Story: Hawke’s Bay region

Page 1. Overview

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From the summit of Te Mata Peak in Havelock North there is a 360-degree outlook that shows the diversity of the Hawke’s Bay landscape. There are ranges, hills and plains, watched over by the ever-present Ruahine and Kaweka ranges to the west; the curve of Hawke Bay itself, tipped by Māhia Peninsula and the ranges surrounding Lake Waikaremoana in the north; and a hint of the eastern coast and hill country that stretches south to Cape Turnagain.

Māui’s fish hook

In Māori mythology, Cape Kidnappers is the hook of the jaw bone Māui used to haul up the North Island (Te Ika-a-Māui – Māui’s fish) from under the sea. This is reflected in its Māori name, Te Matau-a-Māui, which means Māui’s fish hook. Its European name was bestowed by Lieutenant James Cook after local Māori seized a Tahitian boy from his ship when it was off the coast of the cape in 1769. The boy was returned but the name stuck.

The intensively farmed land of the Heretaunga plains, studded with orchards and vineyards, is in striking contrast to the open paddocks of the pastoral farms in the central and southern districts.

Much of the population is packed into the triangle of land between Te Mata Peak, Ahuriri in Napier and the western suburbs of Hastings. The close proximity of the two cities – Napier and Hastings – seems to express and explain their historic rivalry. Both have absorbed small townships and turned them into suburbs.

South of Hastings is heartland rural New Zealand. In contrast, the land north of Napier up to Wairoa is sparsely populated, isolated and rugged, but spectacular in parts. It is regularly dotted with marae which hint at its significant Māori population.

Prosperity from the land

Historically, Hawke’s Bay’s economy has relied on the land and its resources. In the early 2000s pastoral and horticultural farming and processing were still its most significant industries. Vineyards and wine making have a long history in the region and have grown in importance since the 1980s. Gourmet food and wine has become a key part of the region’s economy and identity.

Tourists are attracted to the climate, food, wine and art deco architecture – also a product of the land via a major earthquake in 1931, after which there was considerable rebuilding.


Early Māori settlements were established from Māhia Peninsula in the north to Pōrangahau on the south coast. Ngāti Kahungunu arrived during the 16th century and became the dominant iwi (tribe) in the region. 

Whalers and traders were the first Europeans to come to Hawke’s Bay after James Cook’s voyages. Traders and missionaries arrived in the 1840s. They were followed by the first pastoral runholders (sheep farmers) in 1849. Sheep, and later beef cattle, were farmed on large stations. Towns were founded throughout the region – Napier was the first in 1855, followed by many more from the 1860s and beyond.

Māori lost most of their land through sales and confiscations. Despite this, Hawke’s Bay still has a significant Māori population in the 21st century.

Hawke’s, Hawkes and Hawke

Hawke’s Bay – apostrophe or no apostrophe? James Cook, who came up with this name in 1769, first recorded it as ‘Hawke’s Bay’. A day later he used ‘Hawkes Bay’, and the official map of the voyage uses the latter form. In those days spelling and punctuation were often inconsistent. Despite the fact that apostrophes are discouraged in place names, Hawke’s Bay became the official name for the region because this form was used in early statutes and official documents. Even so, many people spell the name without an apostrophe.

Further complicating matters, the bay itself is called Hawke Bay, following conventional naming practice.

Social divisions

Hawke’s Bay society is laden with contrasts. The vineyard owners, gourmet food producers, traditional farming families and remnants of a Central Hawke’s Bay gentry contrast sharply with the bulk of the population, who earn, on average, less than the national median income. There is significant poverty in some communities, particularly in the Wairoa district.


Hawke’s Bay is a long tract of land, bound by mountain ranges to the west and north, coast to the east, and the similar landscape of Wairarapa to the south. The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council covers the Wairoa, Hastings and Central Hawke’s Bay districts, and Napier city. The area from Woodville, near the Manawatū Gorge, to Norsewood is now officially part of the Tararua district. However, it has strong historical links with the rest of the region and is commonly seen as southern Hawke’s Bay.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Hawke’s Bay region - Overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 June 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 13 Aug 2009, updated 1 Jul 2015