While I’ve visited Rotorua, Taupo, and Tauranga countless times, until recently, I’d never quite made it to Whakatane. I imagine my reason is the same as many other New Zealanders and tourists—unless you’ve got roots there, it just doesn’t have the pull of the bigger, surrounding towns. And that’s a shame because it actually has a great deal to offer.
It even impressed my 16-year-old daughter Emily, who says she would love to live there. That’s pretty high praise, believe me.
An NZMCA Motorhome Friendly Town, Whakatane is nestled into the beautiful Bay of Plenty region. About 10 minutes’ drive from the town centre is the suburb of Ohope where Emily and I stayed.
Ohope Top 10 Holiday Park
Perched on beautiful Ohope beach (votedNew Zealand’s most loved beach in an AA reader poll), the Ohope Top 10 Holiday Park offers a fantastic range of accommodation including 120 non-powered campsites, 300 powered campsites, as well as cabins, apartments, motel units, and even glamping and glaravanning (yes, it’s a thing) sites.
Granted we were visiting slightly off-peak, but I was impressed at how beautifully the park was maintained. Clean, well-kept, and professionally managed. With the beach just metres away, plus all the facilities you’d expect from a quality holiday park, the park is a destination in itself.
Emily and I spent evenings beachcombing for shells, walking for miles up and down the beach, and discovering some of the hidden gems around the area.
One such gem was Otarawairere, a secluded beach accessible from Ohope Beach’s West End (a 10-minute drive from the holiday park). Once at West End, the beach is a 15-to 20-minute walk through a bush track, much of which is up and down steep steps, so a moderate level of fitness is required. As it turns out, my fitness level falls just short of moderate.
At about halfway, we were both ‘feeling the burn’, so decided to sit and take in the views for a bit. That turned out to be a good decision, as just at the moment we were looking out over the water and catching our breath, a pair of orca whales cruised past (followed soon after by an enthusiastic pair of teenage lads who had been following them by foot along the shoreline). Having never seen a whale before, it was a pretty exciting and completely unexpected highlight.
Steep steps aside, Otarawairere is simply stunning. Emerging from the bush and taking in the view of this pristine beach provides you with one of those rare ‘wow’ moments. Picture a quiet cove of shell-crushed beach, pristine aquamarine water, enticing rock pools, and magnificent pohutukawa trees. Pack your togs, a picnic, and your camera, and be sure to wear good shoes for the walk there or, even better, kayak there from West End.
Shopping and coffee
Located alongside Whakatane River, the shopping centre ticked plenty of boxes for me—lots of lovely little boutique stores, great cafes, and that friendly vibe you often get from small towns where everyone knows everyone.
And it’s a pretty township, too. Tulips were bursting into life in the roundabouts adding a touch of colour to every corner. We stopped for lunch at L’Epicerie Cafe a lovely little French cafe on The Strand, not far from the Whakatane i-Site. The staff were friendly (and very French) and the galettes were delicious and filling, sadly leaving no room for the yummy looking friand I was planning to indulge in.
The food offerings in Ohope are also impressive. I can recommend Cadera—a popular Mexican restaurant with a great menu and friendly service, and the newly opened Moxi Café, which does divine ricotta hotcakes and heavenly coffee. After lunch, we took a stroll along the waterfront to check out the famous Wairaka Statue, better known as The Lady on the Rock.
The statue commemorates Wairaka, the daughter of Chief Toroa whose bravery saved many of the tribeswomen and children from drowning. Just over the road is Muriwai’s Cave, one of the most sacred sites in the region. The sister of Chief Toroa, Muriwai was highly regarded by her tribe for her wisdom and second sight.
She lived in the cave for many years and left the cave with a heavy tapu when she died there. The tapu was lifted in 1963 and the cave remains a special place to this day.
The magic of Moutohora
Many people will know Whakatane is the gateway to Whakaari (White Island)—an active marine volcano that attracts visitors from all over the world, but the lesser-known Moutohora (Whale Island)—an island sanctuary and home to many rare and endangered plants, birds, and reptiles—is an absolute gem and a must-see for nature lovers.
Moutohora is pest- and predator-free, and the only access to the island is with a Department of Conservation approved guide such as White Island Tours. Their fully guided tours, which are limited to just 12 people, take around four-and-a-half hours.
To keep the island free from pests, the first order of the day is a bag check to ensure no unwanted seeds, insects, or stray predators might hitch a ride.
The island lies just nine kilometres offshore, so the ride there, aboard the Moutohora Cat, is quick and comfortable.
Our lovely tour guides, Fiona and Rachel, were both extremely knowledge and passionate about the island and its precious bird and plant life. Both know the island inside out, including the names and history of the resident kiwi who reside there.
The island is also home to a New Zealand fur seal colony, and, as we arrived on the boat, we were treated to a close-up look at these cuties as they dozed on the rocks. Once on the island, the tour took us through the dense bush where we spotted a multitude of birdlife, including a rowdy family of saddlebacks, and learnt of the immense conservation effort that has been focussed into the island over the past 50 years.
Toward the end of the tour and having worked up a decent appetite, we stopped for lunch at Sulphur Bay, a hot water beach. It wasn’t quite warm enough in the sea for a swim but a shallow dig in the sand resulted in a therapeutic hot foot bath—bliss!
The tour is suitable for all ages. We had young children and grandparents on our trip and both enjoyed it equally.
Tips for staying over
- Whakatane has five campgrounds with dump stations and one without. There is also a dump station at the McAlister Street carpark.
- Freedom camping (certified self-contained only) is allowed for a maximum of consecutive nights at the following areas: McAlister Street carpark, Maraetotara Reserve, the Port Ohope boat ramp, and the West End carpark.
- Find out more about the Whakatane region and the campsites available at whakatane.com.
Also worth a visit in Whakatane
- Fisherman’s Wharf Cafe: Located on Ohiwa Harbour, the cafe is renowned in the area for its tasty dine-in and takeaway menus and fabulous sea views.
- Kiwi night walks: From May to June, the Whakatane Kiwi Trust hold guided Kiwi night walks every Friday night. Find out more in our February issue.
- Ohope Craft Market: Held every second Saturday over summer and monthly over winter. Enjoy tasty fresh produce and grab a great bargain.
- KG Kayaks: Hire a kayak yourself or join a group and discover secluded beaches, visit seal colonies, and enjoy a fabulous day out on the water.
- Julian’s Berry Farm: Enjoy a freshly made berry ice-cream, have a game of mini-golf, pick some tasty strawberries, and relax at the cafe.