Mauao, the extinct volcano at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour is the beating heart of Mount Maunganui – it’s thought nearly one million people a year walk up or around it. The vibrant town flows out from its base, flanked by a harbour beach on one side and, a mere blocks away, the ocean beach on the other.
Mount Maunganui has long been known as a laidback surf town (you won’t find many pairs of stilettos in these parts), and most places are very child friendly (menus, play areas), but offerings are becoming more sophisticated as more people move to the area from New Zealand cities and beyond, looking for a slower pace.
The surf is some of the best in the country and there’s plenty of good fishing to be had too. As the region’s name Bay of Plenty suggest, it’s a plentiful area as far as food goes, known especially for its avocado and kiwifruit orchards. That translates well to eating out – downtown buzzes seven days a week (and reaches fever pitch in summer), with a succinct but fun collection of good cafes, restaurants and bars.
Walking up Mauao (aka ‘the Mount’), you’ll find locals and tourists, young and old, multisporters with weighted vests and tired mamas wearing their babes. It’ll take 30-45 minutes to reach the 232-metre high summit where you’ll be rewarded with mesmerising views of the area (and everyone doing selfies).
If uphill isn’t your thing, Mauao’s 3.4km base track is more leisurely (and fine for prams) – allow about 45 minutes to get right around. It may be a lot longer with little ones as fun activities abound with shell-covered beaches, fascinating rocks pools and huge rocks to climb. Keep your eyes peeled for Oscar the seal and friends sunning themselves on the rocks or dozing on the beach.
Just before you head onto the Mount, you’ll pass the Mount Maunganui Beachside Holiday Park, sitting pretty overlooking Main Beach. It’s such a superb spot that even some Tauranga locals cross the bridge and stay for a summer getaway.
The calm waters of Pilot Bay, the harbour beach, is ideal for little ones. You can also hire paddle boards or kayaks, get wharf jumping with the locals or mosey along the boardwalk. Spongedrop Cakery nearby will set you up for the morning with the best coffee, cupcakes and scones, but Pilot Bay is also blissful late in the day when it gets the last of the evening sun – perfect picnic spot (walk to get Alpino pizza – see below).
On the ocean side of town, there are a few spots patrolled by lifeguards in the warmer months, including Main Beach (near Mauao), the beach by Tay St and Omanu Beach, and you’ll also find mobile surf schools such as Hibiscus, South Pacific and Mount Maunganui Surf Academy. When the surf is really on, those with the skills head to nearby Matakana Island in the hope of catching a tube.
Moturiki (Treasure Island) offers a fun, short family walk with rockpools, boulders to clamber and superb views. It’s especially fun if there’s big surf crashing in (but keep a safe distance).
The Tauranga harbour brims with sea life and Bay Explorer has a relaxing half-day cruise to seek out pods of dolphins, seals, penguins, school fish, sea birds and even the occasional shark, turtle and orca.
This area has numerous geothermal hot springs, and a soak at the Mount Maunganui Hot Saltwater Pools is recommended, day or night. The pools have varying temps and there’s a toddler pool, massages and private spas. If the weather calls for indoor action, Baywave Aquatic & Leisure Centre has heated pools for all ages, a hydroslide, and a wave pool in the weekend and school holidays.
On the outskirts of Tauranga, McLaren Falls Park has 190 hectares of parkland featuring waterfalls where you can take a dip, lovely walks, a lake with swans and ducks, an impressive array of trees, and The Falls Cafe.
For a magical scene, enter the park before sunset (when the gates close to incoming traffic) and walk the easy Waterfall Track where glow worms will appear in the foliage on either side. You can also take a guided night time kayak across the lake and into a canyon to experience a canopy of glow worms above.
A family favourite, Marshalls Animal Park is also in the park – get up close to everything from guinea pigs to clydesdale horses, alpaca and emu.
An easy 24km middle section of the Hauraki Rail Trail, runs from Paeroa to the gold-mining town of Waihi – the bike ride encompasses the dramatic Karangahake Gorge, waterfalls and a spooky kilometre-long tunnel. Alternatively, you could drive to the gorge (about an hour from Mount Maunganui) and bike the 7km from Karangahake to Waikino, or simply opt for one of the stunning walks, including a family friendly loop (about 45 minutes) that also goes through a tunnel, over bridges and along the river.
If you want to nip off the beach for something to eat, here are our picks:
Main Beach Everything is good at The General cafe, especially the scrambled eggs (best in town) the Cilbir Turkish Eggs and the Hawadir with braised lentils, spiced kumara, haloumi and pita. Cutting through from the beach, you pass the super-popular playground at Mount Drury Reserve.
Tay St Beach There are two great spots across the road, Tay Street Beach Cafe, where you can enjoy a brekkie of salmon eggs bene or sip wine with fish and chips, or Tay St Store, which offers coffee, ice creams and other supplies.
Omanu Beach George Cafe is a super plant-based eatery, and Omanu Takeaways next door serves up first-rate fish and chips for dinner.
Another highlight is Elspeth bakery and Eddies Brunch Parlour, which share a building. Elspeth has textbook pain au chocolate, filled ficelle and excellent loaves of bread, while Eddie’s offers a delicious, out-of-the-ordinary menu.
If you get one ice cream, make it one of Glenn Stubbs’ handmade concoctions at Mount Made, although indecision may creep in once you see the perfect doughnuts and swedish pastries. He even makes the sourdough for the top-notch toasties.
For dinner, Alpino is centrally located and uber-popular for good reason, serving Italian faves like rosemary roasted lamb, pappardelle al ragu and legit pizza. Around the corner, Astrolabe Brew Bar has a garden bar with a small kids’ play area, and across the road, the casual Barrio Brothers offers a Mexi menu. If you’re sans kids, two good options are Solera, a new restaurant and wine bar offering all New Zealand wines and a fresh menu; and, further up Maunganui Rd, Fife Lane, an upscale meat and seafood restaurant.
In the summer months, bring your picnic blanket to Coronation Park on Friday nights for the Gourmet Night Market. And if you’re self catering, head across the Tauranga Harbour Bridge to visit the Tauranga Farmers’ Market on Saturday morning for everything from raw milk cheese (still a rarity in New Zealand) to organic produce and Hungarian-style salami.
Paper Plane Covetable gifts, homewares and fashion.
North Beach Surf/streetwear store to fit out the whole family.
Little Trooper & The Kids’ Store For mini-fashion.
Blakchaos Excellent local shoe and fashion store for women.
Temptations Women’s lingerie and swimwear.
Sisters & Co Much of New Zealand’s best women’s fashion designers in one shop.
Be Organics Organic food store
Bayfair Shopping Centre The local mall.
Getting there from Australia…
Mount Maunganui is part of Tauranga City in the Bay of Plenty (BOP). Fly to Auckland, then take a flight to Tauranga or drive (about three hours). If you’re doing a road trip, you can spend time staying at beautiful beach towns in the Coromandel before you reach BOP. Afterwards, Rotorua is 45 minutes’ drive and an ideal stop for families, with thermal activity, amazing mountain biking tracks, beautiful lakes and Redwood forests.
This is a snapshot of family activities in Mount Maunganui, but Tauranga and the wider area offers many more cultural experiences, eco adventures and outdoor activities. For more information, visit bayofplentynz.com