Today's Tauranga might be different to the one you remember, writes Alexia Santamaria
Tauranga and Mount Maunganui are places most North Islanders will be familiar with. Many a teenager will have spent a heady New Year's Eve celebrating with hordes of their peers at the Mount and most people have been to the Bay of Plenty at least once to stroll those golden sands, walk up - or round - Mauao, consume far too many Copenhagen Cones and generally enjoy sun, surf, and sand on a classic Kiwi family holiday.
But if you haven't been for a while you might not be aware of some of the newer attractions that make this beautiful region even more appealing.
Tourist operators have become creative in the wake of Covid, resulting in some interesting new options for visitors. The hospitality industry has blossomed enormously in recent times. Rather than being known for icecream, fish and chips on the beach and a million ways with kiwifruit, there are a bunch of new restaurants and cafes with diverse culinary offerings.
Maybe it's time for another visit?
Bites of the Bay Food Tour
Ian Holroyd had just expanded his fleet of shiny new vans and buses to cope with the huge demand for cruise ship excursions when Covid hit. Being a resourceful type, he redeveloped his tours for Kiwis and the Bites of the Bay Food tour, launched at the end of last year, is a real winner.
We were guided around by the vibrant and utterly delightful Kathrin Chappell - a private chef from LA and passionate local foodie - and it was great to see many of the places we visited were as much a surprise to Bay of Plenty dwellers as us out-of-towners. It felt very exclusive getting behind-the-scenes access to charcuterie producers and chocolate makers (Solomons Gold is my new drug of choice) as well as meeting an Italian pizza chef and a fifth-generation beekeeper who has taken honey innovation to a new level.
There were plenty of tastings too - icecream flavours like matcha and sour cherry, and liquorice and raspberry jelly, as well as some delightful wines from Leveret Estate and Mills Reef. Kathrin pointed out all the best coffee spots as we drove around (there are 11 roasteries in the area - who knew?) plus bakeries and restaurants, so we were well set up for eating for the rest of our stay.
Trinity Wharf & Bay Explorer's Dinner & Harbour Cruise
Bay Explorer is known for wildlife cruises (Brandon, the owner, is an ex-Marine Studies lecturer, so spotting dolphins and whales with him is a next-level experience) but at the end of last year they launched a summer-only dinner cruise in conjunction with Trinity Wharf, a luxury hotel on the water in Tauranga.
Guests enjoy a drink, an entree and main at the hotel restaurant, then embark the boat for a sunset cruise of the harbour with dessert served during sailing. It's a lovely experience and depending on the crowd, you may even find yourself dancing on deck when the sun drops on the horizon.
We experienced this trip on a beautiful balmy night and it was magical watching the sun set from the water, sailing past small islands and seeing bridges and enormous ships in the port, all lit up.
New eating options
It's hard to know where to start on this one as the past year has brought so many new openings in the Tauranga/Mount area. One of most recent would have to be Fife Lane, an upmarket swanky steakhouse, complete with New York-style meat locker display, where all your wagyu, sirloin and angus dreams will most certainly come true - especially when finished off with a "dessert cocktail".
Then there's Sugo - also only opened at the end of 2020 - on the newly pedestrianised section of Wharf St. A fun Italian joint, it specialises in dishes like ragu, risotto, antipasti, caponata, all with a modern twist; great for sharing with a gang of friends. They also have a whole Spritz menu - we particularly favoured the Bianco with Lillet blanc, basil, elderflower, prosecco and lemon zest.
If you haven't been to the region for a while, two really popular casual joints that opened in 2019 at the Mount are Rice Rice Baby and Hello Bahn Mi for Vietnamese - and for takeout pizza, Pizzaroma cannot be beaten. Marco's modern twist on classic Roman bases (with incredible toppings) is worth travelling for.
It's also worth checking out whether Kitchen Takeover has any events on while you're in town - they have started to gain a cult following for their pop-up dinners and the Karena and Kasey Bird event, which begins on February 25, looks like it's going to be incredible. kitchentakeover.co.nz
New in the last few years
If you haven't been to the Bay of Plenty in the past five years you might not have witnessed the rather fabulous V8 Chevrolet "trikes" cruising round the Mount. Designed and built in New Zealand, these shiny beauties are powered by 5700cc Chevrolet motors and are a great way to see the town - or the country. They can seat four and the driver, and the company caters to all needs, from those who want a casual jaunt in the countryside or round the waterfront, to those who really want to feel the wind in their hair on the motorway. I'm hardly a petrolhead but I have to say it was a world of fun as the speed got up - and the engine roared louder on the open road.
Riverbug is another newish operator (launched at the end of 2019) running tours on the Wairoa River. Jump in a "bug" - a kind of one-person cross between a kayak and an inflatable white-water raft and hit the rapids for a unique and incredibly enjoyable experience. You can sign up for great adrenalin action on the Rangitaiki river or have some gentle floating family fun (great for young kids) on the Wairoa.
WHERE TO STAYTrinity Wharf Tauranga has stunning vistas of the harbour (make sure you book a water-facing room). trinitywharf.co.nz