Taking back the crown
From the Mt Maunganui shoreline the ship-wrecked Rena barely registers as a blip on the horizon.
Yet the region has struggled, and unfairly so, to beckon visitors back in the wake of that gargantuan problem which landed on its doorstep.
That's not necessarily surprising, given the damage caused by the 236-metre cargo ship when it hit the Astrolabe Reef off Tauranga nearly three years ago. But it's a damn shame.
The Rena ran aground on October 5, 2011, its cargo holds flooding and pushing more than 350 tonnes of heavy fuel oil into the sea.
Hundreds of oil spill responders and 8000 volunteers would remove around 1000 tonnes of oily waste from the coastline over the following weeks.
Now the sea is good enough to surf in.
Just as well for the purposes of our trip, as surfing with the Hibiscus Surf School at Mt Maunganui is the first activity to tick off on an action-packed weekend away.
We never doubted the water wasn't fine to swim in, though we did doubt its temperature on that clear and chilly autumn morning.
Thanks to our surf instructor, we have all stood up at least twice on our boards by the end of a 90-minute lesson.
The instructor points out the location of the Rena, which I can't see, but he quickly follows up with a fact: Mt Maunganui Beach was just this year voted New Zealand's top beach by Tripadvisor, mainly due to the good surf, clean water and sandy bottom. What Rena? It's at this point I feel a special mention needs to be made of his body-surfing talents. Teaching a group of four to surf must be made easier when you can flit around the ocean, popping up like a meerkat.
On more than one occasion he emerges from the sea next to me, scooping the water skyward as he lets it rain back down on his face, happy in his habitat.
He sets me up on a wave before reminding me to keep my weight forward. On the occasions I actually listen to his advice, I stand up! Feeling the surface rushing beneath you while hurtling toward the shoreline is a high like no other.
I'd earned a high-five, and that made me smile.
After the lesson we make sincere promises to ourselves we will continue the practice back at Wellington's Island Bay.
Two months on and I'm confident we'll do it. Definitely . . . hopefully . . . Island Bay is really cold.
Our group of four (three of us journalists), spent two days in Tauranga, eating and adventuring.
Only one of us had spent any time in the city before - to cover the story of the Rena running aground.
Surfing is a great kickstart to showcase the city's thriving environment, though do not harbour any illusions that it's a relaxing ride.
Nursing bruised hips and tender backs, it's an apprehensive drive to the Waimarino Adventure Park.
We are taken on a two-hour kayak tour along the Wairoa River to see glow worms and gain an impromptu lesson on the stars.
It's a short drive with the guides from base camp to river mouth, and on the way to the starting point we are imparted a small history lesson.
Travelling through the suburb of Tauriko, one of our young guides (and this was not to be our first history/astronomy/biology from him), told us of how the region received its name.
Turns out, it's completely made up.
In 1915, The Tauranga Rimu Company, which owned a mill there, wanted to call it Taurico but there is no C in the Maori alphabet and so the proposal was rejected.
Without cultural consideration, the obvious solution was to change the C to a K.
But a helpful tip: Don't go overboard on the Maori pronunciation - it turns out nothing makes the locals laugh more than a person trying to be "grammatically correct" with a made-up word.
Now, I'm not sure how many kayaking adventures start with a cheese board and hot mulled wine, but if this is the only one, then more need to follow suit.
Why isn't sipping mead while waiting for the Moon to rise a national pastime?
For what we are hoping to achieve, the night could not be more perfect. It could be warmer, mind you, though that may bring a few too many clouds to cover the Moon.
As it is, my hands go numb in the water fairly quickly, so the cold isn't immediately noticeable as we quietly slip up the river.
We slide through a minor whirlpool created by a nearby power station, and paddle upstream through a narrow ravine.
I'm not sure if it is the depth of the darkness, or if my vision is deteriorating, but the worms are vividly ablaze.
They hang beneath ridges built into the rocky walls which rise up either side of us.
The glowing light emitted from their behinds attracts unsuspecting flying bugs for their dinner. Presumably, the bugs become entranced - as are we.
