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Closer to heaven

Gisborne has what the rest of the world has lost . . . or is looking for, writes Justine Tyerman. Freedom, safety, peace, good health, natural beauty, quality of life and an awareness among the people who live here that they share a secret, a key to heaven.

It's evident on the faces of the people who have come from faraway lands to settle in this most easterly city in the world. I like to mingle with such folk because they refresh our sense of wonder at how blessed we are to call this place home.

The new arrivals love the laid-back, cruisy lifestyle, long sunshine hours and the generous, down-to-earth, unassuming, practical Kiwis who live here. There's a groundedness and a complete absence of pretension among the inhabitants.

The ‘imports' are amazed at the abundance of cheap, fresh produce, kaimoana, and wines and craft beers here, baskets of which arrive on the doorstep when a friend has a surplus. One recent arrival, a veteran surfer, was stunned to find himself the only person on the beach with his pick of perfect, world-class breaks.

An American friend of mine says the fact the ozone layer is thinner here is a blessing because ‘it's closer to heaven,' she says . . . the evidence being that all her prayers have all been answered by living here.

Gisborne, known to the locals as Gizzy, is a compact city of 36,000 people where everything is close-by. A trip across town takes five minutes and we think twice about driving 15 minutes to visit friends at Wainui or Patutahi. People in Gizzy think they are hard done by if they can't find a car park right outside the shop, hair salon or restaurant of their choice, or if they are held up in rush-hour traffic — a queue of maybe eight to 10 vehicles at the main set of lights in the CBD. We are spoilt.

‘Poverty Bay' is a serious misnomer for this place of plenty. It is one of the most fertile areas of New Zealand, famous for its luscious wines, fruit and vegetables which flourish in the rich, alluvial soils and abundant sunshine. The land is so fertile that when we rip plants out of the garden, they take root again and continue to grow.

To gain a big-picture perspective of the area before exploring the town and hinterland, drive or walk to the top of Titirangi Reserve (Kaiti Hill) and take in the sweeping views across the bay and the flats dissected by three major rivers. It's a superb vantage point to view Young Nick's Head (Te Kuri a Paoa), named after Nicholas Young, Captain James Cook's cabin boy on the HMS Endeavour, who first sighted the dramatic headland with its sheer white cliffs on October 6, 1769.

To go more deeply into the history of the region and the first meeting between Maori and European, visit Tairawhiti Museum. It has a well-earned reputation as one of the best, most innovative regional museums in New Zealand. The museum has excellent permanent exhibitions about Maori and colonial history and culture, as well as regularly-changing contemporary exhibits.

Next door to the museum, is the 28 Maori Battalion C Company Memorial House, a profoundly moving tribute to the Maori men of Tairawhiti who served in WW2. About 1000 men from the region volunteered for the Company representing six local tribes. Their war effort is famous in Tairawhiti.

Never underestimate this little city

Accessible to all, the Oneroa Cycle and Walkway linking Waikanae Beach to Midway Beach is popular with visitors and locals alike. Since opening in August 2015, there's been a steady stream of walkers, pushchairs, wheelchairs, cycles, scooters and walking frames trundling up and down the beachfront board and concrete path.

To feel the pulse of Tairawhiti, visit the Saturday morning Gisborne Farmers' Market. In a decade, it has grown to incorporate food and coffee stalls, vegetables, fruit, cheese, bread, muffins, baking, honey, free-range eggs, meat, fish, pickles, pestos, sauces, jams, nuts, flowers, seedlings, hand creams, soaps and wine. Much of the produce is organically-grown and there's also gluten-free breads, crackers and biscuits.

Set up in a large carpark opposite Tairawhiti Museum, it has become a popular gathering place on a Saturday morning. If you are lucky, buskers will be entertaining the crowds.

For wine aficionados, the best place to get an overview of the region's magnificent wines is the Gisborne Wine Centre at Crawford Road Kitchen, right on the waterfront in the Inner Harbour.

