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The Top 10 Things to do Hawkes Bay & surrounds, NZ

Sunny, scenic and filled with rolling hills as a backdrop against waterside cliffs, Hawkes Bay is known for its wines, its wildlife and its laid-back nature as a getaway spot in New Zealand for those with a taste for the finer things in life. Home to hilly terrain that descends into vineyard-draped valleys that produce some of NZ's most famous wines, cities with distinctive and quirky characters and plenty of other attractions, it's a slower-paced region where relaxation is encouraged.

But what makes Hawkes Bay worth putting on your itinerary over any other travel destination in New Zealand? And what are the absolute must-do attractions, activities and things to do in Hawkes Bay and its surrounds?

With all of the above factors in mind, here's our list of the top 10 attractions and other essential sightseeing activities in Hawkes Bay for the year 2015 and beyond.

10

Napier Municipal Theatre

Napier Municipal Theatre

Location: 119 Tennyson St, Napier, NZ

The Napier area of the Hawkes Bay region hangs its hat on its unique dedication to art deco styling throughout its architecture and various other displays, and there are few other places that both exemplify this and serve as a worthy attraction in their own right than the Napier Municipal Theatre. If you're after a dose of cultural entertainment in the Hawkes Bay region, this is the place to come – it's host to an array of performing arts which you'll be able to catch on display during in-season, with generally high production values and talented cast members across the board.

Featuring traditional, slick art-deco styling mixed in with all the mod-cons of current-day theatres, the building itself is just as much a star as the performers who grace the Napier Municipal Theatre's stages. This is a lovely heritage venue that has been beautifully restored inside, while featuring a stylish outside facade that incorporates a fair amount of “neon” lighting and helps to adds a retro feel that's classic without ever feeling trashy.

"Featuring traditional, slick art-deco styling mixed in with all the mod-cons of current-day theatres, the building itself is just as much as star as the performers who grace the Napier Municipal Theatre's stages."

Step inside the building, and you'll find yourself in a warm and welcoming environment that's brimming with character; the rooms are spectacular and decked out with abundant coloured glass, the furnishings are high quality and well kept, and the interior's restoration even included reincorporating the original carpeting from a previous iteration of the theatre.

Guided tours are available for those interested in learning more about the theatre's history, construction and ongoing productions, and for Art Deco fans it's an insightful and detailed look into the operations of such an attraction.

Perhaps the only downside to visiting the Napier Minicipal Theatre is its relatively limited performance schedule; while shows take place regularly throughout the year, there are some significant gaps between them. Thus, if you're planning a visit, be sure to keep an eye out for the performance schedule (available online) and try and line up your visit with a concert that's about to take place – while the building is an attraction in itself, taking your place in one of the 900+ seats and enjoying a show surrounded by the excellent acoustics is a must-do for theatre fans in the Hawkes Bay region.

9

Hawkes Bay Farmyard Zoo

Hawkes Bay Farmyard Zoo

Location: 32 East Road, Haumoana, NZ

Wildlife lovers – or those travelling to Hawkes Bay with kids along for the ride – will want to set aside some time to pay a visit to the excellent Hawkes Bay Farmyard Zoo, a hybrid farm/wildlife attraction that focuses on combining animal interaction with an added educational aspect. Set out over a fairly spacious 3 hectare farm and featuring a number of enclosures housing animals of a range of different kinds – baby emus, lambs, goats, chicks, ostrich and more are all found here – it's a place where both the animals and visitors have a fair amount of freedom to enjoy it how they see fit.

Simply put, this is perhaps Hawkes Bay's best overall attraction for kids when both fun and value for money is concerned – there's an large emphasis put on getting hands-on with the animals which is always a big hit with children, and during your time here you'll be able to hand-feed almost all of them at some point. The animals look happy and well taken care of, and the grounds of Hawkes Bay Farmyard Zoo are kept clean and tidy making for a pleasant overall atmosphere.

"Simply put, this is perhaps Hawkes Bay's best overall attraction for kids when both fun and value for money is concerned – there's a large emphasis put on getting hands-on with the animals which is always a big hit with children."

