Blessed by some of our very best beaches, thriving Tauranga is abuzz with historic sights and dining temptations galore.
What are the best sights and bites in Tauranga? On my latest visit, I based myself in Mount Maunganui, at The Pacific Apartments, constantly transfixed with the panoramic perspectives, massaging my eyes as I gazed longingly at its ethereal topography and outrageously good looks. The elemental brilliance of Mount Maunganui and the crowning grandeur of Mauao is a dreamy location that I could never tire of. From the gently lapping waters of Pilot Bay, abuzz with nautical activity, across to the gleaming ocean surf and Moturiki (Leisure Island), it’s a non-stop visual symphony.
Mount Maunganui’s iconic dormant volcano, Mauao, steeped in Māori history, serves up swoon-worthy views from its summit. The base track around Mauao is considered New Zealand’s most popular walk, heavily trafficked by locals and visitors alike.
Casting my eyes across Mauao at sun-up from the comfort of my bed, the well-tended pathways were already heaving with perky strollers, setting off on an early-morning workout. How virtuous. I preferred to take my lead from the seals snoozing on the basalt rocks edging the base track, and opted for a lazy lie-in.
Later in the day, I struck out on the base track on a two hour guided hīkoi of Mauao, with Porina Macleod from Mauao Adventures. This local enterprise specialises in stand-up paddle boarding, waka ama experiences and walking tours of Mauao. Porina formed Mauao Adventures in 2016, drawing deep on her whakapapa connections with the moana and whenua. She’s an inspiring champion for cultural and environmental awareness, which became self-explanatory on my guided hīkoi around Mauao.
Some of the exotic trees are being removed from the mountainside to stop the leaf litter contaminating the springs, heavily replanted with natives, accentuating the health of the natural springs that spill forth on its side. Porina and I stopped in front of a restored spring, as she shared anecdotes of its rich history as a traditional birthing place for wahine over the centuries and where warriors would sooth their battle wounds.
Waipatukakahu is a greatly revered puna (spring), which was used to soak materials like flax to make highly prized fibre for the likes of clothing and rope. Evidence of trenches and ancient shell middens is a ready reminder that the mountain was once adorned by a Māori pa site.
Ancient pohutukawa trees with their tentacular root systems cling manfully to the slopes, providing trusty shade and support against slope erosion. (I made a mental note to return in December to savour the spectacle of the vast crimson blaze that torches the mountain.) You’ll glean so many enriching insights about Mauao’s significance to Māori, as you stroll around the base track, admiring the marine life, those magnificent pohutukawa tenaciously clinging to its slopes, and drinking in the resplendent views, as crystal-tipped breakers crash in from the Pacific. It’s a must-do. https://mauaoadventures.co.nz/
Fancy a soak in hot ocean water? Wind down with a dip at the Mount Hot Pools, based at the foot of Mauao’s majesty. They’re nearly as legendary as the mountain itself, with the hot saltwater pools wowing the crowds since the 1960s, powered by the geothermically heated ocean water 600 metres below Mauao. The complex features three outdoor pools of varying temperatures, two outdoor spas and three indoor private pools. Why not ramp up the pamper-factor after a hot soak, by indulging in a massage treatment? I enjoyed a traditional relaxation massage, with long firm strokes melting my body stresses away, leaving me feeling utterly reinvigorated.
Grazing from the city’s treasury of eateries is a head-swirling affair, because Tauranga is generously endowed with an abundance of culinary wizardry, an enormous variety of venues and exceptional local produce. Here’s a round-up of some of my favourite eats. For casual street food fare, the dining strip of Maunganui Road groans with a parade of temptations. Master Kong is all about kick-ass Asian street food and handcrafted mixology. The cheeseburger spring rolls are sensational, as are the Korean beef short ribs, Gangnam style, on duck fat fried rice. Rice Rice Baby specialises in authentic Vietnamese street food, and the décor will transport you to the streets of Saigon. Check out their vegan wontons – a construction of mushroom, tofu, mung bean, carrot, onion, fresh herbs and sweet & sour soy sauce.