But it's been a long time between meals and our minds quickly turn to food. Specifically, a dinner reservation at hot, new(ish) restaurant Macau is calling.
The Asian-fusion restaurant on The Strand has a modern sophisticated atmosphere, with a touch of old-world oriental mysticism.
Ordering a banquet, we let the waiter choose our dishes for us. He does not disappoint.
Favourites are tender pork belly, salt and pepper soft shelled crab, and red duck curry.
Unfortunately, a hazard of eating far too much is leaving in considerable pain. And yes, that comment comes from experience.
There is nothing for it but to sleep it off, and a waterfront apartment at the Trinity Wharf Hotel is as good a place as any to do that.
It's one of the few waterfront hotels in Tauranga, which is surprising, because the wharf is a showcased feature of the city.
It doesn't appear to be quite as integrated with everyday living as it is in Auckland or Wellington - we don't see quite as many people strolling along the port or eating their lunch in the sun, but there are some lovely jetties and some of the best can be found around the hotel and Trinity Bay.
And of course, if it's a stroll people want, there really is only one place to do it.
Across the bridge at Mt Maunganui is the extinct volcanic cone of the same name, rising above the town.
It's also officially known by its Maori name, Mauao, meaning ‘caught in the light of the day'.
Legend has it that Mauao was once a nameless mountain, his love spurned by the mountain Pūwhenua.
One night Mauao begged fairy-like creatures from the forest to drag him to the ocean and end his misery. But as the sun's rays extended, the fairies fled and he stood stuck in the spot they left him.
It's a sad end to a love story, but indeed a good place to catch the sun's rays.
There are multiple tracks around the Mount, and with the group still feeling the pain from the day prior, it's shameful to say that we take the easy track around the base.
Any sense of guilt is quickly forgotten. Views of rock pools and secluded beaches at the foot of the Mount are as good as any from a higher vantage point.
Coming around the end of the base track, it's a fortuitous walk past the newly revamped Mt Maunganui hot pools.
The steaming salt-water pools are the perfect place to ease aching muscles at the end of an adventurous weekend.
Relaxing back and reflecting on the view of Mauao rising above the complex walls, it's a sweet way to finish time spent in a true jewel of a region.
Located in the central North Island, Tauranga is an easy 2.5-hour drive from Auckland. Tauranga Airport is located in Mt Maunganui, 5km from Tauranga's CBD. The airport is serviced by Air New Zealand with daily direct flights from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. See airnz.co.nz
Trinity Wharf Tauranga is brilliantly positioned on and over (yes, over) the water's edge. It's a stylish 4.5-star boutique hotel complete with helipad, designed with a relaxing resort-like ambience amid magnificent harbour views. See trinitywharf-tauranga.com
Brunch: You can't go past the Sidetrack Cafe. An unassuming little cafe tucked at the foot of Mauao, it's a favourite among locals for both its ocean view and its menu. The coffee is superb according to this Wellingtonian, and the food delicious, with a range of gluten-free options. Shop 3 Marine Pde, Mt Maunganui. Lunch: At Tay St Beach Cafe, it's near impossible to get a table without a wait, but it is well worth it. The food is fresh and delicious (try the fish taco), and each dish comes with a craft beer match. 154 Marine Pde, Mt Maunganui. Dinner: Macau offers Asian-fusion, which it does to near perfection. The spring rolls are every bit on a par with the real thing in Vietnam. 59 the Strand, Tauranga.
Kayak up Lake McLaren surrounded by stars and glow worms with the Waimarino Glow Worm Kayak Tour. See waimarino.com Ride a blokart – a fun, fast, land sailing machine – invented and manufactured in the Bay of Plenty, or try your hand at drift karting. See blokartheaven.co.nz Soak in the revamped Mt Maunganui Hot Pools, the perfect end to a walk up Mauao to catch the outstanding views. See bayvenues.co.nz
The writer and guests travelled courtesy of Bay of Plenty Tourism and used a Toyota 2014 Hilux SR5 double cab supplied by Toyota.
- Sunday Star Times