A tour of Tauranga by bicycle is a great way to explore the city and its surrounds, discovers Tristan Ogden.
Tauranga City Cycle Tours covers 70km of cycleways and 45km of walkways in a two-day expedition. My tour guide Bruce Galloway reassures me before the first leg of my ride around Tauranga that there's no better way to explore a city than straddling a bicycle. It's low impact, you can cover more distance than walking, and unlike surveying your surroundings from behind a windshield, cycling immerses you in the environment.
Sceptical at first, after a breathtaking ride (I'm referring more to the scenery than my lack of fitness), I have to agree with him. Bruce, whose physique belies his 57 years, may be a little barmy about bikes I thought, but he knows what he's talking about.
That's why he was appointed Tauranga City Council's cycling transportation planner - a position that has allowed him to champion and realise new initiatives for cyclists. It's also why he was designated by Tauranga City Cycle Tours, which offers a variety of packages from two-hour to multi-day excursions, to reveal the local treasures to me.
Over a weekend, we put the pedal, or rather pedals, to the metal, tracing much of the area's impressive 70km of cycleways and 45km of walkways, taking in everything from estuaries to esplanades.
On the Saturday morning we push off from Harbour City Motor Inn on the Tauranga Peninsula into a fresh westerly whipping across the Bay of Plenty.
From here we cycle over Waipu Bay to Matapihi using an old rail bridge which was extended in the early 1950s to include a walkway for pedestrians and cyclists - it's a shame many locals are still unaware they can cross here, Bruce tells me. Especially considering from the middle you enjoy a 360-degree view that extends from the slender Matakana Island in the north to the hills beyond Welcome Bay in the south.
We set a steady pace through the Matapihi countryside before rounding a corner on to Ocean Beach Rd with a view of the imposing and iconic Mount rising up from the horizon.
In Maori the Mount's name is "Mauao" (meaning "caught by the dawn") but Bruce calls it the $500 hill. Why? That's how much the fine is if you get caught riding up there.
As we sit down to catch our breath over flat whites at a cafe on the Mt Maunganui beachfront he explains the crossover between the coffee and bike cultures. "Both are a social occasion so it makes sense to round out a ride by sharing a hot drink."
The five full stainless-steel bike stands outside the cafe back up his point.
Half-jokingly he says you have to earn your meal - completing 50km gets you a muffin and 100km gets you a full breakfast. I tally my mileage and figure he has made an exception in my case.
Recharged we follow a course that links the disparate cycle routes using roads, parks, cul-de-sacs and secret accessways.
Bruce says he intends to signpost these unmarked linkages, including the path under the harbour bridge, and make it clear "No Exit" applies to drivers not cyclists.
A definite highlight is riding along the estuary at low tide looking out to Motuhoa Island and the Kaimai Ranges as we make our way towards the old swamp which has been transformed into the pristine playing fields of Fergusson Park.
We pedal past old pa sites, citrus orchards and information boards that spring up intermittently providing interesting snippets about local history.
Further on we hover above a wetland riding over the raised boardwalk that snakes through the mangroves with native birds taking off from signage as if on cue to herald our approach.
After 40-odd kilometres, Mills Reef Winery and Restaurant in Bethlehem offers some respite and with wobbly legs I make an ungainly entrance. Feeling I could be slightly underdressed (not to mention perspiring) I'm told not to worry - after all, this is Tauranga, not Auckland.
The wine tasting serves up crisp and refreshing grape varieties, although I probably needed a glass of water more than one filled with sauvignon, but the real standout was my two-course lunch of seared scallops and crisp pork belly.
Heading back, we emerge from a bush track on to a gravel bike path that runs parallel to State Highway 2 the miniature Mount in front of us indicative of the distance we have covered.
At this point I start to regret the heavy lunch and my decision to opt for baggy cotton shorts over the padded Lycra pants that veteran Bruce is wearing.
On Sunday, a day reserved for tourism brochures with my foggy breath the only discernable cloud, we drive 10 minutes out of Tauranga to McLaren Falls Park, which boasts 190ha of lakeland.
We bike along a private road following the purpose-built canal that diverts water from the Wairoa River to the historic Ruahihi powerstation before entering the park.
Inside we circumnavigate a lake with a delicate mist drifting across its surface and explore a handful of the tracks that crisscross the park with the birdsong of tuis, fantails and wood pigeons providing a suitable soundtrack.
It is an idyllic, relaxed end to my Tour de Tauranga, an experience I won't soon forget, and summarised quite succinctly by the sticker on the bell of my mountain bike, which reads "I love my bicycle".
Get in touch
Bruce Galloway, Council Officer
Tauranga City Council
Ph (07) 577 7000 or 027 297 1213
Rod Aitkin, Tour Operator
Tauranga City Cycle Tours
Harbour City Motor Inn
Ph 0800 25 35 25