Story: Hawke’s Bay region

People have long been attracted to Hawke’s Bay’s warm, dry climate. In the 2020s visitors also come for the food, wine, and art deco architecture. It is a region of contrasts – mountains and plains, floods and droughts, rich and poor.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: European settlement at Mōhaka, 1860

Story summary

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Hawke’s Bay has a varied landscape, including mountains, hill country, coast and flat plains. Because it is close to where the Australian tectonic plate meets the Pacific plate, it is prone to earthquakes. The largest recorded was in 1931, when at least 256 people died.


Most of Hawke’s Bay is warm and dry. Weather can be variable though, especially in summer, which often has droughts, and sometimes floods.

Plants and animals

Except in the mountains, most forest in Hawke’s Bay had already been burned off by Māori or natural causes by the time Europeans arrived. Most of Hawke’s Bay is grassland.

Many native birds live in the region, and there are also native lizards, bats and large land snails.

Māori settlement

Māori first settled in Hawke’s Bay around 1250–1300 CE. Ngāti Kahungunu people, who became the main iwi (tribe) in the region, arrived during the 1500s. In the 1820s iwi from the north and west invaded parts of Hawke’s Bay, and the local population declined.

European arrival

In 1769, Lieutenant James Cook and his crew became the first Europeans to visit Hawke’s Bay. Whalers came, and many married Māori women. Other Europeans came to trade with Māori, and missionaries visited and set up mission stations.

European settlement

From around 1850 European runholders (farmers) set up large sheep stations, mainly in central and northern Hawke’s Bay. Towns such as Napier and Wairoa were founded by the government, while Waipukurau and Hastings were created by farmers and land speculators.

In the 1870s settlers, many of them from Scandinavia, started clearing forest in southern Hawke’s Bay – an area that was known as the Seventy Mile Bush. They created farms and founded the towns of Dannevirke and Norsewood.

Farming and horticulture

The economy of Hawke’s Bay is based on the land. Sheep farming has long been important and later beef farming was introduced. Dairy farming is important in the south, around Dannevirke and Woodville.

A lot of fruit and vegetables are grown in Hawke’s Bay, especially apples, peaches and squash. There are many vineyards.


The first schools were set up by church missionaries. Hawke’s Bay has several private schools and Māori schools, including Te Aute College for boys, which opened in 1854.


Māori used tracks and rivers to travel around the region, as did European settlers when they first arrived. The many rivers and hills in Hawke’s Bay made it difficult and expensive to build roads.

Napier has the region’s only shipping port and main airport. The railway lines in Hawke’s Bay mainly carry freight.


Hawke’s Bay has many historic sites and buildings, including Ōtātara in Taradale, colonial houses and grand homesteads.

The region, and especially Napier, is known for its art deco architecture. Many buildings destroyed in the 1931 earthquake were rebuilt in the art deco style of the time.

Tourism and recreation

Visitors are attracted by the warm climate, food and wine, and art deco architecture. There are tramping (hiking) tracks in the mountains, and many rivers for water sports.


Most people in the region live in the urban areas of Napier and Hastings. In 2013 almost 80% of people identified as European. Almost a quarter identified as Māori – higher than the national average of 14.9%.

The median income of people in the region is lower than the national median. The centre tends to be better off than the northern part of the region, which is more isolated and has fewer job opportunities.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Hawke’s Bay region', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 13 August 2009, updated 1 July 2015