Go there early in the evening and watch the sunset with a glass of chilled rosé.

Sheltered by hills and mountain ranges, Gisborne's warm dry climate is moderated by the nearby ocean, with the cooling afternoon sea breezes, typical of many of the world's great wine-growing regions. These breezes preserve natural acidity and tropical fruit flavours in the wine, and fine clay and silt loam soils create full-flavoured aromatic wines with ‘a haunting marine note', thanks to the nearby ocean.

Reliable spring rain and long dry summers, combined with both alluvial and heavier clay soils, allow the growing of a wide range of grape varieties, including chardonnay, for which the region has long been famous. Few regions in New Zealand compete with the sheer diversity of varieties produced in Tairawhiti.

Gisborne is not all about the wine though. Beer connoisseurs are well-catered for by the Sunshine Brewery which has been making delicious batch-brewed beer using all natural ingredients since 1989. Based close to Waikanae Beach, Sunshine is one of the oldest independent breweries in New Zealand.

Never underestimate this little city. Gizzy is full of eye-brow raising surprises. Apart from holding the distinction of being the first meeting place on Aotearoa soil between Maori and European, Tairawhiti is a place of many other notable firsts.

Gisborne, the most easterly city in the world, is the first city on the planet to see the light of each new day; it's where Maori landed their voyaging waka in the 14th century after navigating the Pacific Ocean; it's home to Millton Vineyards and Winery, the first producer in New Zealand to gain Bio-Gro certification for organic wine production in 1989; and it's also home to Rocket Lab, the world's first privately-owned rocket launch facility that hurls rockets into space from a base on the tip of Mahia Peninsula.

Gisborne's iconic Rhythm and Vines music festival has just celebrated its 18th year at Waiohika Estate on the outskirts of the city. The event was founded in 2003 by a group of university mates and has grown to become one of the top venues in the world to celebrate the New Year.

Gisborne is home to Muirs Bookshop, one of New Zealand's oldest bookstores. Opened in 1905, it's also one the country's largest independent bookstores. They take books seriously there. I love the plaque on the wall: ‘A room without books is like a body without a soul: Cicero.' Upstairs, there's an excellent café with a balcony overlooking Gladstone Road, Gisborne's main street.

Several times a year, the Gisborne City Vintage Railway take their pride and joy, Wa165, out of the shed for a run. Built in Dunedin's Hillside Workshops in 1897, the steam train is the only remaining Wa class engine operating in New Zealand. In the pre-Covid-19 days, international cruise ship passengers were able to board the train at the wharf before it puffed its way across a harbour bridge and the airport runway to a powhiri at a local primary school. It's the only railway line in the Southern Hemisphere that crosses an airport runway. In Gizzy, planes give way to trains.

Surfers know the coastline for its world-class surf breaks; cyclists for the Motu Trails offering everything from easy, family-friendly pathways to seriously-challenging backcountry tracks; hikers for the myriad short and multi-day scenic walks; epicureans for the Labour Weekend First Light Wine & Food Festival; and thrill seekers for Rere Rockslide, a giant 60-metre high natural rock slide about 45 minutes from town.

Add to that the fact that Tairawhiti is the country's biggest citrus grower, the self-proclaimed ‘Chardonnay Capital of the World' and one of the largest horticultural producers in New Zealand and the region's credentials are impressive . . . but they sit largely under the radar. There's a modesty here which Maori speak of in a well-known proverb or whakataukī.

‘Kāore te kūmara e kōrero mō tōna ake reka.' The kumara (sweet potato) does not speak of his own sweetness.

Sunset from Titirangi-Kaiti Hill. Picture by Damon Meade.
Wa165 vintage steam locomotive with the cruise ship Golden Princess in the bay. The Gisborne Herald picture
Rere Rockslide is just 45 minutes from town. The Gisborne Herald picture
Wainui Beach has world-class surf breaks. Picture by Damon Meade
The Saturday morning Gisborne Farmers' Market. The Gisborne Herald picture