Feeding the animals requires the purchase of a cup of food – priced at an extremely reasonable $1 – while other animals such as the lambs can be bottle-fed. If you're wanting to maximise your interaction with the animals, it's best to arrive earlier on in the day when the animals are hungrier so they'll be all the more willing to be fed; a good idea is to arrive mid-morning and bring along lunch, which you can then enjoy while relaxing in the roomy picnic area. There's also a takeaway bar offering simple yet tasty food, and allows parents to take a break and enjoy a coffee while the kids run from one enclosure to the next.

Hawkes Bay Farmyard Zoo also offers guided horse/pony treks that take participants on a delightful journey to soak up the delightful regional scenery; adults can take part in an extended trek that lasts ~1 hour, while children can hop on the back of a docile pony and enjoy being taken on a track around the farm.

With a low cost of admission and an experience that's enjoyable for all ages, families visiting Hawkes Bay would be well served spending half a day at Hawkes Bay Farmyard Zoo.

8

Take a ride with Boutique Horse Treks

Hawkes Bay Horse Riding

Location: 5 Stafford St, Hastings, NZ

The rolling hills and countrysides are a big drawcard to many people looking for an escape in the Hawkes Bay region – the degree of uncrowded space and wide open, panoramic areas make it for the perfect spot for some peaceful exploration, and horse riding makes for an ideal match for this environment.

Local operator Boutique Horse Treks specialise in taking guests on comprehensive, scenic horseback tours through this delightful landscape, and cater to riders of all skill levels – from the skittish first-timer to the confident advanced rider. Couple this with ride itineraries that range in length from shorter, 30 minute rides all the way up to more epic 4 hour adventures, offering a degree of customisation so that there's truly “something for everyone”.

The experience all starts with the hosts themselves, who are calm and reassuring by nature and who have a clear understanding that this will be the first experience on horseback for many visitors. This coincides with the attitudes of the horses themselves – they're generally placid in temperament and exceptionally well-trained, which makes for an environment that helps allay any fears one may have. You'll be given an insight to the natural method of horsemanship which puts an emphasis on bonding with the horses (and is easier on the horses themselves) rather than merely using them as transportation, and this helps to further the connection between both animal and rider along the way.

"Regardless of your choice of riding itinerary, Boutique Horse Treks allows visitors to the Hawkes Bay region to truly go “off the beaten track” and see parts of the New Zealand bush that usually would remain hidden to tourists."

Regardless of your choice of riding itinerary, Boutique Horse Treks allows visitors to the Hawkes Bay region to truly go “off the beaten track” and see parts of the New Zealand bush that usually would remain hidden to tourists. There's also plenty of local wildlife (particularly birds) to be spotted along the way, and the hosts provide a deal of insight into both the animal life as well as the surrounding geography as a whole. And what geography this is – the scenery in this area is exceptional, with uninhibited views for miles on end, and should you choose one of the beach rides, witnessing a sunset as the water laps at the horses' feet makes for a truly unforgettable experience.

As an added bonus, during your ride, the hosts will be taking pictures along the way so that you can simply focus on enjoying the journey and still come away with some quality mementos afterwards. Photos of yourself and your animal companions with the backdrop of dramatic hills or a roaring seaside are definitely something you'll cherish for years to come.

Local insight, animal interaction, stunning scenery and excellent service come together wonderfully to make this one of New Zealand's best spots for a horse ride, so if you've ever considered taking the plunge, Boutique Horse Treks provide the ideal avenue to do so.

7

Mohaka Rafting

Mohaka Rafting Hawkes Bay

Location: 3408 State Highway 5, Napier, NZ

Looking to kick things up a notch on the exploration scale from the typical enjoyable-but-laid-back offerings of the Hawkes bay region? A trip on the white water with Mohaka Rafting should do the trick. Conducted within the scenic boundaries of the Mohaka River gorge, rafting on offer here covers all the major grades of courses with difficulty ranging from mild, half-day Grade 2 rapid experiences that focus more on the scenic aspect of rafting up to challenging, full-day, adrenaline-filled Grade 5 sections of splashtacular enjoyment.

