Visit the natural wonders, including a wildlife sanctuary and a ‘dig-it-yourself’ thermal pool, and luxuriate in beautiful local dining on a road trip around the Bay of Plenty.
Words & Photos Laura Smith
It might be a less-than-charming comparison, but I liken myself to a lizard; I thrive in a warmer climate.
Being Southland-based, with only a very small chance of an island getaway anytime soon, the opportunity to spend five days in the Bay of Plenty was very much welcome.
I knew I was in for a treat when I had to remove clothing layers when I landed in Tauranga mid-afternoon. A mere 6km from the city, I exited the terminal, found my rental car and began the short trip to my hotel, Trinity Wharf (51 Dive Crescent), my home-away-from-home for the next two nights. Close to town, I walked to the city centre for dinner.
Macau Restaurant (59 The Strand) specialises in mouth-watering sharing plates. I sampled a few and was impressed. An early start was in store for me the next day, and I travelled north to Waihī Beach.
While the journey was not a long one, I wanted to ensure there was enough time to explore the towns along the way – and there are some gems.
Coffee was a high priority, so a quick detour from State Highway 2 to Te Puna Deli (17B Minden Road) fixed my craving. Fresh and fragrant produce was piled on a centre table, while baked goods complemented the aroma.
My next stop was for a quick pie in Katikati, where a planned five-minute break turned into an hour’s exploration as I was captivated by the obvious pride the community had for its home.
The ever-present buzz of Bay of Plenty cicadas is the musical accompaniment for strolling down the mural-filled streets. The small town’s history is displayed in the large and numerous pieces of art, as well as in The Arts Junction (36 Main Road). Here you can find the Carlton Gallery, the Katikati Visitor Information Centre and the Junction Theatre – all well worth a visit. Friendly and knowledgeable, the staff are more than happy to provide information on the area.
Rolling waves and a long stretch of sandy beach welcomed me at Waihī. I drove to the northern end of the township, where I set out on a rewarding walk to Orokawa Bay.
Spectacular scenery and great fishing opportunities await, while the 45-minute (one-way) walk takes you through the scenic reserve’s native bush. The track winds around the edge of the coast, offering glimpses of an azure Pacific Ocean. At the end, I kicked off my shoes and rested on the sandy beach.
Working up an appetite again, I made my way back to the car and drove through the village to have lunch at Flatwhite (21 Shaw Road). A beachfront delight, the restaurant sits almost on the sand. Keeping with the marine theme, I chose fish tacos for my meal. Beautiful.
I spoke with the co-owner of the restaurant, who has ties to the South. Having trained in Queenstown and with relatives in Winton, Demian Dunlop appreciates southern living. However, the draw of the bay’s warm climate and beach living had him take a position as the chef at Flatwhite.
“Waihī Beach is a hidden gem. It’s a beautiful place – we have a lot to offer.”
I had to agree. My time there, however, had to come to an end and I headed back towards Tauranga.
With a slight phobia of massages, I wasn’t initially excited for my trip to Fernland Spa (250 Cambridge Road, Bethlehem). My experience, however, proved me a fool. I am not ‘good’ at relaxation, but after a soak in the private thermal mineral pool I was more than ready to give it a try. My half-hour massage began, and I was slipping, slipping, slipping away.
Evening came, and as I sat down to dinner at Sugo (19 Wharf Street) I appreciated every luscious mouthful. I was salivating just looking at the menu: rock melon and prosciutto, tiramisu, beetroot and ricotta tortellini, with a wicked drinks list, too. Not too many though, as it was another early start the next day – a roadie to Whakatāne.
Low sun and a light haze drifting off the sea set a serene scene for the hour-long drive. However, rough seas were forecast, and with a previous activity already having been cancelled the day before, I was lucky it had calmed enough for my next. And it was one I was very ready for: a tour of Moutohorā Island (Whale Island).
One of the country’s most restricted pest-free wildlife sanctuaries, it was a privilege to be boarding a boat with Moutohorā Island Sanctuary Tours (15 The Strand, Whakatāne). As such, biosecurity was completed before boarding. After a bumpy ride over, the sea calmed as we drew closer to the Department of Conservation and Ngāti Awa-managed island.