One of my runaway favourites is Roxie’s Red-Hot Cantina, which unsurprisingly took out the People’s Choice gong at this year’s Bay Hospitality Awards. The fit-out’s carnival of colour and playful vibe sets the stage for flavour-loaded Mexican fare and delicious cocktails. Their monster nachos are a local legend and I also highly recommend their Birria Tacos.
They comprise birria beef brisket, colby jack cheese, onion and coriander filled white corn tortillas, and are served with birria dipping broth. Birria is a traditional stew made from a combination of chilli pepper-based goat meat adobo, garlic, cumin, bay leaves, and thyme. Sabroso! Taking the casual grazing to an even more chilled-out level, check out the Dine on a Lime map, which stitches together a rolling spree of eats on-the-go in Mount Maunganui, whether you’re looking for a Green Goddess Smoothie, Turkish Eggs or Black Hokey Pokey Ice-cream from Mount Made Kitchen & Creamery.
For destination dining, look no further than Fife Lane Kitchen & Bar. Stylishly appointed, this cutting-edge butcher-style restaurant is what many locals are buzzing about. Carefully selected meats from across New Zealand, plus some off-shore cuts too, anchor the menu, cooked to order in their Mibrasa oven, a closed barbeque type of oven that hails from the heart of Spain. The accent is on top-quality meats and super fresh produce, with a curated cocktail and wine menu to accentuate the experience.
On the menu, head straight to the Meat Locker (yes, you can see prime cuts hanging in the locker), where I plumped for Angus eye fillet from Taranaki’s pasture fed Greenstone Creek. There’s a delicious section of sauces and butters you can add to your cut, like horseradish mousse, pinot jus, truffle crème fraiche or red wine shallot butter. Why not complement your cut with a scattering of Mibrasa grilled prawns, pan seared scallops or crab? Don’t mind if I do. Fife Lane is headline dining par excellence.
Another landmark Tauranga experience is to dine at Izakai, at the Bayfair Shopping Centre. They’ve firmly fostered a red-hot reputation among foodies for their Māori and Japanese fusion cuisine, Nosh the night away on a variety share plates including Creamed Paua and Prawn Dumplings with cauliflower puree, crispy shallot, spring onion and chilli; Horopito Crusted Lamb Ribs adorned in pea and watercress puree with Kawakawa jelly; and Kaitaia Fire Japanese Fried Chicken with teriyaki, yuzu kosho mayo and schichi-mi. It’s a radiantly inventive culinary experience, artfully executed and gracefully presented.
Breakfast in the heart of town? Picnicka is a brand-spanking new addition to downtown Tauranga, nestled within the sparkling new Elizabeth Towers, which is injecting renewed vitality into the CBD. There’s a Viaduct Harbour-esque vibe to this swanky new gathering place, which is open from breakfast through to dinner. Their smoked beef hash with poached eggs, mustard greens and hollandaise is my kind of day-starter. Whether you’re a breakfast enthusiast, a food lover or just plain thirsty, Picnicka may well be your kind of place.
After paying my regards to the delightful Hairy McLary and friends sculptures adorning the children’s playground on Tauranga’s waterfront, in a story book setting, make tracks to Nectar, on The Strand/Wharf St corner, for a spot of lunch. This is a new kid on the dining block, an all-day contemporary bar & eatery offering superb coffee, food and cocktails. Their playful décor matches the swoon-worthy menu, touting dishes such as Korean fried chicken waffles, duck hash, and a crab & chorizo benedict. I always struggle to pass up the opportunity for fried chicken and Nectar’s version consists of free-range chicken, gochujang, avocado, edamame and peanut salad. It’s a must.
No visit to Tauranga is complete without a fresh feed from Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market. This city institution hums with trade from early morning to sundown. I’ve never seen so many people patiently lined up for their fill of freshly cooked snapper, in beef fat not oil, at 10am. The shop edges the fishing wharf where the fresh produce is brought ashore. How’s that for a zero kilometre meal. The in-store selection spans mussels, kina, oysters, prawns, seafood kebabs and 10 varieties of fresh fish, but you can’t beat the snapper. Nothing beats ordering your meal and devouring it, right alongside the fishing boat that delivered most of the day’s catch, while catching a sea breeze. Charting up over four decades of fans, do not miss this local legend. There’s also a branch in Te Puke.
