Although more often associated with beached bronzed bodies and heady summer frivolity, the Bay of Plenty's Mount Maunganui is just as pretty in colder months - and much less crowded. We visited the Pāpāmoa/Mount/Tauranga area over the school holidays and it received a huge thumbs up from our two boys - even with no beach swimming in the equation.

Day one

One of the great things about going to a seaside destination in winter is much-coveted beachfront accommodation is often available. We stayed in a villa at Papamoa Beach Resort (15 minutes out of the Mount) which looked directly out at the water. The sight of the water was incredibly calming and being able to walk along the beach to the rhythmic sound of waves crashing on the shore was the kind of sanity any parent would lap up. Add to that giant inflatable jumping pillows and playgrounds, and everyone's a winner.

Everyone's a winner: Papamoa Beach Resort. Photo / Tourism Bay of Plenty
Everyone's a winner: Papamoa Beach Resort. Photo / Tourism Bay of Plenty

The night we arrived we got straight into things with the friendly folks from Waimarino Kayak Tours. Our family loves being on the river (once everyone settles into the co-operation required for double kayaking) but this was a bit more than the usual fun on the water. After mulled wine, cheese, crackers and charcuterie and chat - all kayaking should start this way - we slipped into our kayaks just as the sun was setting and paddled gently up from Lake McLaren Falls Park towards a narrow, high-sided canyon.

The night was cloudless and it was hard not to take a sharp intake of breath as we entered the canyon to be greeted by the sight of thousands of sparkling glow worms all along the walls - it was way beyond what the word "magical" can express. Paddling in a kayak with the stars above and the glow worms all around is quite different to a cave glow worm experience and even our teen was impressed.

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Day two

After a sleep in and visit to Pearl Kitchen for slices, cakes and coffee followed by a gorgeous stroll up Pāpāmoa beach, we were picked up by Ian from Mount Classic Tours who took us on a fascinating tour of the area. As history geeks, us adults were particularly taken by the Pukehinahina (Gate Pā) site and Ian's in-depth knowledge of the land wars that took place.

Kayaking on the Waimarino Tauranga Gloworm tour. Photo / Tourism Bay of Plenty
Kayaking on the Waimarino Tauranga Gloworm tour. Photo / Tourism Bay of Plenty

We were fascinated to learn about this incredible display of trench warfare and how after the great battle, the local wāhine came and looked after the injured, dead and dying on both the Māori and Pakeha sides, resulting in all casualties sharing a final resting place together.

We stopped at The Whipped Baker at Tauranga Historic Village. The pies were perfect cold-weather fare and the boys were wide-eyed at the array of donuts, ranging from old-school jam and cream to Oreo and caramel chocolate constructions.

We had a meander around this quirky collection of old buildings - the kids enjoyed watching the construction of wooden toys at the Men's Shed and we enjoyed the old-school vinyl at Record Roundabout and art in various small galleries.

Refuelled, Ian took us on to Classic Flyers - heaven for our plane-mad kids. Classic Flyers was founded in 2000 by a group of plane enthusiasts with a collective dream of preserving our aviation heritage. Some of the planes in the large hangars and outside were hands-on, others were just for looking but the boys loved them all.

Alexia Santamaria's son loved Tauranga's Classic Flyers. Photo / Alexia Santamaria
Alexia Santamaria's son loved Tauranga's Classic Flyers. Photo / Alexia Santamaria

It was incredible to watch some of the restoration in action - we saw planes that had been recovered in a terrible corroded state being brought back to their former glory by a team of dedicated volunteers. There was also memorabilia such as flight attendant uniforms from the 60s and other interesting aviation-related paraphernalia.

We finished up our day with dumplings and craft beer from the Rising Tide, before returning to our beautiful accommodation by the sea.

Day three

Our last day started at BayStation at Baypark, paradise for my 11 and 14-year-old as it has Blokart Sailing, Drift Trikes, Laser Tag and Paintball all in the same place. While laser tag and paintball can be found all over the country, Blokarts and Drift Trikes are a Bay of Plenty invention. It was screamingly good fun sailing land yachts around the large outdoor track and kneeling on the indoor drift trikes seeing how far we could hang out round the corners without spinning out. As we screeched round and leaned in harder, I was momentarily grateful for having kids who push me into activities I wouldn't usually participate in.

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Some of the best fish and chips in New Zealand: Bobby's in Tauraunga. Photo / Alexia Santamaria
Some of the best fish and chips in New Zealand: Bobby's in Tauraunga. Photo / Alexia Santamaria

We had heard that Tauranga has some of the best fish and chips in New Zealand so we headed to Bobby's right on the wharf. These were, indeed, first-rate examples of this Kiwi favourite. The fish was fresh off the boat. Eating it from a newsprint package on tables outside by the water completed the experience.

Just down from Bobby's were the statues of Lynley Dodd's famous Hairy MacLary characters. I will forever be grateful to this talented lady for creating a series of books parents could read over and over again without wanting to burn them. I'm not sure who was more excited about seeing these beautiful detailed sculptures of Hercules Morse, Bottomley Potts, Schnitzel Von Krumm and all the gang, me - or the kids.

While it's best known as a summer destination, Mount Maunganui has lots to offer year round. Photo / Alexia Santamaria
While it's best known as a summer destination, Mount Maunganui has lots to offer year round. Photo / Alexia Santamaria

With my perception of the Bay of Plenty as summer-only destination shattered, we'll be back next winter for more rugged-up walks on beautiful beaches, great food and fun times.

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