Hot pools, glow-worms, jumping pillows and go karts. Tauranga's a wild ride. Chris Schulz packs his family and heads off on holiday.
Visit the glow worm caves
"Glow-worms are dying out," says Royce, our tour guide on tonight's adventure. "What you see here are lights from Bunnings." He's joking. Of course he's joking. Royce is hilarious and he's been kidding around with us and our kids since we arrived at dusk. Which is great, because we were a little nervous about undertaking a night-time kayaking trip with an over-excitable 8-year-old and a sleepy 4-year-old in tow. Turns out we had nothing to worry about. Waimarino's evening glow-worm kayak tour begins beside Lake McLaren, where we watched the sun set drinking mulled wine and juice, while snacking on a cheese platter. Once it was dark, Royce helped us put on our lifejackets and squeeze into our kayaks, an adult and a kid in each. Then we headed out to the caves. After half an hour of paddling and a barrage of questions from our inquisitive son, we were led past a power station and into the glow-worm cave itself. It really is a magical place, and Royce was a total expert, answering our questions, guiding us to paddle the correct way, and setting everything up and packing everything down with ease. He's a wealth of information, and a stand-up comedian to boot. For the record, the trip includes zero lights from Bunnings, just a night filled with the wonder of nature.
-Tickets, $130, www.glowwormkayaking.com
Put your foot down in drift carts
Tighten your helmet, affix your elbow pads, and lose your keys and cellphone. You don't want anything getting in the way when you're swinging these indoor karts around corners.
At Bay Karts at Mount Maunganui, you'll get 20-odd minutes swinging these electric cars around corners. Be warned: you're in opposite world. Accelerating into and out of corners instead of braking takes a few circuits to get used to. But once you're in the swing of things you'll realise it's all in the hips, and practising is a heck of a lot of fun. Take it easy when you're leaving: I had to watch very closely what I was doing in the Ford Endura while the thrill wore off.
Visit the farmers' market
At Tauranga Farmers' Market, you'll almost definitely run into someone from Auckland - either a weekend visitor, or a refugee escaping the rat race. It's a huge market notable for its wide arrange of choice: there are multiple stalls for cheese, organic veges, coffee and dried meats. There are also specialists with stalls dedicated solely to pumpkin, oranges, macadamia nuts, honey and spices. Head there for coffee and pastries from Flaveur Breads, stick around for the musical entertainment, then stock up for your dinner while you're at it.
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Scale a rock
An obvious one, but if you're heading anywhere near Tauranga, you need to include time to walk up, down, and around the Mount. During this visit, we watched seals surfing in the swells, and relaxing on rocks. Tourists in hiking boots mixed with residents in active wear, and there are cafes nearby for a caffeine fix - or, if it's super hot, an icecream store dishing out cones by the scoop.
Soak in some hot pools
There's nothing worse than scummy changing rooms, overloaded spas, underwhelming temperatures and pools in desperate need of a paint. None of that's a problem at Mount Hot Pools, which may be the most professional hot pool experience in New Zealand. They are set at a perfect temperature, with one cooler lap pool and another hotter one to soak in. There are two smaller spas, and a kids area with a slide. You could go during the day and soak away those aches and pains in the sun, or head there in the evening after a meal out in the Mount, when the pools take on a different vibe. Onsite masseuses are available for half-hour or one-hour bookings. For the perfect experience, book one of those: for $90 you'll get a full massage experience and free pool entry so afterwards you can slip into one of those pools.
Feed your face
You're spoilt for choice. If you're looking for good pies, pastries and sandwiches, you can't go past Flaveur Breads. They're in two places: at their cafe in Totara St, Mount Maunganui, or on Saturdays at the Tauranga Farmers' Market. Be quick: their beef and blue cheese pies and activated charcoal sourdough don't last long. If you're wanting a lush brunch experience, head to Eddies & Elspeth on Terrace Ave and order as much as you can handle: everything is delicious and perfectly plated, but the Kimchi Waffle Fries with kumara and chilli are a must. And for dinner, everyone will guide you to Macau on the Strand for solid Asian Fusion, but Astrolabe in Mount Maunganui has an upbeat vibe, beers on tap and a menu offering huge meals. Their meaty ribs served with chunky fries, coriander and clumps of kimchi would easily feed two.
Rest your head
Travelling with a family? Then head to Papamoa Beach Resort. Book ahead: in summer it gets packed with more than 800 holidaymakers seeking the sun. But it's just as good in winter. Check their website for specials on their apartments: the beach views are incredible and they're fitted with heatpumps so they're cosy and warm in the evenings. Ours came with a carpark out back for the Ford Endura, a small kitchenette for cooking up breakfast, and the kids loved the playground's giant jumping pillows. There's a spa, bikes available to hire and barbecues dotted around the site. If you're keen to eat out, right next door is The Blue, a solid restaurant open for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
If you've ditched the kids and need a romantic getaway for two, head instead to Trinity Wharf, where most rooms come with harbour views. Pull open the curtains and feel that sea breeze flood your lungs and the room. The high-class hotel has its own restaurant, Halo, but if it's nice out, Tauranga's main stretch of bars and eateries is just a short stroll away. Halo's open for breakfast too, which is a unique experience: snacking on fresh fruit and toast while reading the morning paper with stunning views is one thing; doing it uninterrupted after sending the kids off with family is another, a total treat with every moment being savoured.