New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty

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If you’ve never been to New Zealand, you really need to go. Those wonderful stories about the place are all true. If you’ve already gone, chances are you didn’t visit the North Island’s Bay of Plenty. Not a lot of people do. Stuck up in the northeastern corner about two hours from Auckland, this part of the North Island is rather off the beaten tourist path — and that means things are less crowded and more authentic.

My wife, Rose, and I happened to find the Bay of Plenty because we were staying with a local couple, Clive and Helen Berry, who home-hosted us for a week in February ’05 as part of a Friendship Force (34 Peachtree St., Ste. 900, Atlanta, GA 30303; phone 404/522-9490 or visit www.friendshipforce.org) exchange. The Berrys live about 30 minutes just outside the village of Katikati, just a short walk from a Bay of Plenty beach and boat harbor.

Katikati is a charming, old gold-mining town dating back to the 1880s — and it looks it. The gold mining is not all in the past, either. Actually, the town’s gold and silver open-pit mine, the Martha Mine (www.marthamine.co.nz), is right in the middle of town and today still produces about a quarter of New Zealand’s gold, some 2.5 tons annually. The streets have little shops, some covered walks and a large, white, Western-movie-looking hotel on a corner with a sign “Rooms $20.”

It certainly didn’t take the whole week to convince us that this would be a great part of New Zealand for anyone to visit. Thanks to our hosts, we quickly learned the area holds a wide variety of things to do and see. Getting around is not only easy, as there is little traffic, but the many avocado and kiwi groves and mountainsides covered with tree ferns make driving anywhere a scenic treat. What follows is a recap of what we learned.

THE MAORI PEOPLE — The must-see item in the area is the Maori Arts & Crafts Institute in Rotorua. It’s important to know about the Maori people to really understand New Zealand, and the institute makes learning about them pleasant and easy. Dating back to the 1300s, they were New Zealand’s first settlers, and today they number 600,000, or roughly 15% of the country’s population. One encounters Maori influence everywhere in the people, culture and architecture of the country.

We took a guided tour of a re-created traditional Maori village, saw a demonstration of reed weaving, paid a visit to the Te Wananga Whakairo carving school and had time left for Rose to shop the gift store. Don’t miss the daily noon Maori concert; it’s a 45-minute snapshot of traditional Maori song and dance plus weaponry. We finished by walking to the adjacent Te Whakarewarewa thermal valley to watch the country’s largest geyser. For more details, go to www.nzmaori.co.nz.

For lunch, we drove down the road and took the gondola to the top of Mt. Ngongotaha for an extensive buffet overlooking Lake Rotorua. It was conspicuously “international” in scope, offering a wide mix of things like lamb, baby octopus pasta in pesto sauce, kimchi, steamed shrimp, ham, miso soup and French onion soup. The cost is NZ$39 (near US$28) lunch or NZ$49 (US$36) dinner including round-trip tram ride; the gondola ride alone costs NZ$18. Visit www.skylineskyrides. co.nz/ssr/ssr_prices.

OTHER OPTIONS — Two more nearby exhibits should be checked out as well. The Rainbow Springs (www.rainbowsprings.co.nz) exhibit lets you view various indigenous plants, birds and animals, including huge rainbow trout, almost the size of torpedoes, as well as several kiwis. Being nocturnal, kiwis are very hard to see, but here there is a specially darkened viewing facility. The other is a Farm Show (www.nzfarmshow.co.nz), where we saw sheep being sheared and sheepdogs working.

HIKING — If you enjoy walking, you will enjoy hiking the spectacular Karangahake River Gorge. It’s a short drive toward Auckland and it offers hiking options of different lengths. Besides enjoying the scenery as you walk the gorge, you also can explore long-defunct gold mine shafts and tunnels.

