Some quotes you know you'll never forget. Like the one I heard on March 18 from tourism industry guru and founder of Conscious Travel, Anna Pollock.

"If you asked a close friend how their marriage was going and they said 'sustainable', you'd want to know what was wrong," she said. "So why is it we think 'sustainable' should be a good thing when we're talking about the environment?"

We couldn't comprehend it at the time, but when Pollock gave her Ted Talk-style speech to a socially distanced crowd at a Mount Maunganui airplane hangar back in March, New Zealand was just days away from a full Level 4 Covid-19 lockdown. We marvelled at the individually wrapped muffins and the novelty of sitting spaced-apart, but really, this was the cusp of the great unknown. It was also a gripping, coincidentally timely speech.

The basic plot? When it comes to the future of tourism — especially in an environmentally fragile world that's changing further in the face of a pandemic — merely being "sustainable" is no longer a lofty enough goal. It seems so obvious now, but until I heard Pollock say those words, I never considered why we were aiming so low.

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I'd been invited to come and experience the concepts of te hā tāpoi ("the love of tourism"), of kaitiakitanga ("protection and guardianship"), and of manaakitanga ("generous hospitality and respect of cultural values"). The trip — including a seat at the keynote speech by Pollock — was just prior to Covid-19's wretched tentacles enveloping planet Earth. Had the trip been planned for even five days later it would've been cancelled.

We left the big smoke, drove southwest to the sunny Bay Of Plenty and embarked on a four-day family holiday that would soon be a whole lot more precious than we could've ever originally predicted. Within a week we didn't know when we'd next have the freedom to see beyond our own neighbourhood again, let alone the rest of our own country or indeed, the world. So yes, those few glorious days based by the beach in Papamoa in mid-March of 2020 have come to feel especially cherished.

Paradise Beach, luxury accommodation in Papamoa. Photo / Tim Roxborogh
Paradise Beach, luxury accommodation in Papamoa. Photo / Tim Roxborogh

In fairness, they would've felt pretty cherished anyway if for nothing other than staying only metres back from the white sands of Papamoa at Paradise Beach. My wife Aimee and I had the upstairs loft, our baby Riley her own bedroom below, and everything about this high-end, sun-splashed, open-plan property shouted that rare harmony of relatability and luxury.

Agreeing that if we ever won Lotto this could be the blueprint of our dream home, we set about exploring. There were the usual suspects like climbing Mount Maunganui and walking up and down that famous beach, not to mention dipping into the region's ever-expanding restaurant and cafe scene, specifically Bayfair's Izakai (a sublime, unexpected fusion of Maori and Japanese cuisines), Papamoa's Pearl Kitchen (owned and operated by award-winning chef Andrew Targett) and Papamoa's The Good Home (a family friendly gastropub that had "sumptuous" fish 'n' chips according to my wife's Nana, 93-year old local legend June Cosgrove).

But we also wanted to check out some activities slightly further afield that I knew little about. About 90 minutes from Tauranga are the Lake Aniwhenua Falls — the starting point of the Riverbug company's "Action Bug" tour.

Tim Roxborogh on an Action Bug tour with Bay of Plenty's Riverbug. Photo / Supplied
Tim Roxborogh on an Action Bug tour with Bay of Plenty's Riverbug. Photo / Supplied

Run by adventure-tourism stalwart Don Allardice, Riverbug provides a range of tours in small, one-person inflatable "bugs" that are like a cross between a kayak and a white-water raft. You're decked out in a wetsuit, flippers, helmet and webbed gloves (doubling as paddles) and once the safety briefings are done, it's into the rapids you jump.

The half-day "Action Bug" tour descends a section of the Bay Of Plenty's longest river — the 155km Rangitaiki — and takes you through a beautiful rock-walled gorge. Water cascades around you and the rapids are the right amount of size and frequency to be dealt with by beginners like me while still being terrific fun for those a fraction more adventurous. The bugs themselves are cute, easy to use and it was a no-brainer figuring out why Don — who was our guide for the afternoon — loves his job so much.

More than that, Don and his crew are all about impressing on guests the concept of looking after "taonga" (treasures) and being of benefit to the community too.

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This is an ethos very much in tune with Foris Eco-Tours, a New Zealand company delivering private tours of some of this country's greatest natural wonders. Another half-day adventure, this time we could bung Riley in the backpack (not really an option white-water rafting — when you're older, Riley!) and learn about a striking forest just 20 minutes out of Tauranga called Otanewainuku. Riley loved it, and staring up at those gigantic rimu trees, her parents did too.

It hit me that we can underestimate just how full of lesser-known gems New Zealand is. It's too easy to think that if we haven't already heard of a place, then how good can it really be? I went to Otanewainuku with almost no prior knowledge and came away from this 1200-hectare slice of never-logged New Zealand rainforest immediately plotting when we could somehow return.

Otanewainuku forest is a hidden gem just 20 minutes outside of Tauranga. Photo / Supplied
Otanewainuku forest is a hidden gem just 20 minutes outside of Tauranga. Photo / Supplied

Here's a forest that's a sanctuary to brown kiwi and kōkako, that's a triumph of local conservationists, that has three uncomplicated, outstanding walks that are two hours or less, and I get a major sense of it flying under the radar. Foris Eco-Tours teach you about the wonder and balance of eco-systems like Otanewainuku, having attracted hikers and birders from across the globe. Just check out those uniformly 5-star reviews online and it's clear Foris Eco-Tours are doing more than a thing or two right.

The thing is though, almost none of those foreign tourists are in Aotearoa anymore, so as New Zealanders, we owe it to them to show our support. Because like Anna Pollock said, they aren't about sustainability, they're about something so much more.

Tim Roxborogh hosts Newstalk ZB's Weekend Collective and blogs at roxboroghreport.com
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