New figures show a surge in the numbers of Aucklanders fleeing the city in favour of Tauranga. Reporter Jamie Morton, who has lived there for six years, wonders what has taken them so long.

At Tip Top corner on Auckland's Southern Motorway there's a Metro billboard that shouts: "Love this city". I chuckle, because it happens to hang over the most car-clogged section of a road which, by that stage, I've already been struggling along for more than an hour.

For Tauranga locals like me, these infrequent trips to the big smoke are happy reminders of the comparative luxuries of home.

When Auckland mates try to tell me I'm wasting away in a provincial backwater, I fire back that their city is a dud deal that's bad for your wallet and much worse for your stress levels.

It's a sprawling, crawling, alien world devoted to endless inconvenience and competition for everything.

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I have absolutely no idea why a third of Kiwis choose to live there. Maybe it's Muzza's Pies.

When a study this week revealed how Aucklanders could expect to spend the equivalent of 20 working days stuck in their car, I was surprised the figure wasn't double.

My own commute, from sleepy Omokoroa to an office halfway along Tauranga's poor excuse for a busy arterial, Cameron Rd, is a 21km drive which takes the same number of minutes, through some of the lushest countryside this side of the Bombays.

At the sole intersection where traffic slightly backs up in the morning, there's none of that Auckland gridlock tension where allowing a fellow driver in effectively means you've lost some passive-aggressive form of car combat.

Stopping by a city centre cafe for a pre-work flat white will take just a few minutes extra and feeding the meter won't cost you twice the price of said flat white.

Instead of buzzard-like tow truck drivers hunting for prey, there's a 10-minute grace period at CBD car parks.

Auckland might have its Sky Tower, but we're more happy to have our misty Mauao adorn the skyline.

Our harbour bridge - that's the Harbour Link - is faster to get across and, even though they hardly ever play here, our Chiefs are clearly a better team to back than the hapless Blues.

Put Mission Bay or even Piha up against Mt Maunganui's Main Beach and there's no contest.

At sunset, you can summit the Mount, wander down palm-lined Maunganui Rd in your Jandals for a kebab, then top it off with a long soak at the hot pools, where locals enjoy a discount and under-2s get in free.

And there's that beach again: a two-hour beginner surfing lesson costs just $75.
You'll find some of the best fish and chips you've ever eaten at Bobby's Fresh Fish Market and there's a free tee at Omanu Golf Club nearly every day.

Just listen to Tiki Taane sing about it in his new single No Place Like Home: "Nau mai, haere mai; a place where the ocean meets the sky."

"Nearly every weekend I'm off playing gigs around the planet, living a fast-paced life with a lot of noise," he tells me. "So coming back to my whanau in Papamoa is my safe place. It's where my home is."

For a weekend drive, we're handy to Coromandel, Rotorua, Whakatane, Hamilton and Taupo. If we -absolutely must go to Auckland - and it's usually for big concerts, meetings or international flights - it's a two and a half hour meander through the Hauraki Plains.

Best of all, we have the sunshine: an average 2260 glorious hours of it every year.
Before shifting to Tauranga in 2010 to take up a job at the Bay of Plenty Times, my wife and I weren't sure what to expect.

We'd lived everywhere from Wellington and Wairarapa to Hawkes Bay and Taranaki, but all I knew of this summery city was a faint childhood memory of being bowled by a freak wave near the blowhole.

Just as hazy was my recollection of empty Tui stubbies raining down from high-rise apartments during one balmy New Year's Eve at the Mount.

It was true that my entire perception of the place had been shaped by conservative old battlers like Bob Clarkson and Winston Peters.

We had anticipated the Tauranga stereotypes: the NZ First-voting octogenarian who averages nine letters to the editor a week and about 25km/h in their Daihatsu Charade.
Or some bait shop owner called Gazza whose idea of a good time is afternoons in the dinghy and nights nursing his favourite handle at the Cossie Club.

This was New Zealand's retirement village. Ten-dollar Tauranga. Meat and potatoville. Hamilton-on-the-beach.

I dispelled these notions by assigning myself weird initiations like diving from bridges with two kids named Te Kapene and Whana, and striking up late-night pub banter with punters down on The Strand, or "chunder mile" as it was once known.

There were exhibition openings, theatre at Baycourt, international food festivals and jazz in the streets.

Tauranga, we discovered, was a colourfully diverse place, with all of the culture and creative buzz you could want in a New Zealand city.

We have street artist Owen Dippie, whose globally-renowned murals have featured everyone from Sir Ed to rapper Biggie Smalls, and, of course, we have Dame Lynley Dodd.

Our city boasts a bona fide sense of community. When beaches were closed during the Rena disaster, outraged locals turned out in force to public meetings and 8000 volunteered to painstakingly scoop blotches of heavy fuel oil from the sand. It's all gone now, by the way.

So, with all that it offered, the real mystery was, why wasn't Tauranga becoming Auckland?

When we arrived, the median house price was around the $350,000 mark. The weekly rent for our first flat - a modern two-bedroom, two-storey apartment in the heart of the city - was $320.

