Looking out over the northern end of the picturesque Bay of Plenty you’ll find Tauranga, one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing cities.
With its waterside location, Tauranga’s fun activities naturally revolve around the biodiverse coastline, world-beating beaches, and offshore marvels like volcanic White Island. In this coastal city, there’s everything you’d expect: scenic walks along the beachfront promenade, a bustling fish market, and a sophisticated culinary scene typical of hipster New Zealand.
Thanks to its proximity to inland Rotorua, Tauranga offers access to some of the North Island’s most impressive experiences. The rich Maori heritage found here, set in and around some of the country’s most startling geothermal landscapes, is an unmissable two-for-one.
And while it might be hard to pull yourself away from the urban hub of Tauranga’s Strand Waterfront with its sea-view restaurants, piney craft IPA’s, and earnestly served flat whites, many of the most exciting activities in Tauranga are found in the nearby countryside.
Here’s a list of exciting things to do in Tauranga and the surrounding area.
1: Visit a Maori Village
An hour south of Tauranga brings you to Whakarewarewa, a living Maori village and cultural center set within a geothermal wonderland.
Whakarewarewa is the ancestral home of the Tuhourangi Ngati Wahiao, who can trace their lineage directly to the Te Arawa. The Te Arawa were Polynesians that landed in New Zealand in ocean-going canoes. They settled in the Taupo Volcanic Zone in the 14th-century, exploiting the geothermal activity to warm their homes, bathwater, and cooking pots.
Tourism has been a fact of life here since the early 1800s. Guided tours feel less like a commercial act of tourism and more like being welcomed into a friend’s home and a community’s confidence.
You’ll learn about the valley’s history while skirting steaming lakes and bubbling mud pools—where the tang of sulfur occasionally stings the nostrils—before experiencing elements of the Maori culture such as the village dance troupe’s dynamic haka.
2: Kayak in Lake Rotoiti
Lake Rotoiti, a serene lake bordered by verdant hills, woodland, and precipitous mountain slopes, is a prime example of why nature lovers flock to New Zealand. Best of all, like the far-flung nation itself, Rotoiti is remote while still under an hour’s drive from the city.
Plentiful trails wind through the beech trees and meander towards the shoreline, although there’s nothing like gliding out onto Rotoiti’s calm waters in a kayak. While many seek out the lake’s splendid isolation for the thriving trout population, the lake is also renowned for its caves.
Within some of these subterranean spots, many only accessible from the water, you’ll nose in your kayak to discover colonies of glow worms that light up the rocky interiors with their stunning bioluminescent display, even at midday.
Another natural phenomenon found on Rotoiti is Manupirua Beach and its hot springs-fed thermal pools. Sink into the warm geothermal waters and have your kayaking muscles restored to pristine condition.
3: Explore the Kaimai Mountains
Separating the northerly region of Waikato from the Bay of Plenty, the lushly forested Kaimai range extends from the bottom of the Coromandel Peninsula towards Rotorua. It’s an area of extraordinary biodiversity, as well as a trove of Maori myth and legend.
Te Aroha, the range’s highest point at 3,123 feet, is named after a myth involving the impossible love between the sun god and the moon goddess. Less romantic were the Europeans, who logged the range of its giant, ramrod-straight kauri trees when they arrived in New Zealand.
Today, much of the range is protected as the Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park with nearly 200 miles of tracks to take you deep into the verdant countryside. Among the shrubby kamahi and towering kauri, disused tramlines, and ferny gorges are hidden highlights such as the cascading Wairere Falls (so high they’re seen clearly from a nearby car park).
And if you decide to tackle Te Aroha, the good news is that there’s an eponymous spa town at its base with medicinal hot springs for that rewarding post-hike soak.
4: Take a Geothermal Mud Bath
You may not consider somewhere named “Hell’s Gate” as a good spot to de-stress. This place, named by playwright George Bernard Shaw in 1934, is New Zealand’s only geothermal mud spa and a great way to unwind after ticking off all the exciting activities in Tauranga, which is only an hour’s drive north.
Hell’s Gate has been in use as a spa for over 800 years and is one of the best places to visit on the North Island. Its nutrient-rich water and mud were traditionally seen as a gift from Ruaumoko—the Maori god of earthquakes, seasons, and volcanoes.
Warriors from local tribes would take to the steaming waters and warm mud after a battle. Today, fewer battle wounds are seen and most visitors to this spot on the edge of the Rotoiti Forest are here to ease their arthritic joints or just have a fun wallow in the mud.
Your visit begins with a self-guided walk through the geothermal landscape and it’s immediately obvious what prompted Shaw’s comment. As you make your way towards the mud baths, steam billows up from the milky green water and the air is bitterly aromatic. Arriving at the mud baths, make like a wounded Maori warrior in the feather-soft mud before heading out for a cleaner dip in the spa pools.
5: Marvel at Mount Tarawera
Mount Tarawera, an hour and a half’s scenic drive from Tauranga, is a stunning volcanic landscape with a dramatic past.
In 1886, the volcano’s cone was sundered by the deadliest eruption in the country’s history. There were numerous casualties in the surrounding Maori villages and the world-famous silicon hot springs known as the “Pink and White Terraces” were reportedly destroyed by the explosion.
