There’s no shortage of reasons to plan a trip to New Zealand: the killer food and wine, the epic landscapes, Lord of the Rings geekery, and enough adventure sports to make your head spin. But there’s one quintessential Kiwi experience that you shouldn’t miss on your jaunt down under: a chilled-out visit to New Zealand’s favourite beach town. Maybe it won’t replace your yearly umbrella-drink vacay down south–yes, it’s far from Canada, and tickets aren’t cheap–but as part of a trip to New Zealand, a beach vacation is a must-do. (Plus, once you’re there, it’s worth your while to stay as long as possible.)
The town is called Mount Maunganui – “The Mount,” for short – and it’s been a favourite summer getaway for generations of Kiwis. From back in the day when modest “baches” (short for “bachelor,” the local version of a cottage) and backyard barbecues with bottles of generic lager were the M.O. for family vacationers, to modern times, when most of the old baches have been torn down in favour of bigger homes and condo buildings. In addition to cooking at home, you can breakfast on flat whites and artisanal pastries and dine in trendy bistros while sipping New Zealand wine. No wonder it’s been voted the country’s best beach on Tripadvisor for three years in a row.
About a three-hour drive (or very quick flight) southeast of Auckland (close to popular tourist town Rotorua and, yes, to Hobbiton), The Mount is technically part of the city of Tauranga, a narrow peninsula that juts out around the harbour and is punctuated by Mauao, the Maori name for the “mountain” (hill of volcanic origin) the town is named for. The beauty of this geography is that you’re never far from the beach – in fact, the ocean side (with the surf and sand) is miles and miles long, so even if your accommodation is a bit of a walk from downtown, you can get to the beach at a moment’s notice – and easily get away from the crowds. The harbour side is calm and where you can spot cruise ships and wander the boardwalk, or rent paddleboards for a cruise out on the water.
For the most fun and relaxing visit, live like a local. Rent a condo or house with some friends or family members, ideally one close to downtown so everything is walkable, and do a mix of eating out and self-catering. Not only is this more budget-friendly, but it will give you an excuse to stock up on hokey pokey ice cream, Vogel’s bread (toast it and slather with butter and honey, trust us) and everything in the farmer’s market.
(As for timing, remember that the seasons are reversed: January and February are the hottest months, and while it never gets too cold here – freezing temps are virtually unheard of – July and August aren’t exactly beach weather, though the surfing can be good. You’ll be competing with locals for accommodations and amenities between roughly Christmas and the beginning of February, which is summer holidays for Kiwi kids.)
Ready to get planning? Here are our top tips:
1. Hike Mauao
Mount Maunganui is the kind of place triathletes choose to live: the climate is mild and the activities easily accessible. Hiking Mauao is a daily activity for some, whether you choose to go up to the summit (about 20 to 30 minutes of steep climbing) or walk or run the perimeter; you’ll spot grazing sheep along the way and catch stunning views of the harbour, the beach and nearby Matakana Island. Beach walks and runs, of course, are another must-do, as well as just lying on the beach with breaks to play in the waves and eat passionfruit ice cream cones. (Many accommodations include boogie boards, so make sure to ask.)
2. Get wet
You’ll want to get in the water, too, and not just for swimming. Several surf outfitters set up shop along the beach, so you can drop by and rent a board or take a lesson. (Surfing is an official sport here, with many kids belonging to “surf lifesaving” clubs as their fitness activity, a competitive multidisciplinary sport that has them running relay races – barefoot on the sand, natch – swimming and paddling their boards through the surf, all in mostly friendly competition.) From one spot on the sand you might be able to watch runners, swimmers, surfers, kayakers, kiteboarders and paddleboarders – all at the same time.
3. Eat and drink
The food and drink scene in New Zealand is insane – think B.C., but with a warmer climate where you can grow even more amazing produce. Start your visit at the farmer’s market (check with your accommodation for locations and times) to pick up as much fruit as you can carry – not just kiwifruit, but passionfruit, peaches, plums, nectarines, cherries, apples… whatever is in season. The nearest grocery store is worth a trip, too, not just to stock up on fun flavours of yogurt and ice cream, but to peruse the shelves and shelves of local beer and wine.
As for eating out, make sure to plan for a Friday dinner at the gourmet night market, where you can go from stall to stall pigging out on everything from pizza and sandwiches to New Zealand mussels and lamb. If you’re lucky, someone will be selling classic Kiwi baked goods like lolly cakes (think coloured marshmallows and other candy made into a bar) or ginger slices (sweet, gingery and buttery bar cookies). And make sure to spend a few mornings hopping from café to café to judge who makes the best espresso – it’s a national art here.
4. Go barefoot
One Kiwi habit foreigners often find odd is the tendency to ditch shoes whenever possible and wander around in bare feet. And if there’s one place to go native on this one, it’s a beach town. Start slow, if you like – leave the jandals (flip-flops) behind by your beach towel as you walk over to the ice cream stand – but before long, you’ll be a convert. And you know what? Enjoy it. Everyone back at home is wearing boots.