Whakatane and nearby Ohope Beach are places of sun, surf and general peacefulness. The people are friendly and full of bright ideas, much to the delight of visitors from near or afar. Forty per cent of locals have Maori heritage and there are world-class opportunities to experience Maori culture at the Mataatua Wharenui in the middle of town and Te Kura Whare, or the Tuhoe Living Building, in nearby Taneatua.
Beachgoers swell local populations during summer with some making an annual family pilgrimage to favoured campsites. Come winter, the summer crowds have dispersed, and the locals take a breath. For anyone preferring long, solitary beach walks and their pick of restaurants, the cooler months are the time to come. The town is quiet, there’s still more than enough to fill a few days and those famously numerous sunlight hours mean most activities can be enjoyed in good weather.
The name Whakatane comes from a phrase uttered by Chief Toroa’s daughter, Wairaka. When the Mataatua waka landed on the beach near Whakatane Heads, Toroa and the men disembarked to explore. The Mataatua began to drift away from the beach so Wairaka, seeing their fate, seized an oar - something women were not to do. “Kia Whakatāne au i ahau/I will act like a man”, she cried as she navigated the waka back to the safety of the shore.
The defiant figure of Wairaka has been immortalised at Whakatane Heads as an ever-present reminder of her bravery. The photogenic bronze statue, known as The Lady on the Rock, was placed in 1965 and is easily visible from Muriwai Drive.
Think of Ohope Beach as a suburb of Whakatane. A large hill and a 10-minute drive separate the two, however, there is a slightly different demographic in Ohope compared to Whakatane. It skews a little older, slightly more affluent (those views don’t come cheap), and many of the old-style baches have been replaced by larger, glossier homes with White Island reflected in the windows.
The 11km beach has been voted the most-loved beach in New Zealand, a fact that both locals and signage mention often. It’s safe for swimming, drenched in sunshine, and every man and his dog can be found wandering its length as the sun rises and falls. The West End has many walking tracks and is popular with surfers, while the southern end tapers into a thin peninsula bordered by the Pacific on one side, and the Ohiwa Harbour on the other, close enough to hop, skip and jump from the ocean surf to the harbour shallows. The surrounding area was well settled by early Maori, and there are more than 90 pa sites, all constructed between 1500 and 1769.
Meet the Wildlife
Whakatane’s journey to becoming the Kiwi Capital of the World began in 1999 when eight North Island brown kiwi were discovered living in the Ohope Scenic Reserve. Since then, more than 100 volunteers have put in thousands of hours each year into protecting the kiwi through pest-trapping, monitoring and community education. By late 2018, more than 300 birds lived in the reserve. The population is so well-established now that residents often fall asleep to kiwi conversations or peek out the window to see one enjoying an al fresco backyard meal.
Kiwi Night Walks
Russell Ingram-Seal is a bug man. The creepier, the crawlier, the bigger, scarier – all the better. This makes him the ideal guide for a night-time kiwi walk. When the two-legged feathered friends win the game of hide and seek (which, let’s be fair, is fairly often), Russell is ready with a torch in hand. His beam showcases the nocturnal residents of the Ohope Scenic Reserve. Sheetweb spiders weave webs and wait patiently for dinner to land in their laps, centipedes slide through the leaf litter and weta... Oh, the weta. Cave weta, tree weta, weta bigger than a human hand.
