I always feel the pang of envy when watching televised cricket from Tauranga's Bay Oval. The camera pans across the elemental brilliance of the landscape, headlined by the imposing grandeur of Mount Maunganui.
It had been 25 years between innings, since I had last visited the Mount, a glittery sweep of chic-chi hospitality outlets and alluring boutiques, gazillion dollar apartments, sugar-white sand, crystal-tipped breakers crashing in from the Pacific — all crowned by the landmark Mauao (Mount Maunganui.)
The 45-minute circular base track around Mauao walk lassoes the operatic ocean elements and the sheltered waters of Pilot Bay.
Whisking across Tauranga Harbour Bridge, I visited 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 Rev 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 led to hundreds being massacred at the hands of Titore and Hone Heke's war expedition.
Now, 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.
The entire setting bears an uncanny resemblance to the Treaty House and grounds at Waitangi. The mission station played a central role in the battle of Gate Pā , when the land wars broke out in the 1860s.
An essential Tauranga experience is to dine at Izakai, at the Bayfair Shopping Centre. They've swiftly fostered a red-hot reputation among foodies for their Māori and Japanese fusion cuisine, steeped in the values of manaakitanga and sustainability. It's the talk of Tauranga — and rightly so. The name Izakai is a great play on the term, Izakaya, a type of Japanese bar in which a variety of inexpensive dishes and snacks are served to accompany the alcoholic drinks. Izakai? Perfect, bro.
I noshed on a variety of 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.
Speaking of food, 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. Nothing beats ordering your snapper and devouring it, right alongside the fishing boat that delivered most of the day's catch.
I sought to burn off some of the fried indulgence by hitting the pedals on an e-bike. Daytrippers is a superb Bay of Plenty cycle tour operator, specialising in offering guided cycle tours on their latest Giant Fathom 3 electric bikes. You can choose a set tour, create a custom tour or simply hire a bike off them. There's some great off-road city trails, which include ripping around the port and waterfront to Sulphur Point, biking over the Matapihi Rail Bridge, and a requisite rendezvous with the Hairy McLary and Friends Sculpture park, just off The Strand.
For a complete change of scenery, I joined Waimarino Kayak Tours who offer one of New Zealand's most breath-taking kayak adventures. At twilight we ventured out to the grassy banks of tranquil Lake McLaren in McLaren Falls Park, as the sun slumped behind the rolling hills. As darkness descended, we gently paddled our kayaks up the lake for 45 minutes to reach the most enchanting canyon, festooned in glow worms. It is magical, serene and undeniably bewitching — a twinkling canyon of glowworms.
Accentuating the ambience, the clear night sky above, glittered with stars, while a terrifically bright full moon cast the lake in a celestial glow, as we paddled our way back to McLaren Falls Park. It's a wondrous experience and the friendly, professional Waimarino team will kit you out in all the safety gear.