Catch a whiff of Rotorua’s sulphur-rich, asthmatic airs and you’ve already got a taste of NZ’s most dynamic thermal area, home to spurting geysers, steaming hot springs and exploding mud pools. The Māori revered this place, naming one of the most spectacular springs Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters).
A true pohutukawa paradise, Whakatane (pronounced 'fokka-tar-nay') sits on a natural harbour at the mouth of the river of the same name. It’s the hub of the Rangitaiki agricultural district, but there’s much more to Whakatane than farming – blissful beaches, a sunny main-street vibe and volcanic Whakaari (White Island) for starters.
Named after the hulking 232m hill that punctuates the sandy peninsula occupied by the township, uptempo Mt Maunganui is often just called ‘the Mount’, or Mauao, which translates as ‘caught by the light of day’. It’s considered part of greater Tauranga, but really it's an enclave unto itself, with great cafes and restaurants, hip bars and fab beaches.
The Opotiki area was settled from at least 1150, some 200 years before the larger 14th-century Māori migration. Māori traditions are well preserved here, with the work of master carvers lining the main street and the occasional facial moko passing by. The town acts as a gateway to the East Coast, and has excellent beaches − Ohiwa and Waiotahi − and an engaging museum.
Highlights of this area include Lake Tarawera, where visitors can explore the lake on a boat tour or hike the Tarawera Trail. The region's explosive volcanic past and present is on display at interesting sites including Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, Waimangu Volcanic Valley and Hells Gate & Wai Ora Spa.
‘Katikat’ to the locals, this busy little town was the only planned Ulster settlement in the world, and it celebrates this history with a series of colourful murals. There are now more than 60 murals in the town, and occasional festivals mean the display is always being added to.
Whakaari (White Island)
New Zealand’s most active volcano (it last erupted in 2013) lies 49km off the Whakatane coast. The small island was originally formed by three separate volcanic cones of different ages. The two oldest have been eroded, while the younger cone has risen up between them. Mt Gisborne is the highest point on the island at 321m.
Tuhua (Mayor Island)
Commonly known as Mayor Island, this dormant volcano is 35km north of Tauranga. It's a privately owned island noted for its black, glasslike obsidian rock and bird life, including a clutch of kiwi introduced to the predator-free isle in 2006. Walking tracks cut through the overgrown crater valley, and the northwest corner is a marine reserve.
Papamoa is a burgeoning 'burb next to Mt Maunganui, separated now by just an empty paddock or two, destined for subdivision. With big new houses on pristine streets, parts of Papamoa have the air of a gated community, but the beach beyond the sheltering dunes is awesome – you can’t blame folks for moving in.
Take SH2 through Te Puke then turn left onto Maketu Rd and you’ll find yourself deposited at this seaside town which, although historic, has seen better days. Maketu played a significant role in NZ’s history as the landing site of Te Arawa canoe in 1340, commemorated with a somewhat underwhelming 1940 monument on the foreshore. The town is now famous for Maketu Pies.
Motuhora (Whale Island)
Nine kilometres off Whakatane is Moutuhora (Whale Island) − so-called because of its leviathan shape. It's one of the less active members of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, although there are hot springs along its shore. The summit is 353m high and the island has several historic sites, including an ancient pa (fortified village) site, a quarry and a camp.
About 24km long and forming the seaward side of Tauranga Harbour, privately owned Matakana is laced with secluded white-sand surf beaches on its eastern shore (experienced surfers only). The community lifestyle here is laid-back and beachy, but the only way you can visit it is on a private boat from Tauranga or Mt Maunganui.