It’s only 154 kilometres from Waihi Beach to Ohope Beach east of Whakatane, but the stretch of coast along the Bay of Plenty is full of wonderful beaches, history and things to do.
I took five days to drive what is easily done in under three hours and explored every beach and more along the way.
Most of the journey is along State Highway 2, except to visit each beach the traveller has to divert off the main road, drive-in, explore and enjoy, then drive back out again, and repeat the process at the next beach.
That makes each beach feel isolated, although each is close to shops, towns and civilisation generally.
Arriving at Waihi Beach in the late afternoon after a drive from Auckland was a delight. At the camping ground I got the van into the allocated space, connected the power cable and brewed tea, drinking it outside looking out to sea. I later had dinner outside as it turned dark.
The next day I explored the tidy streets of the township and, like all the other towns along this long coast, the prime spots are right on the beach on elevated ground for a better view and to be above the highest high tides.
There I found Flatwhite cafe, recommended as the best spot in the area. It’s an old warehouse with exposed beams and table service.
Formalities aside, the coffee was fine and the date scone was tasty, and it came with two pats of butter. A generous touch.
The town also hosts a well-regarded yoga and reflexology centre, with treatments ranging from four hours to whole weekends, an active RSA serving buffets to all, a couple of large holiday parks, and a well-run surf club.
From Waihi, I headed east along the beach road to reach Bowentown, a settlement that seems to have a name but no real heart. The houses all have a permanent ‘‘lived in’’ look.
Up the hill at the reserve, where signs say there’s no overnight camping, I enjoyed the panoramic view across the large inlet to Tauranga and beyond.
Doubling back on the main road, I push on to Katikati, a bustling place where I always make a point of sitting next to Barry to have a catchup on what’s happened since we last met.
Barry is a life-size sculpture of a dinkum Kiwi bloke, according to the sculptor, Donald Paterson.
Barry has sat on a park bench on the main street, reading a newspaper, since 1999. My kids were fascinated by him when we first passed through the town back then. In 2006, a dog, Jack, playing with a ball, was added to keep Barry company.
The Western Bay Museum in the town has a 1900s schoolroom experience, complete with pupils dressed in the uniforms of the time and a strict headmistress. It also has a fine collection of taonga, greenstone, baskets, and stone and wooden carvings, which tell the story of the tangata whenua. Impressive for a small operation.
I stopped in the town for a coffee and lunch, amazed by the volume of traffic on the roads in this area. Movement wasn’t helped by a lot of roadworks between Waihi and Tauranga, in and around Mt Maunganui and out to Pa ̄ pa ̄ moa.
As a family, we often holidayed in Pa ̄ pa ̄ moa in the late-1990s, and walked across fields from our accommodation to the shopping centre, and even to the beach.
Now the fields are built on, and the volume of shops has at least trebled. I enjoyed some tea and a date scone at Double Teaspoons cafe in the mall. I also inspected the beach, which I am pleased to report was unchanged from our last visit in 2001.
Maketu is famous for its pies, and the factory is easy to find. The dairy next door sells a big range. The woman at the counter asked if it was a late breakfast or an early lunch. Mid-morning snack I say, as I bit into a great meat pie for just $3.50.
Pukehina Beach bills itself as paradise created by nature. Sounds right. Another beach with high dunes and substantial homes ranged to the left and right of the access road.
I spy the Confederate battle flag flying from one house and walk along to investigate. The owner is not home but the neighbour tells me flags of all descriptions are regularly flown.
Next along the coast is Matata ̄. I stopped to look at the ocean and noticed it was past midday. The temperature was mild with a bit of wind – shirt sleeves or T-shirt weather with shorts all day.
Ohope is one of New Zealand’s most popular beaches, and it’s easy to see why: a long stretch of sand sloping gently into the sea, west facing, and with enough of a breeze to produce some white caps, but still safe for dogs and small children.
The Ohope Beach Top 10 Holiday Park at the end of the long beach road is massive and well-equipped, with many accommodation options from tent and power sites to cabins and classy motels. The shopping centre has plenty of cafe ́ s and restaurants, and there are motels and holiday homes to rent.
While Ohope is the premier destination around the Whakatane area, Ohiwa Beach on the opposite side of the harbour is well worth a visit, too. Ohiwa isn’t well signposted, but Google showed me the way.
The Ohiwa Beach Holiday Park slopes down from tree-lined hills to a lovely beach, which has fewer visitors than Ohope, as well as fewer amenities. A tranquil setting but a bit more isolated, though that’s not an issue if you have transport.
From any of these towns it is only a short drive inland to Kawerau, or to take in Te Puke, the country’s kiwifruit capital, or a host of other little beaches, each with their own delights.
- First published in the Sunday Star-Times..