Different grade levels of rafting trip will take place on different parts of the river, from the upper sections all the way to the river's mouth out towards the ocean, with the scenery varying accordingly and making for a great backdrop to the proceedings. Travelling down the pristine waters surrounded by the likes of gorges, forests and farms only serves to enhance the fun of rafting; there's a new spectacle to take in around every corner and bend in the river.

Mohaka Rafting's tours are conducted with a blend of professionalism and fun; there's a lighthearted atmosphere throughout that's relaxed without lacking attention to detail; excellent quality equipment that's well maintained go hand in hand with a solid emphasis on safety throughout to make for a family-friendly rafting journey, particularly on the lower-end Grade 2 journeys.

"Different grade levels of rafting trip will take place on different parts of the river, from the upper sections all the way to the river's mouth out towards the ocean, with the scenery varying accordingly and making for a great backdrop to the proceedings."

Children will even have the option to float alongside the rafts in an inner tube at certain sections to help break things up a bit.

Meanwhile, on the more advanced itineraries, the full power and beauty of water are on display as you'll face a series of rapids that make for a cavalcade of bumps, splashes and thrills that make for an exciting ride. These include other side-adventures such as cliff jumps and diversions to see points of interest such as an abandoned gold mine that adds diversity to the rafting experience. Each point is explained in detail by the rafting guides, and at the conclusion of the journey you'll be able to kick back amongst these wonderful NZ surrounds and enjoy a rejuvinating lunch.

Transfers to and from the river are available from Napier as a courtesy which helps add additional value to what is already an excellent half or full day out on the water, so whether you're a thrill seeker or simply looking for a “person-powered” cruise down an extremely scenic stretch of his part of Hawkes Bay, you'll have everything you need for a pleasant aquatic adventure.

6

Cool off at Splash Planet

Splash Planet

Location: 1001 Grove Road, Hastings, NZ

Continuing on with the watery theme above, should you be visiting the Hawkes Bay region during its warmer periods (which occur annually between November and March), the region's Splash Planet water park is an essential item to include on the itinerary. Located in Hastings, Splash Planet features an array of both dry and wet rides for kids and kids-at-heart to enjoy, and although waterslides and associated aquatic entertainment are the obvious major highlight there's also plenty to do out of the water to keep visitors entertained.

Splash Planet's slides are its calling card, and there are enough on offer that each offer an individual rush that's different from the last – large, winding slides, dark tunnel slides, pair-racing slides and more are all covered here, and they're all both well designed and kept in solid working condition.

Those looking to take things easier can take a dip in one of the myriad of pools that are designed to fit each age group, with the park's indoor pools being heated and the outdoor pools heating up naturally during the day as a result of sun exposure. Grabbing a tube and floating down the “Never Ending River” is likewise an exercise in relaxation, and a good change of pace from the ride-based goodness.

"In all, it's quite an impressive offering as an attraction given Hawkes Bay's fairly regional / non-mainstream nature, and is also surprisingly well-priced for entry."

Hop out of the water, and your options for entertainment don't diminish much – the dry rides and land-based activities here are also diverse and enjoyable; expect the likes of go-karts, bumper boats, mini golf, flying foxes and other attractions suitable for most ages to keep both yourself and the kids occupied. Splash Planet also offers plenty of shaded areas to keep out of the sun when taking a break, although these can be quite full during peak season or the prime time of the day, so staking out a spot earlier on comes recommended.

Guests are also welcome to bring their own food into the park – another refreshing addition to the standard theme park – while the park itself also sells reasonably-priced food of its own available for purchase. Splash Planet also offers bookable barbecue areas available upon prior request, adding to the potential dining options.

In all, it's quite an impressive offering as an attraction given Hawkes Bay's fairly regional / non-mainstream nature, and is also surprisingly well-priced for entry ($28 per adult for a day ticket), especially considering the nature of typical pricing schemes at your average theme park. While families are the most likely candidates to get enjoyment out of a visit to Splash Planet, anyone looking for some refreshing fun in the sun can get value for money from spending a day here.

