Weekend guide to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty

I've just spent a weekend in Tauranga. Well, 'The Mount' and Tauranga. 

Apparently they are separate? I don't understand this. 

Anyway, it proved to me exactly why we as a nation need to see more of our own beautiful country. 

I did things and went places that I had never even heard of before.

Classic Flyers Aviation Museum
Classic Flyers Aviation Museum Photo credit: Newshub.

For example, I had no idea Tauranga was secretly the aviation capital of New Zealand, or that the coastline is home to dolphins, penguins and dozens of different bird species.

It was the first time I'd spent a weekend there, so in an effort to encourage you to do the same, here is...

A Weekend guide to Tauranga (and 'The Mount'):


In year's past, I've never really thought of Tauranga as a cultural melting pot, so my expectations in terms of cuisine weren't overly exotic.

Weekend guide to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty
Photo credit: Izakai Bar & Eatery

But roast me now and call me a potato as I was wrong.

One of the places I dined is easily one of best dining experiences I've had in the last 12 months.

It was called Izakai, a Japanese/Maori fusion restaurant. That's pot not your usual pairing, but it works deliciously.

From the starters, shared plates, mains and desserts (we tried quite a bit), everything served up looked and tasted unique.

Ryan Christensen and Liam Millard
Ryan Christensen and Liam Millard Photo credit: Izakai Bar & Eatery

The restaurant is run by two best mates and also has its own range of local handcrafted cocktails and wines too.

Recommended dish: I had the off-menu special, a kumara based gnocchi and of course some karaage chicken.

I said it to the owners at the time, and I will say it again: Izakai, please, please open in Auckland.

Hit the water

I headed out with the Tauranga Amateur Photographic Society to experience the sealife of the Bay of Plenty on a boat operated by Dolphin Seafaris.

Weekend guide to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty
Photo credit: Tourism Bay of Plenty

Despite it being mid-winter, the sun was out and the water was as smooth as glass. After heading out past a handful of small islands, we were joined by a pod of dolphins.

One, two, then up to around 15. It was amazing.

Within about 10 minutes we were surrounded by around 80 dolphins, all seemingly loving the attention we were giving them. I was offered the opportunity to get into the water with the dolphins, but given the temperature, I decided I'd hold off on that and head back in summer - the perfect excuse to visit again.

Weekend guide to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty
Photo credit: Dolphin Seafaris

It's not just sealife I experienced either. There are many species of rare birds that made an appearance the further away from land and civilisation the boat traveled. The crew onboard knew absolutely everything there was to know about each of these birds, and of course the dolphins and other sea life too.

The team's passion and genuine love for what they do, and what they get to see every day was obvious from the beginning.

Dolphin Seafaris team on the lookout.
Dolphin Seafaris team on the lookout. Photo credit: Newshub.

I spoke to one volunteer onboard who, at the age of 14 was giving up her weekends to spend time out on the boat with the Dolphin Seafaris team learning about the sea and birdlife.

Top Gun

If you're a fan of the movie Top Gun, then Tauranga should be the next place you visit in Aotearoa.

Dan Lake trying to be Maverick but acting like a Goose.
Dan Lake trying to be Maverick but acting like a Goose. Photo credit: Newshub.

The Aviator Experience was more than just a flight simulator setup. Its air force-themed set-up includes a small cinema where guests can watch the iconic movie, then head out to the hangar and virtually experience flying one of the aircraft themselves, using VR of course.

This would be an ideal location to host any event or birthday with an aviation connection. Located next to the runway at Tauranga Airport, it puts you right at the heart of the region's massive aviation scene.

As well as the simulator, there is also a large aviation museum just a few hundred metres down the road. There you'll find many aircraft whose flying days are over, as well as some that offer a unique flight around the region.

I managed to easily take off and cruise around at well over the speed of sound. Landing, however, wasn't my strong point. Thank goodness for control+alt+delete.

Hidden history

I visited The Elms. Hidden away within a lush garden of trees and plants, it's one of the most historic buildings in New Zealand's colonial history. Sitting on the northern tip of Te Papa peninsula, the land was originally named Otamataha pā.

Weekend guide to Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty
Photo credit: Newshub.

In the 1800s, it had the perfect vantage point for spotting any incoming ships or waka, with a view to the entrance of the Tauranga harbour. A view now blocked by the large Tauranga Port.

With items kept just as they were more than 100 years ago and in immaculate condition inside and out, The Elms is now a popular wedding and event venue.

Good to know

Unfortunately, I didn't have a good experience with Tauranga's Blue Bubble taxi service. 

Air New Zealand operates a number of daily flights to and from Tauranga.
Air New Zealand operates a number of daily flights to and from Tauranga. Photo credit: ATR

From getting addresses wrong to being yelled at by angry drivers, I recommend popping the blue bubble and using Uber in Tauranga instead. It's not exactly supporting local businesses, but at least you will actually get picked up and taken to where you need to go.

Getting there:

By car: The drive time to Tauranga from Auckland is just under three hours and about six-and-a-half from Wellington.

By plane: Air New Zealand operates daily flights to and from Tauranga from Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. Local airline SunAir operates services to and from Whangarei, Great Barrier Island, Whitianga, Hamilton and Gisborne.