New Zealand: Closer to the edge

The long, tiring journey to New Zealand is always worth the effort for Janet Street-Porter. It's the perfect place to get away from other people

I was sitting on the verandah of a perfectly restored sheep shearer's wooden house at Big Tree Hideaway outside Gisborne, on the eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island. Our room had an old wooden floor and "Polly" carved by a previous occupant on the wall opposite our bed. Sipping a large glass of the local "artisan" chardonnay, and munching delicious Krispa crisps, I could hear the occasional thwack of a ball from the tennis club next door. A two-minute pre-dinner stroll down the road brought me out on to a long white-sand beach with rolling surf, fringed with expensive looking homes. A first-rate café was 200 yards away, serving grilled fish and excellent steaks. Yes, this is the good life, kiwi style. No wonder I've been back to New Zealand three times in three years. Sod the 20-something hours in the plane; the end result is always worth it: from walking to wine, New Zealand never disappoints. It's the best place I know to get away from everyone else.

I was sitting on the verandah of a perfectly restored sheep shearer's wooden house at Big Tree Hideaway outside Gisborne, on the eastern coast of New Zealand's North Island. Our room had an old wooden floor and "Polly" carved by a previous occupant on the wall opposite our bed. Sipping a large glass of the local "artisan" chardonnay, and munching delicious Krispa crisps, I could hear the occasional thwack of a ball from the tennis club next door. A two-minute pre-dinner stroll down the road brought me out on to a long white-sand beach with rolling surf, fringed with expensive looking homes. A first-rate café was 200 yards away, serving grilled fish and excellent steaks. Yes, this is the good life, kiwi style. No wonder I've been back to New Zealand three times in three years. Sod the 20-something hours in the plane; the end result is always worth it: from walking to wine, New Zealand never disappoints. It's the best place I know to get away from everyone else.

This trip was to be a combination of road movie and walking. We took a long car journey east across the North Island, to see as much coast as possible, stopping daily for walks, spending the night in "home stays" with friendly locals. My only complaint was that we tried to cram in too much, so if you're planning a similar trip, take my advice and allow plenty of time for exploring. After landing at around 6am we spent a couple of hours at the Hilton hotel in Auckland (fabulous views right over the harbour and ferries bustling about right in front of our window) bathing and repacking. Too excited to sleep, we picked up a hire car and were on our way by 11am, taking Highway 2 south, passing an extraordinary garden featuring a shop-window dummy wearing a ballgown made from ivy. After 20 minutes the city was behind us and we took Highway 25 through farmland, crossing a series of wide rivers on a bridge only one car wide, to arrive in Thames at the start of the Coromandel Peninsula. The sea on the estuary was shallow and yellow. The high street was full of interesting old buildings – in the 1880s this was a bustling community, the centre for gold mining and kauri-tree logging, one of the largest cities in New Zealand. Hard to believe on a sleepy Saturday, as a group of stallholders packed up their wares after the morning market. A giant hedge formed an arch commemorating the Second World War. You could easily spend a night here in one of the many guesthouses and go walking in the Kauaeranga valley, or through the Pinnacles mountain range in the National Park.

Heading north up the coast we passed rocky beaches with fishermen perched strategically on rocks. Steep sandy cliffs dropped into the sea at the side of our narrow, winding road. There were few settlements, no shops and no cafés, just campsites and the odd motel. Crossing streams on narrow bridges, the traffic gradually thinned out and an hour later we reached Coromandel town after climbing a steep hill with views of many offshore islands. The undulating green pasture-land dropped straight into the sea – spectacular. Coromandel itself consisted of one main street, preceded by a stretch of motels – the population of just 3,000 is considerably swollen with trippers from Auckland in the summer.

North of here the roads are gravel to Fletcher's Bay with plenty of great walks. At one of the restored old wooden houses (now the Pepper Tree Café) we ate lunch in an airy dining room with white paper table cloths and an old wooden floor; large, locally farmed, milky oysters and giant, meaty mussels and chips. For the first time we realised the NZ$3.3 to the pound meant that eating out was ludicrously cheap – one dollar seemed to buy a pound's worth of food!

