We were returning a small nephew to his parents in Papamoa after the school holidays spent with us. Having driven more than two hours to get there, my son and I thought it prudent to investigate more of the Bay of Plenty's charms. Turns out this was an excellent idea.
Our first stop, Te Puna Quarry Park, 15km west of Tauranga is a marvel. From the moment we got out of the car we were fans. Big bags of feijoas for just $2 a pop, swan plants everywhere, laden with fat, striped caterpillars. Theo suggested I begin the article with 'woohoo, this place is a wonderland' and suggested I use an exclamation mark, possibly two.
Every little nook and cranny, every path through this 32ha park made us smile.
Sculptures were everywhere, one made from old rakes, another from a treadle sewing machine. One spot was dedicated to music where one was encouraged to bang and clang, the sounds carrying across the landscape. There are waterfalls, glades, a butterfly house, numerous speciality gardens including herbs, rhododendrons, natives, and magnolias. The views across farmland and out to sea are outstanding, and tui and a fearless fantail followed us everywhere.
The transformation of this former eyesore began in 1996, and the results are astonishing; Te Puna Quarry Park deserves to be known as a national treasure and gets four thumbs up from us. Entry is by donation, and we were more than happy to contribute.
So as not to burden my brother and his brood (including a new baby) we made Roselands Motel our home. Named for its proximity to the Tauranga Rose Gardens, it's just beyond the bustle of Cameron Rd and is a prefect retreat with genial hosts, just minutes from the water - and it has a laden feijoa tree in the grounds.
The nearby Elms Mission House and Gardens make a nice stroll and we explored the grounds as the weekend cries of a nearby rugby game floated to us on the wind.
The Elms is the oldest European heritage site in the Bay of Plenty with buildings dating back to the 1830s. We missed opening hours, so peered in windows, admired the gardens and read the information signs. One explained that when the missionaries set up camp, the nearest shop was in Auckland, a full day's sail away.
Another told the story of a certain Reverend Volkner, an unfortunate chap who was hanged and beheaded in controversial circumstances.
The Elms also boasts a giant feijoa tree, Bay of Plenty indeed.
As the day drew to a close, we geared up for the biggest adventure of our weekend, a kayak trip with glowworms.
Dan from Canoe and Kayak drove us to McLaren Falls Park, 15 minutes from Tauranga. Turning off the main road into the 190ha of pastoral parkland, our party of five was open-mouthed at the sight of the vivid autumn leaves.
The sparkling water running across rocks was so picturesque I wanted to give the boulders a kick: surely they were plaster of Paris models, the work of a talented set designer. But it was all nature, and what a gem, just minutes from the main road.
As the sun began to set and the turning leaves blazed their bright colours onto the water, Dan kitted us out in lifejackets, splash skirts and head torches. After qualifying in Paddling 101, it was into the water in search of glowworms or as we now like to call them, arachnocampa luminosa.
Making a course for a looming dam and paddling in the dark had a certain mystery to it. The sun setting, our eyes adjusting, as darkness fell we rafted up and floated into a steep-sided canyon, a gap in the land. We attempted to count the glowing bugs, but at about 212,357 we opted instead to find shapes and meaning in the buggy constellations - butterflies, dogs, arrows and an anatomically correct manifestation of the female reproductive system, like luminous cave paintings.
Dan was the perfect guide, giving little talks along the way, while also providing plenty of time for us to simply contemplate life. One's thoughts can take an expansive turn on glassy water on a still autumnal night. With a full moon about to crest the hills, we headed back to the banks for hot Milo and a chocolate treat.
Theo and I were unanimous, kayaking with glowworms was a highlight (pun intended) of the holidays.
Before setting a course for home on Sunday, we popped into Fernland Spa Thermal Mineral Springs for a much-needed soak. Having hauled our togs all that way, it would have been a shame not to have got them wet.
Revitalised in the healing waters (100 per cent pure soda, crystal clear and non-chlorinated) we set off for Auckland, like two explorers who'd conquered another corner of the world.
Tips for a Woohoo Weekend
Te Puna Quarry: quarrypark.org.nz
Roselands Motel: roselands.co.nz
Fernland Spa: fernlandspa.co.nz
Glow Worm Canyon Trip: canoeandkayak.co.nz/
• Elisabeth and Theo were guests of Tourism Bay of Plenty