TAURANGA — The Bay of Plenty’s major city, Tauranga (area population about 100,000) is well worth a visit and is the most logical place to find a place to stay. The downtown is sparkling clean and attractive with lots of hanging street corner flower baskets, Across from the waterfront are bistros and sidewalk tables, promising an interesting nightlife. The harbor area holds lots of sailing and fishing boats.

If you wish to see where the founder of the city once lived, visit The Elms and tour the old buildings and the grounds. There are docent-led tours, and you learn about the Maori Land Wars which the British eventually won. Later, decommissioned soldiers settled the area, forcing out the native populations. For details, check out www. historic.org.nz.

WINE — There are several excellent wineries around the Bay of Plenty. The largest we visited was Mills Reef (www.millsreef.co.nz). It’s located on spacious, landscaped grounds and is used often for weddings and other receptions. Smaller, and our favorite because we preferred their reds, was Morton Estate (info@mortonestateswineries.co.nz) in Katikati.

Based on our experience with these two wineries and others, if you enjoy wine tasting in the States, you will really enjoy it over there. The whole experience is more elegant, the people are more friendly and there is no charge.

BEACHES — Our favorite beach for just relaxing or watching locals fish was Waihi Beach, just north of Katikati, but there are lots of similar beaches in the area. Nearby, one often finds small restaurants, such as Gunners View Restaurant (99 Beach Rd., Waihi Beach), where four orders of fish-and-chips with drinks came to NZ$47.50 (US$35).

LOOKING BACK — Probably the thing we least liked about New Zealand was its being so much like the U.S. We just find it more interesting in Thailand or Japan because of the cultural differences.

But what’s not to like about New Zealand, except for having to drive on the left-hand side of the road? Getting around is easy, and the favorable exchange rate plus their custom of not tipping makes our dollar go farther too. Hopefully, the above information will help you plan a trip to this somewhat neglected part of New Zealand.

Oh, yes, what we liked most were our Friendship Force hosts, Helen and Clive Berry, who shared their home, table, time and quite a bit of wine with us.

JOE PHELAN
Lincoln, CA

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If you’ve never been to New Zealand, you really need to go. Those wonderful stories about the place are all true. If you’ve already gone, chances are you didn’t visit the North Island’s Bay of Plenty. Not a lot of people do. Stuck up in the northeastern corner about two hours from Auckland, this part of the North Island is rather off the beaten tourist path — and that means things are less crowded and more authentic.

My wife, Rose, and I happened to find the Bay of Plenty because we were staying with a local couple, Clive and Helen Berry, who home-hosted us for a week in February ’05 as part of a Friendship Force (34 Peachtree St., Ste. 900, Atlanta, GA 30303; phone 404/522-9490 or visit www.friendshipforce.org) exchange. The Berrys live about 30 minutes just outside the village of Katikati, just a short walk from a Bay of Plenty beach and boat harbor.

Katikati is a charming, old gold-mining town dating back to the 1880s — and it looks it. The gold mining is not all in the past, either. Actually, the town’s gold and silver open-pit mine, the Martha Mine (www.marthamine.co.nz), is right in the middle of town and today still produces about a quarter of New Zealand’s gold, some 2.5 tons annually. The streets have little shops, some covered walks and a large, white, Western-movie-looking hotel on a corner with a sign “Rooms $20.”

It certainly didn’t take the whole week to convince us that this would be a great part of New Zealand for anyone to visit. Thanks to our hosts, we quickly learned the area holds a wide variety of things to do and see. Getting around is not only easy, as there is little traffic, but the many avocado and kiwi groves and mountainsides covered with tree ferns make driving anywhere a scenic treat. What follows is a recap of what we learned.

THE MAORI PEOPLE — The must-see item in the area is the Maori Arts & Crafts Institute in Rotorua. It’s important to know about the Maori people to really understand New Zealand, and the institute makes learning about them pleasant and easy. Dating back to the 1300s, they were New Zealand’s first settlers, and today they number 600,000, or roughly 15% of the country’s population. One encounters Maori influence everywhere in the people, culture and architecture of the country.