Refreshed, we climbed out of Coromandel into misty mountains, dropping down to Whitianga (great beaches), with a ferry for visiting such beauty spots as Cooks Beach or Cathedral Cove. Nearby was Hot Water Beach, with hot springs under the sands. You can dig yourself into a hole for an instant spa, then cool off with a bracing bucket of sea water. At 5pm we arrived in Tairua, a pretty beach resort built on a steep headland around a protected small harbour. On the Edge Homestay (appropriately named) had a wooden deck which dropped down to the cliff edge, with sea birds swooping about to the roar of rocks on waves below. After a pot of tea and some homemade cake, I walked to the top of Mount Paku (an easy 30-minute hike from the front door) and could see the ferry that connected Tairua with the beach community of Pauanui opposite. It was like standing in the centre of a fisheye lens. My track went right around the headland, an easy hour-and-a-half limber up for dinner in a café on the harbour below – local seafood and more excellent white wine.

In spite of our host Andrea's pleas to stay longer and explore (I do think the northern end of the Coromandel is worth another day and you can easily visit the offshore islands by boat) we were back on our ruthless schedule heading south through forest to Whangamata. Then the land flattened out and turned into mile after mile of fruit and vegetable farms, with roadside stalls (three avocados for a dollar). A sign at a nursery read "petal pushers". Now we were in the aptly named Bay of Plenty, heading due east, the coast a series of long white sandy beaches, great for surfing and fishing. Some built-up resorts such as Mount Maunganui and Tauranga are more chic than others, but there are dozens of motels and unassuming places to stay – a real family holiday coast, with packed campsites and mountain bikes. On our right, sand dunes rising up to 300ft formed crumbling cliffs, with a single-track railway to our left. Jeeps and vans were par-ked at regular intervals on the sand as a serious fishing competition got under way.

Next stop was just past Te Puke, where we passed under a giant green arch to visit Kiwi Fruit Country, the world's largest kiwi fruit farm. I couldn't face a tour on a little train with carriages shaped like kiwi fruit but it was well worth a stop for the hilarious products in the gift shop. Have you tried kiwi fruit chocolate or honey lately? Pretty weird! After lunch we headed east to Gisborne via Waioeka Forest, winding through a deep river gorge. I was glad we'd stocked up with snacks and petrol as now the road was totally empty. An alternative route would have been via the east cape coast road, which would have meant another overnight stop.

We walked down to Tauranga suspension bridge, the original of which was built in 1880 to link settlers' farms with the road. An impressive structure made of Australian hardwood, it had to be remade after the first one was washed away in 1918. A touching sign explained how the Beaufoy, Hamilton and Lambert families had all farmed in this remote an inhospitable place in 1906, clearing bush to create fields around their homesteads. Eventually they all gave up. I couldn't imagine a more unforgiving environment, towering cliffs, deep shadow and total emptiness. All that remained was the odd bit of hedge. The solid timbers of the bridge, restored in 1995, were bleached pale grey by the elements.

An hour later we left the bleak hills behind and dropped down on to the orchards and vineyards in the plain surrounding Gisborne, New Zealand's most easterly city, the place where the new millennium started. The centre of town was marked by a large clock tower, but, shattered from our journey, we decided to delay sightseeing and headed a few miles north to our homestay, Big Tree Hideaway at Wainui Beach.

This was our base for the next couple of days while we explored the north-eastern peninsula. We borrowed an excellent museum-quality 1930s wicker picnic hamper (complete with Bakelite plates and cups) from our hosts Kim and Glen, stocked up with goodies from the deli counter in Woolworths and planned a series of walks off Highway 35, north of Gisborne. This is underpopulated farm land, a Maori stronghold, with few places to stay and sensational empty beaches – in other words, perfect JSP territory. Huge horizons, bare grassy hills, hippie camper vans, one emblazoned with the legend "out of it".