A night walk is the best way to understand the work of the Whakatane Kiwi Trust. Russell and the group of guides share their vast knowledge while always keeping one ear out for the call of the kiwi echoing across the valley. Should the weather, stars and fates align one of 300 kiwis calling this region their favourite restaurant may wander into view, but even if they don’t, it’s well worth the adventure. Kiwi Night Walks take place Friday nights in April, May and June. Book in advance via the website as there are only 20 spots per walk, and they fill quickly. Cost is a koha or donation to the Trust ($20 per adult, $10 per child and $50 per family). Bring warm clothing, suitable walking shoes and a small headlamp or torch. A reasonable level of fitness is required. Find out more at whakatanekiwi.org.nz
Activities and Outings
Awakeri Rail Adventures
If you need a break from driving a big RV and your hands are itching to try a steering wheel of a different sort, book a tour with Awakeri Rail Adventures. Sure, the modified golf carts might not be the sexiest or most heart-racing vehicle, nor will a leaden foot have much impact on speed but the 3-hour adventure along the railway is a fun break from the monotony of state highways. Plus, there’s plenty to learn from the wise-cracking guides, including the history of a 500-year-old kahikatea that was saved from being milled in the early 20th century. The tours have three stops, including one to feed some chooks and ducks, and another to enjoy a stroll through the White Pine Bush Scenic Reserve. Next to the gas station on State Highway 30, Awakeri. 0800 537 472, on Facebook.
Moutohorā / Whale Island Tour
On the remnants of a long-eroded complex volcano, life flourishes as it once was. Tuatara roam the undergrowth, fur seals bask in the sun, saddlebacks dance through the native bush. Moutohora, or Whale Island, is nine km north of Whakatane; its gentle curves a companion to mainland residents. The island was declared a wildlife refuge in 1965 and a thorough planting programme and pest eradication have allowed flora and fauna on the island to thrive. New Zealand fur seals, tuatara, kiwi and saddlebacks are just a few of the islands long-term residents, with seasonal guests including the caspian tern enjoying the safety of the island haven. Moutohora is also the site of the world’s largest muttonbird – or sooty shearwater – colony.
Access to the island is restricted, with only a small number of operators granted concession. Even then, all who visit the island must comply with strict biosecurity practises. Book your tour at moutohora.co.nz
The locals may not be happy that someone let this rural secret slip. The Braemar Springs/Te Waiu o Pukemaire water is cool and refreshing year-round, however, a word of caution before leaping into this beautifully clear swimming hole – one man’s cool is another man’s freezing. It may be wise to dip a toe in first… 488 Braemar Road, Rotoma
Nga Tapuwae o Toi Track
Whakatane is a walker’s wonderland, and Nga Tapuwae o Toi (Footsteps of Toi) walkway is the star attraction. Toi (also known as Toi Te Huatahi) is one of Aotearoa’s famed ancestors; an early inhabitant of Whakatane, and a figure celebrated by Ngati Awa and Tuhoe. The walk follows footsteps long faded, exploring the coastline of Whakatane and the beauty of Ohope.
The 16km walk weaves together scenic reserves, culturally significant sites, historic pa and pristine native bush. It’s best to head in a clockwise direction, departing from the Kohi Point Walkway towards Ohope, then back to Whakatane via the Ohope Scenic Reserve. The walk is suitable for most fitness levels (there are some stairs and steep sections, but the views are a decent reward) and the full loop will take between 5 and 7 hours.
Parking: For walkers who are keen to complete the full loop, there’s a carpark on Gorge Road (on the right when leaving Whakatane). There’s an easy footpath walk from the gorge carpark to the town centre – or simply begin the walk at the base of Puketapu Lookout – so it is possible to leave a car in town, or walk from a nearby accommodation.
Bus: For walkers short on time, or with their sights on an afternoon nap, the Bayhopper bus regularly runs between Ohope and Whakatane (Mon-Sat). baybus.co.nz
Kohi Point Walkway
Access to Kohi Point Walkway is right in the middle of town, opposite Pohatoroa. The first section climbs stairs to the base of the Puketapu Lookout – a short detour here reveals views over the town. The track then follows Seaview Road before heading left around the headland. There is another short detour that leads to Kapu Te Rangi (Pa of Gentle Breezes), one of the oldest pa sites in the country and the stronghold of Toi. From here, the path heads towards Otarawairere Bay.
Important: Otarawairere Bay is only passable at low tide. At high tide, the combination of ocean swell and hazardous rocks make this section unpassable, so always check the tides before leaving. There is a path at the southern end of the beach that climbs over the hill to Ohope Beach.