As it's since turned out, my question is beginning to be answered.

In just a year, median Tauranga house prices have shot up 33 per cent to $493,500 and city rents have risen from an average $375 to $425.

Some Tauranga residents who have watched their property ladder become tougher to climb have grumpily pointed the finger at Aucklanders, who have been behind a third of Trade Me's Bay of Plenty property views over the past year. In the same time, sales volumes have increased 68 per cent.

One mate has spent years saving to move his family from a first home in the Welcome Bay suburbs to a lifestyle block in the outskirts. He says he is now contending with an influx of Aucklanders pushing his dream out of reach.

If Tauranga was an El Dorado, it seems to some locals, the flood of prospective buyers cashing out of Avondale and Albany are the conquistadors galloping down to loot it.

But that's not quite true. House values have gone up but you can still find a home here around the $300,000 mark, and the giddy speed at which new consents are issued - 110-140 for residential builds each month - is keeping our market from over-heating.
Tauranga people also shouldn't get too hung up about jostling for jobs with their new neighbours from the north: our city had the strongest job growth of anywhere in the country last year.

Now we have ultra-fast broadband, there's nothing stopping you setting up your office here - and there's a stream of people moving back from big cities to do just that.

Our school rolls are booming, but Stuart Crosby, Tauranga's congenial, long-serving mayor, reckons there's plenty of room in the waka.

"We've been growing since the early 1900s - it's just more obvious now because we are growing off a bigger base, as it were," he says.

"Last year, [house prices] certainly did increase but that's just a consequence of being a popular city."

So, rather than seeing the influx from the north as some kind of ┬Činvasive tide, like waves of sea lettuce spoiling our pristine beaches, I'll go along with him and happily roll out the welcome mat to Aucklanders.

That's just as long as they don't clog up my roads.

My morning commute is still just around 20 minutes and I'd like it to stay that way.

Best move of their lives

Doug Maarschalk with wife Beth, daughter Lucy and son Mitchell. Photo / Supplied
Doug Maarschalk with wife Beth, daughter Lucy and son Mitchell. Photo / Supplied

Doug Maarschalk

When Doug Maarschalk eyed up Tauranga as a new home in 2014, he wondered what that might mean for his career.

At the time, he had a great job in Auckland as a business development manager for a tax management firm, but struggled to find a suitable place in the city that he and his young family could settle in.

Unwilling to sacrifice their lifestyle for an affordable house in a far-flung suburb, his employers allowed him to base himself out of Tauranga.

"A mate got married here and when we came down we thought well, this isn't too far away, and it was actually somewhere we wanted to live."

It meant a bigger house in attractive Brookfield, a shorter drive into his office in town and a more laid-back life for himself, wife Beth, 3-year-old Lucy and newborn Mitchell.
Since the move, he has set up his own company, Warhorse Consulting.

And if he had to change jobs, he's sure he could find something ideal in Tauranga.

"Of course, it purely depends what people are looking for but I don't think that finding a job here is something people need to be too worried about."

Melanie Stevenson

If Melanie Stevenson needed any reminder of why moving to Tauranga was the right thing to do, she has only to think about 15-month-old Tom.

It takes her just five minutes to drive him to Plunket playgroups, instead of an hour, and there's always the option of playing in the sand at Mt Maunganui beach.

After a decade living in Auckland, she moved back to her childhood city with husband Andrew and Tom last year.

Even though the Tauranga property market had already ramped up, the family were still able to swap a three-bedroom, 1950s bungalow in Te Atatu Peninsula for a modern four-bedroom home in Ohauiti - complete with spa pool and underfloor heating - for a lower price.

"Obviously, it meant taking a salary cut to get here, but I think that's what you do to live in Tauranga. It's more about the lifestyle than the money."

Now, there's Saturdays at the farmers' market, Sunday morning strolls around the Mount and more time with her parents, who live across town in Matua.

"We've found it's much more relaxing and I guess it's just a better place to raise our son and be with family."

Hollie Smith

Much of Hollie Smith's life is consumed by the constant bustle of touring.

So when the award-winning singer-songwriter is back home in Tauranga, she hardly leaves the house.

"I could probably count on my fingers and toes how often I've gone out since I've been here," said Smith, who is just about to release her new album Water or Gold.

Four years ago, she moved to Tauranga from Ponsonby to be with her partner at the time, and she hasn't wanted to live anywhere else since.

"I got here before the whole Auckland exodus. I've definitely noticed, just in the last couple of months, heaps of people talking about it and lots of Aucklanders moving down here."

She adds with a laugh: "I made it cool, pretty much."

In her first months, there were daily runs around the Mount; now there's quiet moments walking her dog around the city outskirts or spending time with her young boy.

She likes her home studio, her own private space, and one of New Zealand's most beautiful beaches at her back doorstep.

"The Mount is obviously such a beautiful area to hang out in, and it's got a great vibe - kind of that surf energy, like Raglan. It's just about sandals and T-shirts."