who, although scattered around the country, compose New Zealand's second-largest Maori tribe. For more information on the local Ngati Porou tribe, check out their website at www.ngatiporou.iwi.nz. It lists a network of indigenous tour operators on the East Coast, from Gisborne north to Potaka, who are committed to providing authentic, culturally appropriate experiences.

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