Young Nick’s Head isn’t the most visually arresting landmark in the verdant region of Gisborne, but it has gone down in history for getting noticed. Edged by white cliff faces, the slim, shrub-covered headland was the first thing Captain Cook’s crew saw when the Endeavour arrived at the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island in 1769. From my vantage point atop Titirangi Hill, it grabs my attention too, pointing like a bony finger into the same South Pacific seas that carried not only Captain Cook but also thousands of seafaring Polynesians aboard wakas, or traditional canoes, before Cook’s arrival. Noticing my gaze, Digby Fraser, owner of nearby villa The Blackhouse and a longtime resident of Gisborne, says, “That’s where New Zealand enters Aotearoa‘s story.”
Digby is using the Māori name for the country to emphasize the idea that European contact is the most important inflection point in the history of these islands. This side of New Zealand hasn’t traditionally been a big part of its draw for the legions of tourists who come for wine and adventure, but in recent years the country has invested in fresh ways to honor its past. Titirangi is part of the Tupapa Heritage Trail, a self-guided hike introduced in 2019 that leads participants past locations of great significance in Māori culture. When the country began talking about reopening its borders early last year, I got in touch with Sarah Farag, director and co-owner of Southern Crossings and a Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist for New Zealand. I grew up in Wellington, the capital, and on trips back I’ve often felt frustrated by the predictable travel narratives marketed to international visitors, which have created a certain lopsidedness in New Zealand’s tourism economy, with certain areas buckling under the weight of all the arrivals and others never benefiting. My hope for this trip was to suss out lesser-known regions and experience some of the new ways Kiwis have begun presenting their homeland.
Besides being the place where Captain Cook came ashore, Gisborne’s eponymous main town is the first city in the world to see each new day, which is why Sarah started my trip here. In partnership with The Blackhouse, Sarah can arrange a helicopter to whisk guests to the peak of Gisborne’s Mount Hikurangi to take in the dawn with a guide from the local iwi, or Māori tribe, but I decide to view the sunrise from the stylish and very comfortable Blackhouse, overlooking Wainui Beach. A mug of coffee in hand, I tiptoe across the dewy grass in the gray predawn darkness to a picnic table. It does feel special watching the sun slowly illuminate the land, knowing that the rest of the world is still awaiting the new day.
Forty-five minutes up the coast, along roads that bend around sloping farmland patterned with tiny rippled pathways made by sheep, I meet my guide, Victor Walker, at Tolaga Bay. An enormously friendly man, Victor is a member of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, the largest iwi on the East Cape. He is a principal adviser at Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry for Māori Development, as well as an educator of Māori affairs and a coleader of the Indigenous-focused Tipuna Tours. In short, he has made a career of advocating for Māori interests. Alone by the bay, we walk under a carving of Hinematioro, a great chieftainess who became an ally to Captain Cook, up a pier that cuts deep into the water. Victor explains that the bay’s lapping waves signify the anguish of Māori women. He points out the cave where Cook was ushered to safety from a storm by the locals.
Few precolonial structures remain in New Zealand today. Māori histories, myths, and beliefs are inscribed in the land, and a person like Victor, who is as much a cultural translator as he is a guide, is vital in bringing Māori thought and tradition to life for a visitor. On either side of us, cliffs plunge dramatically into the sea; above, a checkerboard of clouds creates patterns on the water’s surface, shifting its tones from a dull gray back to the most brilliant green. I like to think that when the Māori chose the name Aotearoa, which means “land of the long white cloud,” they were honoring the way the clouds can draw out the magic of this place, like curtains rolling back again and again to reveal the beauty of the land.