5

Visit the Wineries and Vineyards with Bay Tours

Hawkes Bay Winery Tours

Location: 85 Kaiapo Road, Hastings, NZ

Hawkes Bay wouldn't be Hawkes Bay without its wineries, so much so that they are the major calling card for many people visiting the region from afar. As the second-largest wine region in NZ, Hawkes Bay is home to over 100 individual vineyards and 80 wineries, and thus there's a reason that wine forms such a strong backbone of Hawkes Bay's economy as well as providing numerous potential delights to the tastebuds of visitors sampling a drop or three of the red or white.

Such a diversity of wineries on offer, however, can make forming an itinerary or selecting from the array of potential spots to visit exceedingly difficult, and this is where local tour guides Bay Tours come in, with a long-running history of taking newcomers to the Hawkes Bay region to a selection of its top wine hotspots.

Hawkes Bay's combination of a mild climate and plenty of sunshine make for the ideal environment for the production of Chardonnay and Bordeaux, and on these tours you'll have the opportunity to sample multiple varieties of the best labels of both. Tours with Bay Tours encompass a number of the Hawkes Bay region's top wineries – with those on offer dependent on the time of year – combined with an expert local knowledge and a willingness to adjust the schedule to fit the particular preference of their customers. The tailor-made nature of the tours are part of their appeal, as is the humour and down-to-earth attitude which they're conducted with.

"Hawkes Bay's combination of a mild climate and plenty of sunshine make for the ideal environment for the production of Chardonnay and Bordeaux, and on these tours you'll have the opportunity to sample multiple varieties of the best labels of both."

Tours come in both half and full-day flavours, and the shorter tours typically encompassing a 3-winery itinerary and the full day option stretching out into a more extended, 5-6 winery extravaganza. During the tours you'll have the chance to meet the owners of the wineries who are famously accommodating, and can provide further insight into the production methods and proper couplings of wines and their most suitable associated foods. This is all augmented by cheese boards and other savoury samplers that can be enjoyed all while soaking in the spectacle of rolling vineyards which makes for a relaxed and pleasant environment.

Wine isn't the only popular produce of the Hawkes Bay region either; the tours make a point of allowing guests to sample a range of foodstuffs as well including delectable chocolates, olive oil dishes and more at various surrounding producers, which help prepare the palate for the rest of the day to come.

While it would be quite easy to spend weeks in Hawkes Bay visiting all of the top wine producers and indulging yourself in gourmet delights, for most this is simply not feasible and thus Bay Tours' itineraries will provide you with a wonderfully balanced overview for an entirely reasonable price.

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4

Takaro Trails Cycling Adventures

Hawkes Bay Cycling Tours

Location: 9 Nelson Quay, Napier, NZ

Those who are planning to spend a more extended amount of time in the Hawkes Bay region gain the additional privilege of being able to do their sightseeing while “stopping to smell the roses”, and fortunately the area comes decked out with some truly scenic cycling trails that wind their ways through a lovely combination of wineries and coastline.

Over 180 kilometres' worth of cycling trail has been meticulously carved out between Hastings and Napier, and as a result there are numerous itineraries available for active types able get out and explore on two wheels. Takaro Trails run a setup that's ideal for visitors looking to do exactly that, providing the organisation of both essential cycling equipment and some excellent predetermined routes to follow.

Each of these routes are designed to cover a balance of scenery and culinary delights, while the “self-guided” nature of the tours mean that sightseers can enjoy them at their own pace. The rides come in various packages spread out over various portions of time, and while the multiple single-day rides are both easily enjoyed and highly popular, a truly comprehensive look at the region can also be achieved with a multi-day trip.

"Over 180 kilometres' worth of cycling trail has been meticulously carved out between Hastings and Napier, and as a result there are numerous itineraries available for active types able get out and explore on two wheels."

Your choice of cycling itinerary will largely depend on where your personal interests lie; the wineries of the Cape Coast offer a route that blends the blue and the green, following a mixture of limestone trails along the Tuki Tuki River and passing through several sleepy regional coastal communities and visiting a robust 7 wineries along the way, while heading south along the coast will lead to the spectacles of lovely Cape Kidnappers and the facades of the Art Deco buildings of Napier and surrounds. Cycling the Hawkes Bay region provides an up-close and leisurely look at all its most famous natural and man-made characteristics and makes it easier to gain an appreciation for the sheer volume of rolling orchards and vineyards that can be found here.

