It's hard enough trying to get out of Auckland on a Friday at the best of times, let alone at the start of a sunny summer weekend. The Southern Motorway is gridlocked and stress levels are rising. Nevertheless, within hours we are standing at the water's edge of peaceful Lake McLaren just north of Tauranga, soaking up a stunning pink sunset, sipping a glass of pinot and listening to tales of our tour guide's hilarious kayaking exploits.
Blair Anderson, our guide for the evening, is the owner of Waimarino Kayak Tours - and claims to run the only tour of its kind in New Zealand. We'll be taking a leisurely kayak up Lake McLaren into a spectacular glow worm cave.
I hadn't kayaked in a long time and it seems to take me a lot longer than most to get the hang of steering the vessel. Everyone else on the tour gracefully meanders along behind Blair, happily chatting as they go. In stark contrast, I seem incapable of holding the line and keep going off in strange tangents - much to the dismay of my 10-year-old passenger, who happens to be my son Jack. It's just as well I don't drive as badly as I kayak or we'd never have made it out of Auckland.
Just as I'm feeling slightly more competent, we spot small glowing speckles scattered between foliage along the darkened hillface, as if guiding us into the cave.
As we enter, we huddle our kayaks together and stare in wonder at the sight that surrounds us. It's a magical place, truly breathtaking. Blair shares some informative glow worm facts and helps position us alongside the cave walls for a closer inspection.
It's now completely dark as we paddle back down the river.
All I can hear is the sound of moreporks cooing as the sky glitters above us, and Jack sharply reprimanding me for going off course: "Go right, Mum. I said RIGHT."
We're lucky enough to stay at the Sebel Trinity Wharf - where the service is friendly and efficient and the room spacious and well equipped, with views out over the harbour. It's only a short walk to the centre of town but far enough away so you aren't bothered by the city's hum.
We spend the next day at the annual Tauranga Moana Seafood Festival based on the waterfront in downtown Tauranga. There is a tantalising array of local seafood on offer, cooking demonstrations by a special guest chef, and highly entertaining filleting competitions by some of the most talented fishmongers in the region. It's satisfying to see a local young lady blitz the blokes in the oyster-eating competition too. Our tummies rumble for one last whitebait fritter before we head over the bridge for a well-earned soak in the Mt Maunganui Hot Salt Water Pools.
The hotpools are a must-do anytime we visit the area and are a great place to unwind while enjoying the view of the Mount towering above us.
The next morning we rise bright and early to meet Alison and Paul Aitken from Dolphin Blue, in the hope of sighting and swimming with dolphins. Even if the dolphins prove elusive, as they did the day of our trip, there is still plenty of marine and bird life to enjoy while relaxing aboard Paul's 16.5m-classic Kiwi-built launch. Paul guarantees that if you miss a dolphin experience on your first trip, he'll take you out again the same season for free. Alison and Paul are terrific hosts - the kind of people you feel like you've known for years - and Alison keeps us well cared for with frequent cups of tea and delicious chocolate cake. Their maximum passenger number is only 12, so you feel like you're getting that personal touch.
Waimarino Kayak Tours: 36 Taniwha Pl, Bethlehem, Tauranga.
Phone: (07) 576 4233.
Sebel Trinity Wharf Tauranga: 51 Dive Cres, Tauranga.
Phone: (07) 577 8710.
Mt Maunganui Hot Salt Water Pools: 8 Adams Ave, Mt Maunganui.
Phone: (07) 575 0868
Dolphin Blue: Departs from Sulphur Point Marina, Tauranga.
Phone: (07) 576 4303