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Mike Yardley: Good as gold in Gisborne

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 17 Feb 2024, 11:11AM
Wainui Beach, Gisborne. Photo / Supplied
Wainui Beach, Gisborne. Photo / Supplied

Mike Yardley: Good as gold in Gisborne

Mike Yardley,
Publish Date
Sat, 17 Feb 2024, 11:11AM

One year on from the ravages of Cyclone Gabrielle, I gazed in awe at the break of day, as a golden, celestial glow lit up the first city in the world to greet the sunrise. It was an early wake-up call to join Nisbet Smith from Gisborne Tours as we trotted up Makorori Headland for the reverential light show. In the fresh embrace of the morning calm, with wispy fingers of mist fondling at the tucks and folds of the coastline, the sun popped its head up in classic yolky glory. The region’s brag-power as playing host to the first light of day certainly makes the spectacle all the more spiritual.  

Gazing across the ravishing seascape, Young Nick’s Head and Mahia Peninsula loomed large on the horizon, while directly beneath us, the photogenic allure of Wainui Beach and Okitu Bush casts you under its spell. It’s immediately self-evident why a beach house at Wainui is the epitome of aspirational real estate. What a sweet spot -no wonder the sun wants to be the first to see it.  A year on from the damage and despair of a natural disaster, Gisborne and the Tairāwhiti district’s welcome mat is unmistakeably rolled out. Don’t be fooled by the enduring misnomer that the region’s roads are still too tricky to navigate or that visitors aren’t welcome. Nothing could be further from the truth. Gizzy and her surrounds is good to go and would love to see you. 

Photo / Mike Yardley

After taking in the celebrated sky show from Makorori, in just ten minutes, we’d tootled into Gisborne with Nisbet to a storied cradle of history.  The Cook Landing Site, adjacent to the port stacked with logs, marks the spot of James Cook’s first landing place in New Zealand in 1769. The national historic site was given a makeover in the lead-up to the 250th anniversary in 2019, and a more balanced cultural narrative, given it’s also a significant landing place for Ngāti Porou. Their ancestor Maia landed at the same site and settled the area, 750 years prior to Cook’s arrival. 

Puhi Kai Iti /Cook Landing Site National Historic Reserve now plays host to not just the 120 year old granite obelisk in honour of Cook, but a sequence of sculptural installations that were designed by local artist, Nick Tupara. Cradling the site are the circular walls featuring the largest tukutuku panels in the world. One hundred and twelve steel tukutuku panels comprise the installation, woven with over 7kms of cord. Tukutuku was not only used by Māori to bind materials for houses, but the same techniques were used to bind waka when navigating the high seas. The most poignant addition to the site are the nine pou, in memory of the men tragically shot in that ill-fated encounter with Endeavour crew. 

Cook Landing site and the Tukutuku Panels, illuminated at night. Photo / Supplied

As Nisbet observed, it was a tragedy all round, given Cook’s determination to ensure the Endeavour crew didn’t repeat the mistakes of Britain’s earlier misdeeds in the Americas and India, when interacting with indigenous people. As Cook and Banks went ashore after alighting from their row boat, a 14 year old crew member, armed with a gun, stood guard on the foreshore. Minutes later, after being ceremonially challenged by two warriors carrying taiaha, the local Ngāti Oneone chief, Te Maro, had been shot dead in a disastrous misunderstanding.  

What a pity that the Tahitian priest and translator, Tupaia, hadn’t gone ashore from the Endeavour with Cook and co. Be sure to savour the historic site by both day and night, when it’s artfully illuminated, as is the enormous circular sculpture in honour of Te Maro, erected on Kaiti Hill, overlooking the landing site. Take your culture fix a step further by admiring the trove of exhibitions inside Tairāwhiti Museum which has fostered a solid reputation as being one of the country’s finest regional museums. It weaves together deep, rich strands from Tairāwhiti’s long back-story. 

For a complete change of scenery, treat yourself to a knock-out cinema with a difference in Gisborne. Dome Cinema is housed within the grand old bones of the Poverty Bay Club, a venerable old wooden mansion and prime specimen of late 19th century provincial architecture. 18 years ago, Sally Shanks repurposed what was originally a gentleman’s billiards room, transforming it into an art house cinema, with a particularly evocative, elegant ambience. Unique features include a glorious, triple domed ceiling which was originally shipped out from England. Gigantic beanbags are scattered around the large mood-lit room, backed by comfy couches. With her effervescent charm, Sally and her team will personally seat you in the bean bags which is all part of the hilarity and novelty of this cinema. They still do intermission at this venue, heralding the delivery of pizza and ice cream to your seat, which you can gorge on as the film resumes. Best of all, the adjoining bar, stunningly bathed in red and green mood-lighting, quirky furnishings, sublime lighting projections and an infectious speakeasy vibe. It’s positively, wondrously escapist and a must-not-miss when in Gizzy – the ultimate hidden gem. 

Bean bags at Dome Cinema. Photo / Supplied

Sticking with the quirky vibes in Gizzy, another local treasure to stake out is Smash Palace. Brimming with an eclectic and eccentric stash of furnishings, there’s paper mâché dinosaurs made by local school children dangling in this bar, alongside vintage advertising signage, life rings and all manner of ephemera. This live music venue and convivial bar has been a city mainstay for nearly 35 years. The weekly roster of evening activities rums the gamut from line-dancing to build your own band nights. Get amongst it. It’s a stone-cold classic. 

