Tauranga, New Zealand
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A cruise ship visit to Tauranga (pronounced "Tao-ronger") is like getting three port calls for the price of one: Tauranga, Mount Maunganui and Rotorua. Situated in the Bay of Plenty, Tauranga deserves a half-day or more of exploration. The busy city has several historical highlights (like the Elms Mission Station, said to be the oldest building in the Bay of Plenty), interesting architecture (check out the Brain Watkins House, built with local kauri wood) and tasty seafood-focused dining at the restaurants and pubs along the revitalized waterfront.
Cruise ships actually dock in the nearby town of Mount Maunganui, which is also worth visiting. There, visitors can embrace nature and the outdoors at the surfing hotspot of Mount Beach, with easy to strenuous hiking at Mount Maunganui, and in soothingly hot or warm saltwater pools at the mountain's base. Urbanites can also find lots of shopping and restaurants on busy Maunganui Road.
Finally, there's a third option that's also quite popular as a shore excursion: the town and region of Rotorua, about 75 minutes from the port. The area is a center for geothermal activity (including historic thermal baths) and Maori culture. Shore excursions to Rotorua will typically visit a geothermal park like Te Whakarewarea, Hells Gate or Waiotapu, which features the Lady Knox geyser, a natural phenomenon that erupts every day at 10:15 a.m. Other highlights may include bubbling mud pools, steaming springs, more geysers, spas, waterfalls, visits to one of the region's dozen pretty lakes, and the city of Rotorua proper. The trip is not for the nasally sensitive, as the hot springs and geysers are often accompanied by an ever-present sulphurous "rotten egg" smell.
Sadly, cruise travelers usually do not have enough time to visit all three destinations in one port call. Most choose to either stay in the neighboring Tauranga and Mount Maunganui or take the long shore excursion to the Rotorua area. Whichever way you go, you will not be disappointed.
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Genuine Maori arts and crafts -- including pottery, local paintings, jade jewelry or carvings -- make great souvenirs. The highly recommended Pohutukawa Gallery (138 Mounganui Road) in Mount Maunganui is within walking distance of the ship.
English, with a distinct Kiwi accent, is the predominant language in Tauranga and all of New Zealand, although you may hear some Maori being spoken there.
Many British-isms have found their way into the language -- like "brilliant" or "loo." However, the most unusual is the local use of "sweet as" -- meaning good or cool. It's generally used when something pleases the speaker, such as a local responding, "It's sweet as," when asked about a particular hike, wine or local beer.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency is the New Zealand dollar. For current currency conversion figures, visit XE.com. ATM's and banks are plentiful in both Tauranga and Mount Maunganui and are usually the cheapest way to get New Zealand dollars. Credit cards are widely accepted most everywhere.
Where You're Docked
Ships dock at Salisbury Wharf at the Port of Tauranga, which is actually in the town of Mount Maunganui.
There is a helpful i-SITE tourist office just 150 feet or so from the dock where visitors can pick up information, book tours or be directed to a nearby bus to Tauranga's center. Another 150 feet away is the center of Mount Maunganui, which also features shopping, dining, ATM's, post offices and a host of typical city amenities.
On Foot: All of Mount Maunganui's attractions are within a 10-minute walk of the port.
By Bus: Although some lines arrange for free buses, the only option on our visit was a city bus with direct service from Mount Maunganui to Tauranga. Leaving relatively frequently from the i-SITE office at the port, the bus costs a few New Zealand dollars per person one-way, and it takes 20 minutes to get to the middle of the commercial district of Tauranga. The bus drops passengers off at the convenient Tauranga i-SITE office and, from there, all of Tauranga's top attractions, shopping and dining options are within a 15-minute walk.
By Taxi: Taxis are available at the i-SITE office at the port, but if you are just heading into Tauranga, the city bus is the way to go. If you are going to Rotorua, a taxi or shore excursion would be your best bet.
Watch Out For
Uber-friendly locals will stop to ask anyone perusing a city map if they need help, so don't be afraid to take advantage of their assistance. Also, remember that New Zealanders drive on the left side of the road, an important safety note when crossing the street.
Walking trails wind around and lead up to the summit of Mount Maunganui. The summit walk takes about an hour and gets pretty steep near the top. The Mauao Base Track will take a little less time and wanders along the water and through groves of pohutukawa trees that bloom November through January. Most walkers first head to the trailhead at the end of the road running behind the waterfront RV park, but there are also other easily found starting and ending points.
The Mount Maunganui Hot Saltwater Pools complex features a spa pool, a sit-and-soak pool, leisure pool, toddler's pool with slide, renovated private pools, relaxing water jets and massage centre. (9 Adams Avenue at the base of Mount Maunganui. It's open 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sundays.)
Tauranga Art Gallery displays permanent historic and contemporary New Zealand art, along with changing local and visiting exhibitions in a former bank building. (Corner of Wharf and Willow Streets, Tauranga. It's open daily, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.)
A visit to Mills Reef Winery would require a taxi ride of about five miles from downtown, but the wines in the tasting room and for purchase, as well as the Art Deco restaurant, make it worth the expense for those with wine and food interests. (143 Moffat Road, Tauranga. It's open daily, 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.)