Ohope Scenic Reserve
The entrance to this section of the walk is located on the corner of Pohutukawa Ave and Ohope Road, and is clearly signposted. The trail that leads through the Ohope Scenic Reserve combines both the popular Fairweather Loop and the Mokorua Bush track. The reserve is a ‘best-of ’ the region, with ancient pohutukawa, wetlands and towering natives. At night, this reserve is a favourite with kiwi – their calls echoing across the valley and beyond. During the day, only their snores remain but it’s easy to picture this lush forest as their playground.
Mokorua Bush Scenic Reserve
A haven for native birds, this land has undergone an incredible transformation in the past hundred years. The native bush was originally cleared for farmland in between 1910 and 1920, but has regenerated beautifully and now provides a home for North Island brown kiwi, tui, kereru and morepork. If walking clockwise, this is the final stretch of the Nga Tapuwae o Toi walkway. The track ends at the carpark on Gorge Road – it’s an easy walk back to the beginning of the track/town centre from here.
Ohope Harbourside Trail
While Ohope Beach may be the ‘prettiest’, the harbour is just as lovely – so lovely that the Whakatane Rotary Club raised over $200,000 to create a walkway showcasing the waterside. The 2.9km trail leads from Waterways Drive to Ohope Wharf, where wanderers can sit back and watch the local fisherman trying their luck.
Warren Cole Walkway / River Walk
For a whistle-stop highlights tour of Whakatane, take a walk along the Warren Cole Walkway and River Walk. The 4.5km path runs from the Landing Road bridge along the Whakatane river to Whakatane Heads, and passes through the Whakatane Gardens, the miniature railway, via Whakatane township, past the iSite (stop in to see the White Island display) and out towards the playgrounds and historical sites of the headland. A one-way walk will take around 1-2 hours depending on how many swings are swung, gardens wandered and sites sighted.
Both the Ohope Harbourside Trail and Warren Cole Walkways offer an easy waterfront meander for cyclists too.
Something To Eat
Fisherman’s Wharf Café
Timing is everything at Fisherman’s Wharf Café. Sitting above the gentle tides of the Ohiwa Harbour, Fisherman’s Wharf is in prime sunset position, with a large deck and big windows perfectly placed to let nature entertain. Once the show is over and orange and pink have turned inky blue, the food becomes the main event. Every town has a ‘celebration’ restaurant, and Fisherman’s Wharf is just that for Ohope – this is a special place to come, where diners treat themselves to the best lamb in the area, and always order dessert (the banoffee pie is pure indulgence). 340 Harbour Road, Ohope Beach. (07) 312 4017, on Facebook.
Cadera is the type of restaurant that just makes diners feel good. The walls are bright and covered in cheeky murals, the music is either live or lively, there’s a large outdoor deck where diners can enjoy a margarita in the sun and the food is mouthwatering and quick to arrive. Owners Kathy Potter and husband Tom Johnson may be yet to actually visit Mexico, but they’ve got their twist on the cuisine sorted. Cadera began as a taco truck before a twist of fate and timing bestowed them with their dream premises in Ohope Beach. Kathy recommends jalapeno poppers, or the squid – or one of their crowd-pleasing tacos (the record was 15). It does pay to book in advance, especially on weekends. 19 Pohutukawa Avenue, Ohope Beach. (07) 312 6122, on Facebook.
L'epicerie Café and Larder
Follow the smell of coffee, butter and pure happiness that drifts through Whakatane and there’s a good chance the trail will lead to one of two L’Epicerie locations. The first, L’Epicerie Café & Tea House, is at 73 The Strand. This is the home of mouthwatering French galettes (a type of crêpe with sweet or savoury toppings), flaky pastries and excellent Apteryx coffee – a breakfast of champions to say the least. If French taste buds are tingling, continue walking through Whakatane and discover L’Epicerie Larder (128 Commerce Street). The Larder’s pastries, tarts and loaves of bread are displayed like edible showpieces, all ready to be savoured in the outdoor courtyard. The Larder is open for breakfast and lunch, plus dinner on Friday and Saturday. On Facebook (both locations).