Those looking to celebrate a special occasion or simply extend the cycling experience can opt for one of the multi-day itineraries that spread out anywhere from 3 to 7 days, with special inclusions such as accommodation and other arrangements available upon prior request. Given that the majority of rides are conducted upon largely flat terrain and that the weather never gets too hot, riding over multiple days in the Hawkes Bay region is far less draining than it can be elsewhere and thus a very viable option.

Regardless of your decision, Takaro Trails outfit riders with top of the range, 24 gear sports cycles that are ideal for handling a variety of tracks and terrain that allow you to go slightly off-road (where some of the best views and vantage points can be found) should you desire. All other biking necessities such as helmet, map and water bottle are likewise included in the cost, so all you'll need to bring along for the adventure is some energy and a desire for exploration to make your journey through Hawkes Bay entirely your own.

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3

Take a ride on the Hawkes Bay Express

Hawkes Bay Express

Location: 100 Marine Parade, Napier, NZ

The city of Napier is many things, chief of which is an icon of the Hawkes Bay region of a whole and full of quirks that help to give it its own distinct charm from the rest of New Zealand's cities. The Art Deco style mentioned in the description of the Napier Municipal Theatre above is not simply a one-off thing; the city as a whole has been largely designed around this philosophy as a result of a rebuilding effort conducted after NZ's deadliest earthquake back in 1931.

This theming thus helps to make the city of Napier itself something of an attraction for visitors, the Hawkes Bay Express train caps off this imagery nicely by offering guests a leisurely tour around the city in vintage-era style and comfort.

A “road train” meticulously constructed to mirror the classic designs of the rail transport of yesteryear, the Hawkes Bay Express train takes riders on a city-based adventure detailing the history and local highlights of Napier all with an effortlessly classy feel. What might otherwise be a fairly standard city tour is made to feel completely unique as the velvet-and-wood interior of the train along with the sound of its characteristic whistle and bell creates an atmosphere of stepping back in time.

"A “road train” meticulously constructed to mirror the classic designs of the rail transport of yesteryear, the Hawkes Bay Express train takes riders on a city-based adventure detailing the history and local highlights of Napier - all with an effortlessly classy feel."

The train follows a route that covers all of the main attractions of Napier, and provides a detailed and comprehensive commentary on each with just the right added dash of humour to keep things interesting as well as informative. Such tidbits encompass a variety of topics from the earthquake, daily life in the region, local legends of both Maori and European inhabitants and much more. All of the major buildings and parks are covered in a way that's designed to be interesting to both children and adults, making for a ride that's as much a family experience as a historical overview of Napier.

The Hawkes Bay Express train rides come in two flavours – one is a 1.5 hour comprehensive tour that goes into the aforementioned detail on Napier and its background and is designed primarily with older riders in mind, while the second is a child-oriented tour that lasts for half an hour and gives little ones the experience of a “city train” ride without being overly long to avoid them getting bored. The train rides operate during the warm season in Hawkes Bay from November to April, running 3 times per day, and require prior booking in order to take part.

In all, the Hawkes Bay Express train ride forms a lovely change-of-pace counterpoint to the majority of cities' standardised bland bus tours; if you're going to be visiting Napier during your time in Hawkes Bay then be sure not to miss a ride!

2

Gannet Safaris to Cape Kidnappers

Gannet Safaris to Cape Kidnappers

Location: 396 Clifton Road, Te Awanga, NZ

If wine is perhaps the most recognisable attribute of Hawkes Bay for those outside the region, then its second would likely be the Gannet – a large marine bird that can be found in staggeringly large quantities at their nesting grounds of Cape Kidnappers, a lovely stretch of headland that sits on Hawkes Bay's south-eastern end. This particular colony of Gannets is the world's largest, and seeing the immense number of birds in person is truly impressive; over 6500 pairs have been counted here at one point making for a unique sight in and of itself.

It's when you add the dramatically scenic and cliff-laden panorama that surrounds this area to the amazingly large bird flock, however, that you get one of Hawkes Bay's most appealing natural day trip destinations.