However, it wasn’t all death and destruction: out of the fire was born the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, known for its steaming cliffs and Frying Pan Lake—the world’s largest hot spring.
While there’s been some recent conjecture that the Pink and White Terraces are simply buried rather than destroyed, there’s still plenty near Tarawera to justify the trip. A guided tour to the slumbering summit will reward you with views all the way back to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty. If it’s particularly clear, you’ll also make out White Island—essentially a submerged volcano, its cone poking above the water.
At the foot of the volcano, you’ll find Lake Tarawera, one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. This expanse of fern tree tranquillity is a favorite place for locals in the warmer months and it provides plenty of superb foreground for landscape photographs of the volcano.
As this is the Rotorua region, of course, there’s a thermal spring-fed haven in the lake, this time in the form of Hot Water Beach (not to be confused with the one on the Coromandel Peninsula). Located in Te Rata Bay, you’ll know you’ve reached the right place when you see steam rising from the lake.
6: Te Puia Nighttime Experience
Located on Rotorua’s southern city limits, Te Puia, named after a Maori fortress, is a cultural center and thermal reserve. It has established a reputation as one of the country’s most impressive Maori experiences. Best of all, you can now go there at night.
Arriving at sunset, your tour begins with culture and concludes with a geothermal showstopper. You’ll arrive at a traditional Maori greeting and “haka”, a welcome dance that’s not so welcoming for opposing teams when performed on the pitch by New Zealand’s indomitable All Blacks team. Te Puia is also the home for the country’s schools of indigenous carving and weaving, a cultural shrine where you can learn about the Maori way of life.
Next, eat a hearty meal served fresh off the hot rocks of an earth oven or “hangi.” While dining, you’ll learn the history of the Te Arawa people who arrived in the country over 700 years ago. Once you’re replete with stories and repast, it’s time to explore the spectacularly illuminated thermal reserve.
Through the ghostly steam, make your way to Pohutu—the southern hemisphere’s largest active geyser. (The name, which translates as “constant splashing,” is something of a giveaway.) Jetting up to 100 feet into the air, you’ll have a naturally-warmed stone seat from which to marvel at this remarkable nocturnal eruption.
7: Indulge in a Bay of Plenty Culinary Tour
Tauranga’s food scene is a wonderful mesh of incredible fresh produce hauled in from the suitably entitled Bay of Plenty and the South Pacific Ocean. Exploring its full breadth of ingredients and influences is one of the most essential things to do in Tauranga.
The gamut of cuisine runs from French Toast-donut hybrids slathered in mascarpone and grilled bananas to beachside health food restaurants that sound a gong when your meal is ready. A tour will help you make sense of Tauranga’s cornucopia of delights, bringing you into contact with New Zealand’s modern foodie mindset and immigrant history.
Your food tour will take you to indie bakeries, coffee roasters employing the latest tech to squeeze the most flavor from each bean, and, of course, Tauranga’s fish market. You’ll taste locally-produced salami, homegrown Goudas, smoked fish, and fresh mussels washed down with Tauranga craft beers and grassy New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
Keep some room for lunch, however. This might be the best fish ‘n’ chips you’ll ever have, set amid the docks in central Tauranga and paired with a chilled glass of New Zealand white.
8: Visit Mount Maunganui
Exploring the bustling main drag and blissful beaches of Mount Maunganui is one of the most popular things to do in Tauranga.
A peninsula that concludes in an extinct volcano, this is one of the city’s most sought-after neighborhoods (not least because of brunch at The General). Climbing the eponymous Mount Maunganui volcano is another essential thing to do in Tauranga while you’re there.
You’ll be rewarded at the leafy peak with gorgeous views back towards Tauranga Harbor and of Moturiki island—a historic Mauri settlement that is well worth the short boat ride and guided tour.
If you happen to be visiting on a Friday evening in the summer, you’ll find the air around Coronation Park filled with incredible barbecue and spice smells rising from the assorted stalls and food trucks at the Gourmet Night Market. Get cozy under a blanket and enjoy live music as the stars come out.
9: Evening Kayaking for Glow Worms
One of the most exciting things to do in Tauranga is to visit Lake McLaren. Roughly a ten-minute drive into the countryside brings you to this idyllic lake, a magnet for day-trippers, campers, and fishing aficionados.
The lake is rightly famous for its namesake waterfall that torrents out from a mossy hillside into the calm waters below. However, Lake Mclaren is also home to a rarer phenomenon: a canyon that fills nightly with the bioluminescent light of thousands of glowworms.
Clustered on the sheer walls of the narrow canyon, an evening tour will see you propel yourself over the dark waters of the lake and into this glittering corridor. Led by expert guides, you’ll learn about the life cycles and habits of arachnocampa luminosa as you marvel at the canyon’s miniature cosmos.
Of course, after your visit with the luminous larvae, you’ll paddle back beneath a shining night sky of startling clarity and color.
Experience all of these unforgettable activities on a cruise to Tauranga. From incredible natural vistas, astonishing Maori culture, and world-beating wines, New Zealand is a trip of a lifetime.
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