For early morning people-watching with a side of excellent food, pull up a pew at Moxi Café in Ohope Beach. It’s clear from the constant flow of conversation that this is where locals find their daily brew and catch up on the news – and as all travellers know, following the locals is a surefire way to discover the best food. Open for breakfast and lunch, Moxi celebrates fresh local produce in a cool (and kid-friendly) space – come for brunch, stay for the atmosphere. 23 Pohutukawa Avenue, Ohope Beach. moxicafe.co.nz
Somewhere To Stay
There are several designated freedom camping locations in Whakatane and Ohope for motorhomes that are fully self-contained. For more information, visit whakatane.info/business/freedom-camping
Waimana Gorge, Taneatua
South of Taneatua beside Waimana River. There is a large rest area.
McAlister Street Carpark, McAlister Street, Whakatane
Certified self-contained freedom camping is permitted in the car park at McAlister Street, Whakatane. There is a large playground and skate park in the immediate vicinity of the car park.
Maraetotara Reserve, Ohope
Located beside Ohope Beach there is a playground, charter club restaurant, chemist and tennis courts nearby. Restrictions: Max. 2 days stay. First come, first served. Dogs must be on leads at all times. Limited space.
Port Ohope Boat Ramp, Harbour Road, Port Ohope
Continue driving to the end of Harbour Rd, onto a gravel road. Turn right toward the boat ramp, 500m before the end of the road; look for signage. Large vehicles require blocks. Park well clear of trailer parking. Max. 2 nights stay. No dogs (fines apply).
West End Car Park, Ohope Beach
Note: camping at West End car park is prohibited from the beginning of the third week of December until 31 March.
Ohope Beach Top 10 Holiday Park
Ohope Beach Top 10 Holiday Park appears to have adopted a well-known saying as its mantra, however, while it’s normally said “above and beyond”, here they prefer “above and beyond-er”. This large beachfront property is a playground for both young and adult. Everything has been well thought-out and planned, whether it’s having the local Four Square and bakery bring their wares to the small onsite shop (saving the morning bread dash), having endless activities for kids (bouncy pillows, trampolines and more) or offering not only a pool but hydro slides too.
The biggest draw has to be the 11km stretch of white sand beach that lies within steps of the campground. All guests, whether in tents or one of the apartments, cabins or caravans, can gently drift off to the sound of waves playing their lullabies on the shore.
Another bonus? Dogs are welcome (on campsites/with campervans) outside of the peak summer period. Just one more little extra that the park has taken care of. 367 Harbour Road, Ohope. 0800 264 673, ohopebeach.co.nz
Awakeri Hot Springs
Awakeri Hot Springs may well have been designed based on a ‘how-to create childhood holiday memories’ guide. Mercifully unchanged and charmingly retro, this bush-surrounded patch will remind parents of long-ago vacations, and give kids a taste of life before iPads. There is a range of geothermal hot pools, with a large main pool, two children pools and six private spas that draw water from the natural hot spring. If toes and fingers have pruned from hours spent splashing, there is plenty of room to run around, playgrounds and swings, plus a well-stocked store for ice cream.
Accommodation options vary from basic tent sites to one-room cabins, motel units and flats. The pools are free to use for guests (private spas are additional), but the public is also welcome to use the facilities for a small fee. Awakeri is just 10 minutes from Whakatane. 1363 State Highway 30, Awakeri. (07) 304 9117, awakerisprings.co.nz
Whakatane Holiday Park
Located just a short walk along the riverside from downtown Whakatane, this spacious holiday park has plenty of powered and non-powered sites for motorhomes and caravans. Facilities include a TV room, laundry, kitchen, bathrooms, BBQs and a swimming pool during summer. Mcgarvey Rd, Whakatane, (07) 308 8694, whakataneholidaypark.co.nz
Extracted from the 2020 issue of The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand, New Zealand’s leading independently researched travel guide. To order your copy, visit thisnzlife.co.nz/shop $19.90 plus handling and postage