Make tracks to one of New Zealand’s oldest craft breweries, Sunshine Brewery. Fancy a cold one? Inspired by Gisborne’s legendary summers and famed surf breaks, Sunshine is a boutique brewery anchored by the East Coast ethos of sun, surf, mates and good beer. Founded 35 years ago, their top-quality beers are headlined by their flagship light lager, Gisborne Gold. There’s over 20 Sunshine beers on tap at the brewery taproom. The beer is ice cold and the thin-crusted pizza is piping hot.   

Gracing the city beachfront, in the new Midway Surf Rescue Community Hub, Tahu is an inviting upstairs eatery that opened just before Christmas. The menu is expansive, reaching deep into the region’s abundant local produce, but I can highly recommend the venison croquettes and the seafood platter. Down below, The Kiosk is a fantastic grab-and-go operation. Great pastries!  Gisborne’s treasury of good eats is also headlined by USSCo Restaurant for fine, quality bistro dining.  

Photo / Supplied

The menu is switched up regularly, with sublime seafood dishes. If the snapper ravioli with olives, cherry tomatoes, chardonnay cream and brioche crumble is on the menu – order it up !If you’re wondering about the name, USSCo is housed in the historic Union Steam Ship Company building at the river-end of the city centre. Another firm favourite is Crawford Road Kitchen. From light bar snacks to a full evening menu, their food is designed to be shared, while drinking in those serene inner-harbour esplanade views. 

Wine time? Gisborne is the third largest wine growing region in the nation, producing a diverse range of varieties, in addition to being New Zealand’s unofficial capital of Chardonnay. Its reputation as a premium producer is globally recognised, for the consistency of crop, the wine and its flavour.  A star producer is Matawhero, one of the New Zealand’s historic wineries, with a back-story that begins with Bill Irwin, widely regarded as the father of modern viticulture in New Zealand. He bought the Riverpoint Road land in 1968, Matawhero’s home block, planting vineyards.

His son Denis became Gisborne’s first small-scale producer of fine wines and their first vintage in 1975 put New Zealand on the world wine map with a reputation for rebellious and flamboyant flavours. Intially, Matawhero was acclaimed for Gewürztraminer, alongside scooping numerous prestigious awards for its Chardonnay. As has always been the case, the Matawhero label features an image of the nearby Matawhero Church, the district’s oldest building – the sole surviving building of the land wars in the area in the 1860s. The church remains standing today and you can still see the bullet holes in its walls. Kirsten and Richard Searle purchased the iconic Matawhero vineyard and winery in from Denis in 2008. The baton could not have been passed to finer people, because the Searles have built upon Matawhero’s great legacy, with passion, flair and innovation. And they are truly charming hosts.

A wine flight at Matawhero. Photo / Mike Yardley

Definitely partake in a generous wine tasting and gourmet antipasto platter at Matawhero, where I sniffed, swirled and savoured my way through a delicious array of varieties. The tasting flight encompassed Rosé, Pinot Gris, Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay and Merlot. 60% of Matawhero’s production is in Chardonnay, including exports. I particularly adored their Single Vineyard Rosé, a silky fusion of summer berries and floral notes. Order up a pour of their flagship “Irwin” Chardonnay, which pays homage to the founders of Matawhero, Bill and Denis Irwin.  Plus I also sampled their divine Gewürztraminer – it’s surprisingly dry, elegant and exotic without being overpowering. Matawhero vineyards are 100% naturally dry farmed, creating more intense grape flavours, superior fruitiness and a lovely weight. 

It goes without saying that Matawhero winery is the sort of place you’ll happily want to linger at. So why not stay the night among the vines?  Right next to the Cellar Door at the Riverpoint Road vineyard, Matawhero boasts four luxury cabins that have all been individually designed and furnished. I stayed in the Blanc luxury cabin, which is beautifully finished in a creamy white décor, as a nod to the magnificent white wines Matawhero winery is renowned for. Every creature comfort is catered for, with a well-appointed kitchenette and ensuite; cloud-comfortable super king bed; a complimentary bottle of wine; breakfast provisions including Far East coffee, seasonal fruit, fresh eggs and toast; free WiFi, smart TV and a private outdoor deck with glorious views across the bucolic landscape. Treat yourself to a memorable stay.  https://matawhero.co.nz/ 

Photo / Supplied

From Gisborne Tairāwhiti’s untouched beaches to its the flourishing vineyards, re-connect with this charismatic, relaxing region, steeped in our nation’s history. Discover Tairāwhiti’s treasures in an entire new light. www.tairawhitigisborne.co.nz 

I romped my way around Gisborne and Tairāwhiti, courtesy of Ezi Car Rental. Kiwi owned and operated, I thoroughly enjoyed the Ezi experience, where excellent vehicles, super sharp prices and fast & friendly service are all part of the package. Ezi Car Rental operates an extensive network from 24 locations across the country, including Gisborne Airport. They’re everywhere you want to be. Head to www.ezicarrental.co.nz 

Mike Yardley is our resident traveller on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings. 

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