The first highlight was spotting the numerous fur seals that call Moutohorā Island home. As we bobbed towards our landing point, birds could be seen and heard among the hum of cicadas.
Our small group of about 10 or so began a short and slow walk, stopping occasionally to hear stories of the history and character of the island as we traversed through native bush. The well-formed track led north to a vantage point, close to a historical pā, where we looked out across the ocean. Retracing our steps, we visited a resident tuatara, which chilled near its burrow as we waved hello.
The last part of our island journey was to Onepū/Sulphur Bay. Aptly named, the bay serves as a reminder of the island’s volcanic nature. Spades were handed out and we worked to dig ourselves a geothermal pool; others relaxed with an eagle ray for company in the warm, calm water.
We left the island in no rush, and we farewelled in Whakatāne with a smile and a wave. I’d recommend spending some time in this part of the bay. Beautiful Ōhope is close by and the road around to Ōpōtiki and further offers some gorgeous sights. For me, dinner was soon of high priority.
I was to stay in Waitao that evening, so I made my way back on to State Highway 2 and travelled to Te Puke for a quick feed.
I navigated the short, twisting drive to Cob Cottage (662 Te Puke Quarry Road). An impressive place to stay, the cottage was built by locals wanting to learn the art of natural building (so they made it out of clay, sand and straw). Owned and obviously cherished by the Partridge family, the cottage makes for a beautiful and romantic refuge.
I arrived shortly before dusk and, having settled in, I paused to admire my surroundings. Magpies chattered and insects played their evening song, with me soaking it all in while cuddled up on a couch by a brazier. Sleep came easily.
The last day of my trip had arrived and I still had so much I wanted to do, to see. Evidently not having had my fill of natural wonders, my first trip was to Kaiate/Te Rerekawau Falls. A 10-minute drive from the cottage, the easy walk weaves down to the falls and back.
Various stops along the way offered drastically different views: wide and open to Mount Maunganui in the distance; corridors of native flora; and volumes of rushing water, pooling, trickling, gushing down. It was all too much for my senses, and I was hungry again.
So, off I went to Pāpāmoa for breakfast. Coffee and crêpes at Henry & Ted (5 Golden Sands Drive) went down well and kept me going while I visited nearby towns. Back on the road east, I took a turnoff towards Pukehina.
The reason for my visit to the small beach town was to meet the team behind Lumberjack Brewing (90 Pukehina Beach Road). Kitted out with a small taproom, the brewery is open on Friday and Saturday afternoons.
This year, owner Ian O’Malley quit his job to work on the craft beer brewery full-time. He studied in Dunedin and played for St Kilda Brass; he now teaches brass one day a week at the local school. “We decided to just take the leap.”
This may have been an easy decision, having won the SOBA Bay of Plenty Brewery of the Year in 2019, and with support from the local community.
In the process of expanding the business, he invites locals and vacationers alike to pop in for a brew or two.
With only one road into Pukehina, he told me to keep driving down and visit the beach. It was certainly somewhere I could spend some time – a quaint beach town, still with the rural charm us southerners are used to.
Nearby Maketū is similarly beautiful. Activities around the area are numerous, such as horse riding, fishing and kayaking, to name but a few.
Known for its kiwifruit cultivation, Te Puke works as a good base for those wanting to do orchard tours. For me, food was once more on my mind. The focus for those who run The Daily (3 Commerce Lane), however, is the community. Owned by The Search Party Charitable Trust, all profits from the café and catering goes back to the Te Puke community, with the aim of breaking the poverty cycle. And the food? Superb. My vacation was coming to an end, but I still had one more thing to check off my to-do list.
Turning towards Mount Maunganui, I checked into The Beaumont Apartments (12 Maunganui Road) and relaxed in the bright lounge for an hour. Then I headed to the beach, where I donned a wetsuit. I tried to surf… and failed.
This was not due to a lack of patience, support or commitment from my instructor, Paddy Maddocks. The crew at Hibiscus Surf School (Main Beach)are experienced and, thankfully, kind to beginners like me.
For those who possess more skill than myself, they offer advanced lessons as well. My private lesson, which lasted an hour and a half, completed my holiday and was the ideal way to spend the remaining time I had in the sunny Bay of Plenty.