The Cape lies around 20 kilometres to the southeast of Napier and consists of a number of sharp, barren cliffs jutting up out of the ocean comprised of spectacular rock formations that look particularly impressive at both sunrise and sunset. While the cape can be somewhat of a pain to get to when attempting to access it by yourself – it's not accessible by car, and requires a park-and-walk combination to get there independently - operator Gannet Safaris offer a guided tour that takes guests for a comprehensive, yet fun-filled look at the cape and the Gannets themselves.

"This particular colony of Gannets is the world's largest, and seeing the immense number of birds in person is truly impressive; over 6500 pairs have been counted here at one point making for a unique sight in and of itself."

Taking the Gannet Safaris guided tour option not only offers a deal more insight into the Gannets and their behaviour, but avoids an otherwise draining and lengthy walk on the beach to access the Gannet colony. Tours depart from Napier aboard air-conditioned 4WD vehicles and offer a comfortable and efficient way to soak in some of the wonderful coastal scenery around this part of the bay along the way, making several stops at scenic lookouts while headed for Te Awanga where travellers disembark and are able to get within a few feet of the Gannets.

The quantity of birds is fascinating and they are very active, while there are also amazing views on offer that stretch from the clifftops of the cape all the way back to Napier city.

Knowledgeable drivers who know the area inside out – as well as how to navigate it safely – make the journey to the Cape itself, rather than just the destination, part of the highlights, and this helps to make the roughly 3 hour tour fly by. Cape Kidnappers is one of Hawkes Bay's essential sightseeing spots, and there's no better way to get there smoothly and with more insight than Gannet Safaris can offer – and it's all capped off with a hot drink, a cookie, and a smile.

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1

Ascend to the top of Te Mata Peak

Te Mata Peak

Location: 20 - 30 minutes drive from Napier, Hawkes Bay, NZ

Most regions have a single iconic lookout point from which to take in their own distinct panorama, and Hawkes Bay's answer to this is Te Mata which offers aspiring walkers, hikers or (for the lazy among us) drivers quite a visually stunning reward for their efforts. While it's only a “relatively small” 400 metres high, the peak's perfect location and unblocked nature by any surrounding obstructions makes for a truly 360 degree outlook across the sweeping, dramatic countryside of Hawkes Bay and its inland areas.

The peak derives its name from a giant in native Maori folklore who took a bite out of the landscape, and this is appropriate as the jagged undulations of the terrain can still be clearly seen to this day. It's a visual showcase that sums up Hawkes Bay's many colours, and provides views that stretch as far as the distant Tongariro National Park on days of high visibility. While the park surrounding Te Mata is brimming with walking tracks of varying degrees, its the peak that makes for the #1 aim of the majority of visitors and which can be accessed in a variety of ways.

Driving will be the first option for many, and while it may seem the easiest at first glance, it's not without its challenges – the drive is both steep and winding, with a narrow road and numerous tight bends, particularly in the final section.

"It's a visual showcase that sums up Hawkes Bay's many colours, and provides views that stretch as far as the distant Tongariro National Park on days of high visibility."

Those who have driven on mountain roads before likely won't find this a problem, but it's still advisable to drive slowly and carefully while keeping an eye out for both walkers and sheep. Several companies run tours to the top for the faint-hearted, and your miles may vary as to whether you find value in this or not.

Walking and cycling are also doable, and there are a number of different walking tracks to choose from depending on if you're looking for a more scenic or direct route. The highest quality walking tracks can be embarked upon from the Te Mata Peak Road carpark and branch out accordingly; these pass through forested areas to various beautiful spots and make for pleasant diversions, however the Peak Trail itself that leads directly up to the viewing point at the summit will be the go-to track for most.

This trail takes around 1.5 hours to complete, and walkers should ensure they bring bottled water during the warmer months, while warmer layers should also be brought along during cooler periods as the wind both up and on top of the peak can be quite penetrating. Te Mata Peak can be reached within a 20-30 minute drive from Napier, so there's a minimal investment of time and effort required for what is the Hawkes Bay region's most memorable imagery – just be sure to visit on a clear day to maximise your viewing enjoyment of this wonderful landscape.

In addition, if you're looking for all the top things to see and do in and around Hawke's Bay including activities, attractions and more, be sure to check out our main region section to browse and book online!

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