Been There, Done That
Get an aerial view of the entire area on a Gyroplane with Gyrate NZ. Whether on a scenic flight, an adrenaline-filled ride or a flying lesson, Gyrate NZ will show you a different view of the Bay of Plenty. (Tauranga Airport, Mount Maunganui)
The square Victorian-style Brain Watkins House was built in 1881 using local kauri wood and is one of just a half-dozen houses in New Zealand from that era with the original contents generally intact. With limited opening hours, the house is still worth a look from the outside. (223 Cameron Road, Tauranga. It's open Sundays from 2 to 4 p.m.)
The old Elm Mission Station is also worth a walk-by, but try to duck in to see the interior if it's open. This former mission housed missionary families for more than a century, and the contents reflect life around 1873 -- when mission work ended. The pretty free-standing library was the first permanent building erected on the site, and the English-style gardens are also a highlight. (Corner of Mission Street and Cameron Road, Tauranga. House and library are open Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays from 2 to 4 p.m. The gardens are open daily free of charge.)
Enjoy a day of kayaking with the family at Waimarino Adventure Park on the banks of the Wairoa River just 20 minutes from the port. There are lots of varied kayaking options, as well as swimming, a low ropes course, a climbing wall, a Tarzan swing, beach volleyball and picnicking. The kayak slide and the Glowworm Tour, where you explore a secret and magical glowworm-filled wonderland, are must-do offerings. (36 Taniwha Place, Tauranga. It's open daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.)
Sandy and wide Mount Beach is within walking distance of the Mount Maunganui port, and it's well-known for surfing. There's a sand beach, swimming and a variety of water sports options, lessons and rentals that range from surfing to paddleboarding and kiteboarding.
Tauranga and Mount Maunganui both feature a variety of restaurants for those out and exploring during lunchtime. Seafood is, of course, a specialty. The revitalized waterfront area of Tauranga and nearby streets, as well as walking-friendly Mount Maunganui, make it easy to find the fresh catch. Most shore excursions to Rotorua or other full-day tours -- like those to Waitomo Caves -- will include lunch.
For a killer waterfront view, Slow Fish on the beach at Mount Beach focuses on organic, free-range and slow food. Its all-day BIG breakfast menu is to die for, or, for lunch, check out the Slowfish Cakes served with arugula and chili jam. (Shop 5 Twin Towers, Marine Parade, Mount Maunganui. Open daily, 7 a.m. until late afternoon.)
Satori Lounge serves up sushi prepared to order. The warm sushi rolls are all the rage, and the cocktails are creative. (309 Maunganui Road, Mount Maunganui. It's open Tuesday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.)
For the fish & chips fanatic, Fresh Fish Market lives up to its name with just-off-the-dock fresh fish battered and fried right before your eyes. For something different, try the seafood kebabs. Come hungry, and be prepared to wait. It's well worth it! Enjoy your takeaway at a dozen picnic tables out front overlooking the dock. (1 Dive Crescent, Tauranga. It's open Monday and Tuesday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
For the wine lover, Naked Grape offers up more than 100 wines along with beautifully matched menus. It serves breakfast, lunch, snacks, gourmet pizzas, dinner and dessert indoors or out. (97 The Strand, Tauranga. It's open Monday through Saturday, 7:30 a.m. 'til late, and Sunday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
Staying in Touch
Internet access is easy to find in both Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. Try Gateway Cyber Cafe (26 Devonport Road) in Tauranga, Mount Internet Cafe (87 Maunganui Road) in Mount Maunganui or anywhere in the large free Wi-Fi zone in Mount Maunganui -- where you'll see lots of crew checking e-mail and phoning home through the Internet.
Best for First-Timers: The full-day tour (including lunch) to Rotorua is one of the more popular shore excursions out of Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. Activities vary by cruise line but typically include visits to wildlife parks, a nocturnal kiwi house and the natural thermal reserves of Te Puia and its boiling mud pools, hot pools and geysers. A highlight is Maori cultural performances, featuring traditional music, dancing and food. The tour makes for a long yet rewarding day.
Best for Explorers: Waitomo Caves is a full-day tour that includes a 2.5-hour drive through the countryside of the Waikato Region, a walk through the limestone geological formations of the caves and a boat ride to view millions of bio-luminescent glowworms hanging from the ceiling. After lunch in a typical country garden, visit a Kiwi House for possible sightings of the flightless bird.
Best for Cultural Buffs: Get a first-hand view of Maori customs, cultures and crafts with a half-day Maori Marae Visit (snack included). In the marae (meeting place), visitors experience a traditional challenge (wero) and welcome (powhiri), speeches and a pressing of the noses (hongi) by the tribal elders. There's also an opportunity to view authentic arts and crafts and lively Maori entertainment that features songs, dances and games.
For More Information
Bay of Plenty Tourism
Cruise Critic Message Boards: Australia & New Zealand
Independent Traveler Forums: New Zealand
--by Lynn and Cele Seldon, Cruise Critic Contributors