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Gisborne: where to stay and what to do

It had been years since I visited Gisborne so when the opportunity came up to visit New Zealand’s eastern most city, I decided to make it a girls’ roadie from Hawkes Bay and off we set.

Me, mum and cousin Kate bobbing along after a detour to the cattery in Meeanee to drop off Kate’s fur baby, Big Blue (her three-legged British Blue).

Gisborne map
Gisborne is located on the North Island’s east coast

We stopped in Wairoa, about an hour south of Gizzy and made a beeline for Oslers, who have the reputation of being the best bakery in town. Well at least that’s what Kate said.

It was quiet on this Tuesday morning, and I was tempted to join the lady with the full face moko who started jamming on the piano parked on the footpath (like I did playing spoons with the busker in Dublin) but she finished before I got across the road or that would have been a brilliant video too!

After our pies and bagels, washed down with a shortbread yoyo, we jumped back in the car and headed out for the east cape.

Gladstone Street Gisborne
I tried to get my lashes done, but they couldn’t fit me in!

Gisborne’s streets are wide and Gladstone, the main street, is planted with swaying palm trees down the middle. Captain James Cook’s ship used to feature at each end with a little tall ship mounted high on a pole to remind travellers that the Endeavour landed here back when the city was called Turanga.

Back when the crew disembarked in 1769 and started naming things after themselves – like Young Nick’s Head as young Nick was the crew member to first sight New Zealand. The headland was originally named Te Kuri a Paoa, the dog of Paoa, as that’s what Maori believed it looked like 🙂

Where to stay in Gisborne 

The Portside Hotel is quite literally port side. It’s part of the Heritage Boutique Collection and is in a superb location within walking distance of the main street of Gisborne via some nice cafes and restaurants and plenty of great walking and cycling tracks going off in both directions to and from town.

Portside Gisborne
No I didn’t take this pic! Our room was at the end of the lap pool. The port is on the left.

We had a one bedroom suite and an adjoining room so we flung the door open onto a large kitchen in between with our own microwave, dishwasher, fridge and even a washing machine. The kitchen opened onto our living area with a dining table and a couch and armchairs in front of the TV.

High floor to ceiling sliding doors opened directly onto the lawn and just beyond that, the waters edge across which we could see the logs stacked up ready for export and the machinery working them (perfect if you’re bringing your bulldozer crazy kids!) It’s not noisy though, I hasten to add, just fascinating.

Gisborne hotel
The lounge looks onto the water. This one is upstairs.

Behind the port is Kaiti Hill which I confess to only watching from my bed as Kate set out on the path and across the bridge then up the hill for the city views. My excuse was it was slightly raining. She came back said it wasn’t. Oops.

I love the way the Portside Hotel does breakfast too. They don’t have a restaurant so you select your items from the menu before 8pm and when you’re back from dinner a basket of goodies will be on your bench and in the fridge. I went for a bagel with cream cheese and jam, apple juice and a pot of plunger coffee which we just made when we were ready.

Where to eat in Gisborne

The hotel staff are so friendly – especially delightful manager Trish and I also want to give a shout out to Sharon on the front desk. I tasked them with recommendations for dinner and other things to do in Gizzy, and they were great!

Ussco Bar & Bistro is only a couple of blocks from the hotel, and also a couple of blocks from Gladstone Street, in an historic former shipping company building.

Make sure you book (thanks Sharon!) because even on a Tuesday night it was so packed people were being turned away. Award-winning chef Thomas Boyce updates the menu daily depending on the fresh produce he gets and uses local meat and seafood wherever possible. I had the pan fried Terakihi with prawns and sage butter on a creamy mash. So good!

Ussco Gisborne
Ussco bar

Tamarind was recommended by Simon, marketing manager at Millton Vineyard, when I picked his brains about where to eat (after our wine tasting!) the next day (see that below).

He and his family love Indian restaurant Tamarind so I took to Tripadvisor to double check and sure enough several reviewers claim it to be “the best Indian restaurant in Gisborne”. Family run, the decor is best described as “understated” but the food is excellent. It’s way down the end of Gladstone, so you’ll need to drive or taxi there.

Peppers Beachfront Bar & Cafe is in the surf club right on the ocean and on a great day provides the absolute best views in town as the waves lap onto the beach below you. The special was seafood chowder with garlic bread, which I said a big yes to and with a smokey roux and fresh mussels, prawns and smoked fish was outstanding. If you’re a chowder fan, this is one of the best you’ll find.

Peppers cafe Gisborne
The day was overcast but the view spectacular!

Sunshine Brewery’s Tap Room. They boast they are the oldest independent brewery in NZ but with cutting edge technology. They’ve also won a crate load of awards since 1986 right up until the latest round. From the Tap Room you can look over the whole brewing process. Come here for a pizza and a beer tasting board.

Things to do in Gisborne

Wineries are dotted around Gisborne and we made a beeline for Millton Vineyard which really stands out for its uniqueness. It’s an organic and biodynamic vineyard and has been for its 35 year history.

Owned by Annie and James Millton, (it was their guy Simon who told us about the curry!) they are winning all sorts of awards and acolades and huge international attention for their wines. It was also quiet enough to not only have Simon’s time for about an hour and learn all about their growing to harvesting techniques, but also to go out the back and have a nosey around. 

Kate and I did a tasting and I ended up stuffing their Viogner, Muskat and Pinot Noir into my luggage to bring home. Cellar door is open 2pm-4pm.

Millton vineyard
Millton vineyard on a glorious day

Dome Cinema is a hidden gem. If Trish at the Portside hadn’t told me, I’d never have known to be able to tell you! The brainchild of a young woman, Sally Shanks, the former gentleman’s club with its stained glass ceiling domes is now a cinema.

But it’s no ordinary movie theatre – the seats are oversized double beanbags with small coffee tables for your wine and pizza. They play more art house movies and at intermission Sally will ding a gong and announce ‘intermission’ for everyone to get their wines and order a woodfired pizza which you eat as you continue watching.

Tairawhiti Museum and Art Gallery comes highly recommended. I didn’t actually know about this place but my travel agent (a former Gizzy boy) told me about it and said it’s well worth visiting. They have regularly changing exhibitions and permanent collections ranging from fine arts to Maori taonga (treasured possessions).

Don’t miss the attached C Company Māori Battalion Memorial House either. It was opened almost 100 years to the day after the first 60 Māori volunteers from Tairāwhiti left Gisborne for the First World War. It is a moving House dedicated to the memory of the men of C Company who served in WWII with photographs and memorabilia.

Tairawhiti Museum

If you’re a book worm then you must pop into Muirs Bookshop. It opened its doors in 1905 and is the oldest bookshop in New Zealand. Upstairs is a cafe (that sadly did not reopen after the Covid lockdown) but downstairs you’ll lose yourself in the stunning hard cover titles and coffee table books.

They also have second hand books down the back, a selection of local history books, a large range of children’s books and will order anything in that you’re looking for.

Muirs bookshop Gisborne
One could easily spend an hour at Muirs

If you’re planning a bigger Kiwi road trip check out my post Ultimate New Zealand itinerary where I break the regions down into how many days you need to spend in each place and some highlights of what to do in each.

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Hi, I'm Megan Singleton and I'm the word slinger of this travel blog as well as on radio in NZ every Sunday. Former Travel Editor at Yahoo NZ and current freelance writer for a few newspapers and mags from time to time, I set off on this travel writing journey 20 years ago and I've pretty much always got a suitcase half packed (or half un-packed!) I'd love you to join me on Facebook or Twitter and sign up for my newsletters if you want loads of travel tips, advice and deals!