I visited the two most popular destinations in the Bay of Plenty, Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. They go hand-in-hand and provide a fantastic opportunity to experience the North Island’s breathtaking topography.
Having arrived in the late afternoon, I got myself settled as quickly as possible and made my way out into the Tauranga nightlife. Before arriving, I had made connections with a few locals through CouchSurfing, so I had some drinking companions. Chris, a British doctor completing his residency in the Bay of Plenty, was more than happy to join me for some pints at the Crown & Badger, where Boston native and CouchSurfer Alicia kept the Tui flowing. I had never met these people in person before, but, like all my experiences in New Zealand, I immediately felt comfortable and welcome. We wiled away the hours exploring The Strand, discussing the Kiwi’s horrendous aptitude for dancing and finding the bottom of many glasses.
The next morning, having enjoyed Tauranga’s less organic pleasures, I was eager to take advantage of my natural surroundings. There is plenty to do on the water in the Bay of Plenty and I was ready to get out there. Having heard that New Zealand provides some of the best opportunities to swim with dolphins, I made a booking with Dolphin Seafaris (and not just because I love a good pun).
Dolphin Seafaris’ staff is comprised almost entirely of marine biologists who have dedicated their professional lives to studying and protecting these amazing creatures. To go out on their boat is the adult equivalent of a school field trip (and I mean that in the most positive way possible). You’ll learn about the dolphin behavior and also have the opportunity to get into the water and swim with them assuming that the conditions allow. I was fortunate enough put my wetsuit to proper use and will never forget the experience of being mere inches away from our aquatic cousins. The dolphins frolicked around the boat and I truly enjoyed a shared experience with them.
Rather than return to Tauranga, I asked the captain to drop me off at the pier near Mount Maunganui. The Mount, as it is often called (or Mauao in Maori) is connected to Taurangua by a thin peninsula. It’s not so much a mountain as it is a 700+ foot extinct volcano that is noticeable from virtually anywhere in the Bay of Plenty.
I decided to hike up the 2km summit trail and see the view for myself. From the pier, it’s only a five minute walk to the Mount’s base. If you are looking for a more leisurely stroll, you can take advantage of the 3km walking path that loops around the base. Shortly into the summit walk, I realized that I was not alone. The Mount is home to sheep. Lots of sheep. New Zealand boasts a 10-1 sheep-to-person ratio, so this was not entirely unexpected. But, as a New Yorker, until I found myself alone on a hill within spitting distance of two-dozen sheep, I didn’t really know what that ratio would look like in person. Well, it looks like a lot of sheep poop on the trail.
It’s a rather easy walk up to the summit and the views along the way are magnificent. At the summit, I enjoyed a 360 degree view of the entire Bay of Plenty and lingered there to catch my breath and be alone with my thoughts.
I made my way back to the base and realized that I hadn’t eaten anything since I took advantage of the free breakfast on the dolphin boat. I headed into Mount Maunganui (which is also the name of the town – try to stay with me) and immediately made my way to Maunganui Road, which is a stretch of restaurants, shops and galleries. Not one to pass up local fish and chips, I enjoyed the largest pile of fried food I have ever consumed at the tiny but excellent Mount Fish & Chips. Wrapped in newspaper and fried to golden perfection, it was the freshest serving of fish and chips that I have ever tasted.
Satiated, I hopped on the Bay Hopper Bus for the short ride back over to Tauranga. I cleaned myself up and decided to take advantage of my proximity to the bars yet again. Chris was nice enough to join me for another night on the town, and we enjoyed a few pints while watching the India-New Zealand cricket match that was being played down in Wellington. It was during this night out that I found myself comforted by a wonderful realization. I was an American who had learned cricket in India sitting in a bar in New Zealand watching a match with a Brit and it all felt normal. Maybe it was the euphoria from my fulfilling afternoon adventures or just the alcohol, but I felt like I was belonged there.
That’s the wonderful thing about traveling. You get back what you put into it. And if you share yourself with New Zealand, it will offer plenty in return. Just like Captain Cook discovered over two centuries ago.