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Exploring the East Coast in the New Baleno RS

When you have a two year old, a trip to the super-market by yourself feels like a holiday. So when the grandparents offered to babysit for three days, my wife and I were giddy with gratitude. With no real plan in mind we decided to head towards the East Coast for a short break in our Baleno RS – sans kids.

In our typical last-minute way we threw a few things into the roomy boot and took off from Wellington. The steep, winding climb through the Rimutakas is State Highway 2’s first challenge. With the smell of burning clutch hanging heavy in the air, older cars and trucks labour over the hill. But the Baleno’s BoosterJet engine made such short work of it, I almost wished there was more. This was also my first excuse to try out the ‘flappy paddle’ shifters. Pop the gear selector into ‘M’ and with a quick flick of the paddles located on the steering column, you can ‘manually’ change gears. On challenging roads it’s enormously entertaining as you can ‘engine brake’ into a corner, then push the revs higher as you power out.

After having my fun I put the Baleno back in auto as we cruised through the string of quaint little towns that make up the Wairarapa. Further on, State Highway 2 has a nice meandering character, weaving its way along rather than plowing straight through like SH1.

Approaching Napier the glittering expanse of the Pacific Ocean came into view. Parking up, my wife and I sauntered through the charismatic art-deco city, down to the beach. Over a very nice coffee we finally did some planning and booked a motel in Gisborne. What we didn’t do was top up on petrol. Perhaps it was the relaxed, optimistic vibe brought on by the East Coast sunshine. Perhaps it was the excitement of seeing the sea. Either way, we forgot to refuel the Baleno and were very relieved to see a service station as we reached the outskirts of Gizzy. Also impressed. Wellington to Gisborne on a $60 tank is pretty economical. According to the Baleno’s trip meter, we averaged about 5L per 100km despite the winding roads and hills.

The next day we awoke in the first city on Earth to see the sun and enjoyed an excellent breakfast at Zest café. We then took a long walk down Waikanae Beach – and memory lane for me as we used to stay at the campground there as kids. I’m not supposed to be eating sugar but who can resist a hokey pokey ice-cream when you’re on holiday?

Back on the road we decided we’d go as far as Tolaga Bay before heading back. This section of the Pacific Coast Highway serves up some of the most spectacular coastal scenery New Zealand has to offer. The 130 year old Tolaga Bay Inn is good for a hearty lunch, and no visit would be complete without a stroll along the historic pier.

After the obligatory photos we decided to make a beeline for the Morere Hot Springs about an hour south of Gisborne. We booked at the lodge just opposite which turned out to be a great idea. Our host Paul arranged a spectacular dinner for us and teed up a special afterhours visit to the hot springs. After consuming more ribs than anyone should eat in one sitting, we wandered up to the pools and had the place to ourselves. Which was good because neither of us had thought to pack togs.

I can’t vouch for the therapeutic nature of the salty water, but I can say we both slept well that night. After a quick brekkie in the local café (muffins to die for) we decided to spend the day on the Mahia peninsula. I felt a tad guilty talking to a guy who was just about to cycle up to Lake Waikaremoana – having just cycled 4 hours from Gisborne. We hadn’t even walked up the driveway!

The surf beaches along the road to Mahia are rugged and spectacular. Even in my surfie days I’m not sure I would’ve taken on the waves there – but, all along the coast a hard-core of mostly older surfers, bronzed and wrinkled by the sun, were loving every minute of it. Mahia Bay was more our pace. A gentle curve of golden sand, light zephyrs and sparkling waters. It was a perfect day and, thanks to the driver of an immaculate vintage Mini, a fun drive home. Together we took on the twisting road, roared past the trucks, and finally rolled into Napier.

With the New Zealand Iron Man the next day there was no hope of finding accommodation. Plan B was to drive to Taupo, stay there then head home via SH1. This section of the Thermal Explorer Highway is nothing short of spectacular – it definitely rates as one of my favourite drives with rolling farmland and bucolic vineyards morphing into mountainous ranges, precipitous gorges, and dramatic volcanic plateaus. Again, the Baleno felt eager – even on the steepest inclines. After many a visit, Taupo feels like home to me. We had no trouble finding good digs and had an exquisite meal at The Bistro – highly recommended if you’re in the neighbourhood.

After a good night’s sleep, we headed round the lake via a section of the Volcanic Loop Highway – better known as good ol’ State Highway 1 to Waiouru. The Desert Road was moody as always. We made a traditional stop to get milk from Bulls, then it was on to the fancy new Kapiti Expressway. At Paekakariki we squeezed back into a single lane to face the winding uphill grind through Pukerua Bay, then coasted down Ngauranga Gorge into Wellington. As we cruised around Marine Drive back to our home in Eastbourne we reflected on how much we’d enjoyed the trip – and the Baleno RS. It was only 3 days but it felt like we’d gone a long way and done a lot. Rested and refreshed we were nearly prepared for the onslaught of the children when we arrived home. Nearly.

Words and images by Nick McHugh – freelance writer