The old bank building in the small community of Tolaga Bay is home to Tolaga cashmere, one of New Zealand's top fashion companies, which keeps 1,000 cashmere goats on the surrounding hills. From a display of knitwear in dazzling colours I selected a bright blue sweater (factory prices here) and headed off to Captain Cook Walkway, a rollercoaster path over rugged headlands and down to the spot where the great man landed looking for provisions in 1769. Tolaga's jetty, built for the logging trade in the 19th century, is the longest in New Zealand at 800m – now it's used just by fishermen and birds. At the of deserted Solander Street picnic tables were beckoning on a grassy patch by the beach. It was time to tuck into sun-dried tomato bread, local olives, ham and pasta salad. Another enjoyable walk at Anaura Bay followed a trail by the river through meadows and then up to a ridge with great views of the coastline. In Captain Cook's day the Maoris cultivated the flat areas. Then there was a population of about 3,000. Today it's totally deserted except for the odd farm. Cook named the coast around Gisborne Poverty Bay as he found it so hard to get provisions – hard to believe when you see the vines bulging with grapes and trees laden with apples but up here the land was bare and empty. That night we dined in the harbour at Wharf café overlooking fishing boats and luxury yachts.

Next day we left charming Gisborne behind, continuing south east. We soon left the coast to climb up through forest on Highway 2 to Morere Hot springs where we paid $7 each for half an hour in a private room with a hot tub looking out over shady woodland. The tub was stainless steel. The water smelt slightly sulphuric and was very very hot. After 10 minutes we both resembled pink boiled lobsters. I put on my swimming costume and plunged into the large outdoor pool, refreshingly cold. Another picnic and we were back on the road heading towards Hawke's Bay and Napier. The next town, Wairoa, was pretty uneventful (excellent walking in the mountains further north on the trail around Lake Waikaremoana). The road was tortuous and twisting with the added hazard of giant logging trucks. Once a bridle track along the cliff edge linked Napier and Wairoa but today most of it has slipped into the sea, and this inland road was built in the early 1900s.

After Lake Tutira (another pleasant hiking spot) we emerged on to the flat and turned off towards Waipatiki Beach and the house we'd rented for a week. Set totally alone on a mile of sand, it was about a deserted as you could hope for. With a roof made of canvas, and walls constructed from old containers, it had three comfortable bedrooms and two bathrooms, decks for sunbathing and patios with large timber tables. The next few days passed in a haze. The roar of the surf kept me awake at first. A possum camped out in our living room. We ate mussels we picked off the rocks and swam in the surf. We hiked on a whole series of tracks up the coast further north. At Aropaoanui Beach (half an hour down a dirt track) we parked by an inland lagoon and followed the remains of the old bridle track up to a waterfall where the Waipapa river tumbled down the cliffs. In the late afternoon it was excellent swimming. Another walk at the Waipatiki reserve followed a trail through the bush under hardwood trees.

It was hard to tear ourselves away from nature to visit Napier and all its great Art Deco buildings, just 20 minutes further south. We stocked up on seafood (3kg of dabs for $10) at the fish shop by the harbour. On Saturday we drove down to the Lombardi vineyard near Havelock North, where there's a regular farmers' produce market. Venison sausages, olive oil, apricot chutney and strange vegetables. Soon I'll be cooking like Peter Gordon.

The facts,

Getting there

Janet Street-Porter's trip was organised by Tourism New Zealand (09069 101010; www.purenz.com). She flew with Air New Zealand (020-8600 7600; www.airnewzealand.com), and stayed in Homestays arranged by Bridge the World (0870 444 1716; www.bridgetheworld.com). Bridge the World offers return flights to Auckland with Air New Zealand from Heathrow via Los Angeles for £675 including taxes. (£2,529 business class), valid for departures until 30 June.

Being there

Unfortunately, The Tent House is no longer available for rent, but you can book one of several similar luxury properties in the Hawke's Bay area through Lombardi Vineyards (00 64 6 877 7985; www.lombardi.co.nz). Rush Cottage, which sleeps four, costs from NZ$290 (£95) per night, including breakfast.

One night's b&b at the On the Edge Homestay costs £25 per person, based on two sharing. One night's b&b at the Big Tree Hideaway costs from £32 per person, based on two sharing.

Double rooms at the Hilton Auckland (00 64 9 978 2000; www.hilton.com) cost NZ$281 (£86) per night, based on two sharing.

Further information

The Tolaga Bay Cashmere Company (00 64 6 862 6746). For details on the Coromandel area contact the local tourist office (00 64 7 868 5986; www.thecoromandel.com).



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