We took a guided tour of a re-created traditional Maori village, saw a demonstration of reed weaving, paid a visit to the Te Wananga Whakairo carving school and had time left for Rose to shop the gift store. Don’t miss the daily noon Maori concert; it’s a 45-minute snapshot of traditional Maori song and dance plus weaponry. We finished by walking to the adjacent Te Whakarewarewa thermal valley to watch the country’s largest geyser. For more details, go to www.nzmaori.co.nz.

For lunch, we drove down the road and took the gondola to the top of Mt. Ngongotaha for an extensive buffet overlooking Lake Rotorua. It was conspicuously “international” in scope, offering a wide mix of things like lamb, baby octopus pasta in pesto sauce, kimchi, steamed shrimp, ham, miso soup and French onion soup. The cost is NZ$39 (near US$28) lunch or NZ$49 (US$36) dinner including round-trip tram ride; the gondola ride alone costs NZ$18. Visit www.skylineskyrides. co.nz/ssr/ssr_prices.

OTHER OPTIONS — Two more nearby exhibits should be checked out as well. The Rainbow Springs (www.rainbowsprings.co.nz) exhibit lets you view various indigenous plants, birds and animals, including huge rainbow trout, almost the size of torpedoes, as well as several kiwis. Being nocturnal, kiwis are very hard to see, but here there is a specially darkened viewing facility. The other is a Farm Show (www.nzfarmshow.co.nz), where we saw sheep being sheared and sheepdogs working.

HIKING — If you enjoy walking, you will enjoy hiking the spectacular Karangahake River Gorge. It’s a short drive toward Auckland and it offers hiking options of different lengths. Besides enjoying the scenery as you walk the gorge, you also can explore long-defunct gold mine shafts and tunnels.

TAURANGA — The Bay of Plenty’s major city, Tauranga (area population about 100,000) is well worth a visit and is the most logical place to find a place to stay. The downtown is sparkling clean and attractive with lots of hanging street corner flower baskets, Across from the waterfront are bistros and sidewalk tables, promising an interesting nightlife. The harbor area holds lots of sailing and fishing boats.

If you wish to see where the founder of the city once lived, visit The Elms and tour the old buildings and the grounds. There are docent-led tours, and you learn about the Maori Land Wars which the British eventually won. Later, decommissioned soldiers settled the area, forcing out the native populations. For details, check out www. historic.org.nz.

WINE — There are several excellent wineries around the Bay of Plenty. The largest we visited was Mills Reef (www.millsreef.co.nz). It’s located on spacious, landscaped grounds and is used often for weddings and other receptions. Smaller, and our favorite because we preferred their reds, was Morton Estate (info@mortonestateswineries.co.nz) in Katikati.

Based on our experience with these two wineries and others, if you enjoy wine tasting in the States, you will really enjoy it over there. The whole experience is more elegant, the people are more friendly and there is no charge.

BEACHES — Our favorite beach for just relaxing or watching locals fish was Waihi Beach, just north of Katikati, but there are lots of similar beaches in the area. Nearby, one often finds small restaurants, such as Gunners View Restaurant (99 Beach Rd., Waihi Beach), where four orders of fish-and-chips with drinks came to NZ$47.50 (US$35).

LOOKING BACK — Probably the thing we least liked about New Zealand was its being so much like the U.S. We just find it more interesting in Thailand or Japan because of the cultural differences.

But what’s not to like about New Zealand, except for having to drive on the left-hand side of the road? Getting around is easy, and the favorable exchange rate plus their custom of not tipping makes our dollar go farther too. Hopefully, the above information will help you plan a trip to this somewhat neglected part of New Zealand.

Oh, yes, what we liked most were our Friendship Force hosts, Helen and Clive Berry, who shared their home, table, time and quite a bit of wine with us.

JOE PHELAN
Lincoln, CA