On the way to the Fibre and Fleece Festival, I took a detour down scenic State Highway No.2 to Tauranga and Mount Maunganui. If you are ever in Tauranga/Mount Maunganui (sister towns only 10 minutes drive apart), there are two things that you must do. The first, go to the beach:
This is some of the Mount Maunganui (the “Mount”) beach. This beach is part of the New Zealand eastern coastline that stretches all the way from the Coromandel down to the Bay of Plenty and ending at Cape Runaway. Hundreds of kilometres of glorious, white sand beach, lining the rolling Pacific Ocean.
Not too many years ago, the Mount was a secret local summer holiday paradise. During winter, it was deserted, the few holiday batches empty and awaiting the return of summer, and the holiday crowds, who flocked to the beach to hang out at the caravan park, or if you were lucky, inhabit a batch that your family owned. No such thing as even a motel on the beach then. (The “batch” – Kiwi term for a holiday cottage, usually not more than a rudimentary one-bedroom dwelling with simple kitchen and bathroom, designed for casual summer holiday living. Evocative of long gone summer holidays where you spent most of your carefree days in the sun and the sea, and traipsed in and out of doors all day, carrying sand and sea water into the house. Dinner was cooked on the barbeque, and your bath was generally a dip in the ocean.)
But getting back to the Mount – it’s no longer a sleepy local hang-out. More swanky high-rise apartments, motels and rather expensively built timeshares lining the ocean front. The beach however, is still beautifully preserved. It’s a natural peninsula – one side is the ocean, with rolling surf and the beach crowds, the other a busy harbour.
I still love to go for a walk along the beach and around the Mount whenever I go there. You feel relaxed, and refreshed, like you’ve had the cobwebs blown out of your skull. And then, of course, I see patterns and colours that inspire and stimulate:
The other thing you must do is go to New Zealand’s best fish & chip shop. I’m not sure if it officially holds that title, but it ought to:
This is the Fresh Fish Market, located on the wharf, 1 Dive Crescent, downtown Tauranga.
The batter is light and crisp, cooked in a good-quality vegetable oil. Not the usual flabby, oily, tasteless goo that poses as batter in many fish & chip establishments. Perfectly salted, there’s a light sprinkling of parsley in the tasty, crunchy crust, and the fish is moist and ocean fresh.
What fish you get depends on what the boat has brought in that day/week – fresh off the boat, the fish are filleted in a room right next to the one where you buy your fish. As my sister remarked, it’s not that year-old dehydrated frozen stuff that so many other places dare to call ‘fish’. The day we were there, we got glorious hapuka (groper). The chips weren’t too bad either – fluffy on the inside and golden brown on the outside. Bliss!
If you eat at one of the benches either inside or outside, your order is served on a paper-lined plastic tray, family style. It’s rough and ready, but who needs fuss when the food’s that good!? All the necessities are thought of though – you can also make use of tomato sauce/tartare sauce or lemon as an accompaniment if you so desire.
I’m afraid I forgot to take a photo, because our meal was very quickly wolfed down before I thought about writing about this place. We each got one reasonably-sized piece of fish and a couple of scallops, accompanied by a serve of chips to share between four. The total cost was not much more than $30. There was little conversation apart from “Hmmmm, hmmmm, yum!” as we devoured our tasty lunch.
Smacking our lips, we rather wished we’d ordered just a tiny bit more… although in reality it was just enough. The queue that had formed to get their fish hit by this time was too long to contemplate going back for seconds. And all this after I’d declared before lunch that I wasn’t that hungry!
If you’re not a fish fan, there are also other delectable seafood offerings – squid, scallops, oysters, mussels, roe, and other seafood all make the menu. Because this is also a fish shop, you can also buy from a mouth-watering variety of fresh fish to take home and cook yourself. Go early (ie before 12pm) otherwise be prepared to patiently wait in line.
Tauranga itself is still affectionately known as the retirement home of New Zealand. The climate is mild, the beaches fantastic, and the living good. Although it is a bit more than a retirement home these days – it’s one of the fastest growing cities in New Zealand, with a population of approx 103,000 according to the 2006 census figures.
It’s twin-sister town, Mount Maunganui, is a ten minute drive across the bridge, and as I note above, is now a slick little town of its own, rapidly spreading houses over the once-quiet sand dunes, farms and orchards that spread down the coast.
So, leaving Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, we make our way down SH2, driving through the fruit-growing region that stretches all the way to beyond Whakatane, another lovely beach town, and here we stop at Opotiki, where the Fibre and Fleece Festival is being held.
I have a love/hate relationship with the strip between Whakatane and Opotiki. Although the speed limit is still 100kms p. hour for most of the way, the track between Whakatane and Opotiki is driven by many locals who shuttle between the two towns for business and pleasure – Whakatane’s shopping being slightly better than Opotiki’s. And it appears that they drive the 45 minute trip at 80kms all the way. On a two-lane, winding highway that prevents overtaking because you can’t see around the corner. And they don’t seem to think that trailing a line of cars behind them is at all a reason to pull over and let others get on with it… let’s just say I found this driving style to be kind of annoying. The language in the car was probably best not heard by other ears.
In summer, you also have to put up with the numerous campervans and caravans trundling along this idyllic little piece of New Zealand… the drivers are probably too mermerised by the vista before them to bother driving the full speed limit.
If you’re not in a hurry, there are lovely fruity delights to partake in along the way. About 20kms after leaving the Mount (I can’t remember exactly, but it’s a short while after you go leave Te Puke), you come to Berry Corner – where they grow blueberries, in particular. You can buy soft-serve frozen blueberry yoghurt or ice cream in the summer, and take away a punnet of the delicious, sweet, juicy fruit to eat later (if it survives the nibbling fingers in the car!) They still sell frozen fruit in winter, which is scrumptious over cereal, or baked into pies and crumbles.
If you overshoot Berry Corner, you will hit Julian’s – just on the outskirts of Whakatane. In summer, this family-owned berry farm is hopping. You can pick your own sun-ripe strawberries, raspberries, boysenberries, blackberries and loganberries, or buy them ready-picked in the store. It’s a very popular stop for refreshing soft-serve berry ice-cream or frozen yoghurt (choose your own berry combination), or for a cup of tea or coffee and a cake or a meal in the cafe. Last summer, they grew corn too. And it was the sweetest, juiciest corn we’d eaten all summer.
Finally, arriving at Opotiki, (it’s a two hour drive from Tauranga if you don’t dawdle along the way), we come to the Fibre and Fleece Festival!
Full debrief in my next post!
For completeness, SH2 starts just outside of Auckland, where it crosses over to the eastern coast, travelling through gold-mining town Waihi and following the coastline all the way through the fertile Bay of Plenty, the forested and rugged East Coast and Hawke’s Bay, one of New Zealand’s wine-producing capitals, before it veers inland again, through the crafty Manawatu region (home of a lot of secret yarnies – my next area to discover properly!), and then down into another winery and olive-growing area, Martinborough (home of fine Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, in particular) before grinding over the often snow-covered-in-winter Rimutaka Ranges and ultimately finishing in Wellington.