I headed across Tauranga Harbour Bridge, to one of New Zealand’s oldest heritage buildings. Completed in 1847, the Elms Mission House is one of our finest Georgian houses, built for the Reverend Brown, who came to New Zealand in 1829 as a missionary. As he set about establishing his mission station, inter-tribal warfare on the peninsula saw hundreds massacred at the hands of Titore and Hone Heke’s war expedition. Nowadays, the impeccably tended lawns and tranquil gardens create a storied urban oasis, overlooking what was the original Tauranga shoreline prior to land reclamation, on the northern tip of Te Papa peninsula. My convivial guide pointed out that his family’s successors were great hoarders, so many of the furnishings and period pieces are originals.
Rev. Brown and his wife created what is now one of the oldest New Zealand European gardens south of the Bay of Islands. The Oak Tree at the corner of the north lawn grew from an acorn brought from England by Rev. Brown in 1829. The entire setting bears an uncanny resemblance to the Treaty House and grounds at Waitangi. Kauri logs were rafted down from the Coromandel to be pit sawn on site. Alongside the house is New Zealand’s oldest free-standing library, dating from 1838, containing more than 1,000 books which belonged to Reverend Brown. The mission station played a central role in the battle of Gate Pā, when the land wars broke out in the 1860s. Imperial troops took over the Mission Station buildings as they waged war.
Brown was torn between loyalty to Māori, to whom he had dedicated his life, and his natural bonds with fellow countrymen. The ensuing Gate Pā battle took place on 21 April 1864. The great Māori victory was followed by the battle of Te Ranga a month later, reversing the situation, with the British troops victorious. I headed to the battle site of Gate Pā, 5km south of the Mission Station site, where history oozes from the earth. Eight carved pillars (pou) memorialise the leaders on both sides.
The battle here was one of the few outright Māori victories against the British during the land wars. The Māori warriors waited in reinforced bunkers, strong enough to withstand the bombardment. The pa itself was designed as a trap to draw in the British troops. After the wars were over, the British army studied the fortifications at Gate Pā, with many military scholars believing Gate Pā gave rise to ‘trench warfare’ in the First World War. I had the pleasure of fleetingly meeting Buddy Mikaere who is currently planning to establish a dedicated museum and cultural centre on the Battle of Gate Pā and other land wars, complete with virtual reality wizardry from Sir Ian Taylor. It will be a welcome addition to Tauranga’s stable of draws.
From there, I headed to the Historic Village, a head-turning trove of original and replica buildings from early Tauranga, swathed in gorgeous gardens and natural bush surrounds. This evocative collection of character buildings houses over 50 small businesses, artisans and community groups. Top stops include The Toy Shed, Turner Gallery, Selvedge Boutique and the insatiably popular Whipped Baker, where the astronomic range of intricately decorated doughnuts makes Krispy Crème look decidedly pedestrian.
Heading out of town to the famed Minden Lookout, take a seat at the White House Restaurant for a fabulous lunch. This atmospheric restaurant & bar is housed inside a 130-year old weatherboard bungalow in Te Puna Village. You’ll feel right at home in this family-run restaurant, where I savoured the most stupendous Crispy Skin Pork Belly which was complemented with potato confit, eggplant puree, glazed witloof and prune jus. Pay one final salute to Tauranga’s terrific terrain at the Minden lookout, the ultimate vantage point to soak up the splendour of the landscape. At 220m above sea level, the vista is vast, stretching across Tauranga city, Mount Maunganui, the harbour, islands and beyond.
I romped my way around the Bay of Plenty in a trusty Mitsubishi Outlander, courtesy of Ezi Car Rental. If you’re travelling with the whanau, upgrade to a SUV and score their spring deal on SUVs, from just $76 a day. Kiwi owned and operated, I thoroughly enjoyed the Ezi experience, where excellent cars, stringent cleaning practices, super sharp prices, and fast & friendly service are all part of the package. Ezi Car Rental operates an extensive network from 25 locations across the country. They’re everywhere you want to be. Head to www.ezicarrental.co.nz
Home to an abundance of kiwifruit and avocado orchards, arguably the best beaches in New Zealand, a rich Māori heritage, and swathed by warm ocean waters, Bay of Plenty has plenty of experiential options for every traveller. Make your first port of call the region’s official website. www.bayofplentynz.com