24 hours in Whakatāne: All the best beaches, nature walks and wildlife to enjoy
Hitting the road from the hustle and bustle of Tauranga, Sue Hoffart finds a traffic-light-free town whose neighbours include an intriguing island and arguably New Zealand’s best beach.
7.50AM Once the Pacific Coast Highway has passed beneath that glorious pōhutukawa archway on the Matatā straight and the berry signs appear, you know Whakatāne is close.
8AM Having nabbed one of the last available units in Whakatāne on the Monday of a summer long weekend, we hurl our bags into One88 On Commerce Motel. It’s a fine choice – high ceilinged and spotless with extra-obliging managers. Shame we’ll barely see it.
8.30AM Most shops are closed today but Café 4U’s chef agrees to whip us up a salad to go, saving me from lunching from the handsome mountain of slices and cakes piled on the counter.
8.40AM Uh-oh. The food at White Island Café at Moutohorā Tours is fresh, wholesome and nothing like standard tourist fare, so I can’t resist adding another dish to our alarmingly large lunch pile. At the tour desk, forms signed, we receive a metal cone in lieu of a boarding pass for the boat ride to Moutohorā/Whale Island. Only permit-holders are allowed to land on the pest-free sanctuary.
9.30AM Inside a rustic caravan, tour guide Malia Godsmark has switched to biosecurity-officer mode to oversee the checks needed to safeguard the island’s precious residents. The 24 passengers file in, dumping their personal effects into a large plastic tub. Malia’s friendly and efficient, and kindly doesn’t comment on my enormous lunch bag, or the grass and grimy bits she shakes from inside our backpacks. Apparently the contents of our bags are boring compared with some of the items she’s found when searching for undesirable fruit and seeds.
9.50AM Shoes freshly dipped in disinfectant, we chat with Captain David Plews while waiting for stragglers. Although his sparkling blue eyes are full of mischief and he relishes cheeky banter, it turns out our skipper’s specialty is unflappable capability. He was alongside Whakaari/White Island when it erupted in 2019 and steered many of the injured to shore, and in 2016 he was hailed a hero for getting 59 passengers and crew safely off another sightseeing boat after it caught fire.
He has a photo on his phone, taken by one of the rescued passengers, that shows him diving off the bow of the blazing boat once everyone else was in the clear. We’re obviously in safe hands.
10.30AM Foul rain clouds lurk nearby but the sun is determinedly shining over Moutohorā, with its distinctive cone rising 350m out of the sea.
Our first stop is a fur seal colony, where sleek black seal pups lounge across rocks and elicit oohs and aahs.
Our guides spin colourful yarns about the island’s history of failed business ventures, including a whaling station that never saw a whale. Its ecological history takes in a volcanic past and runs through to its recent use as a kiwi-breeding colony. At one stage, rabbits introduced as craypot fodder bred so well that numbers quickly reached around half a million on the 143ha isle. Nowadays, abandoned rabbit holes are occupied by grey-faced petrels that crash-land here to breed.
12.40PM Flopping onto a shady spot against a cliff, we’re initially unaware of the neighbours. It’s only when Malia beckons, points and whispers “blue penguin chicks” that we realise two siblings are squatting a couple of metres from our picnic spot. The fluffy month-old birds eye us from a nest poked into a cleft in the rock, as they await the dusk return of their fish-bearing parents. We’ve already seen a pair of kākāriki parrots today and countless tīeke flitting about, with their distinctive orangey-red backs.
1.10PM Having provided a laidback yet information-packed tour, our two guides try to dig a hot water pool at Onepū/Sulphur Bay, but the tide’s too high. Never mind – who cares about that sandy hot tub? Being on this beach, in this water, is worth the trip in itself.
It’s a hoot to dive into the clear water and find the warm patches of sand ourselves when our toes hit the ocean floor. Cries of “Ow!” ring out as overenthusiastic diggers find themselves in hot water. Just below the warm patches, the bubbling springs are scalding.
2.20PM On the way back to land, a city-dwelling fellow passenger is tickled by the day’s deviation from her comfort zone. She reckons flying into Whakatāne Airport on a small plane was pretty exciting too. The Auckland-based woman, her husband and the couple they’re travelling with would usually be in Mumbai at this time of year. Instead, they’re here. Their last trip was to Nelson; next up, the Hokianga.
3.15PM Near the start of the coastal section of the Ngā Tapuwae o Toi trail that links downtown Whakatāne with Ōhope Beach, we meet an Englishwoman heading in the same direction. She tells us that the cove en route, which isn’t accessible by road and can only be crossed on foot when the tide allows, has been named one of the world’s best beaches. The rest of this section of the walk is gorgeous too, ranging over a large pā site through bush with plenty of elevated coastal views.
Apparently the forest around here is home to 300 or so kiwi. We’re happy enough to spot a pair of kerurū, iridescent against a cloudless sky.
4.15PM Ōtarawairere is undoubtedly pretty but the secret’s clearly out. The ordinarily quiet beach is humming, so we blast on through, eyes on the prize over the hill.
4.35PM Sticky clothes shed, swimsuits on, we leap into waves breaking gently on 11km-long Ōhope Beach, recently voted New Zealand’s Best Beach for 2021.
5.20PM Woohoo! We’re just in time for happy hour at Mexican restaurant and bar Cadera in the short strip of surprisingly good shops at the end of the beach. It’s near an excellent gallery, 4 Art Sake, that’s jammed with paintings, sculptures, jewellery, clothing and gifts, but right now, the margaritas are calling.
6PM Friends drive us back over the hill to Whakatāne, where seven of us share whiskey-laced goat-and potato-filled naan for dinner at Spice Junction while swapping travel stories.
8AM Perched under a gazebo advertising his business beside Ōhiwa Harbour, Scottish-born Kenny McCracken has no doubt he’s living the dream.
The amiable Glaswegian hitchhiked around New Zealand before opting to settle in the sun-soaked Eastern Bay of Plenty. He shakes his head – back in Scotland his banker brother has been locked down and working from home for nine months. Kenny launched KG Kayaks 20 years ago and now offers kayak rentals and guided tours (one of his staff was on the island yesterday with a small group).
It’s been a busy summer – yesterday’s customers included people from Russia, the Netherlands, Germany and China, as well as his regulars. We nab the last two kayaks and follow his directions: paddle to the beach across the harbour, go around the island, watch for gallivanting stingrays. There’s just too much to do here, he tells us cheerfully.
THINGS TO DO
- 4 Art Sake
- KG Kayaks
- Moutohorā Island Tours
- Ngā Tapuwae o Toi trail
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
- Café 4U
- White Island Café
- Spice Junction
WHERE TO STAY
- One88 On Commerce