by Sarah Juggins
There are many, many places to visit in New Zealand. Mount Maunganui is a town that is the essence of the land of the long, white cloud.
New Zealand is a land of many contrasts: awe-inspiring mountains, steaming, spurting geysers, forbidding forests of 10-foot high ferns, sandy beaches, fast-flowing rivers. It is impossible to use a single image to reflect the spirit and soul of New Zealand, or to give it its Maori name – Aotearoa.
So this is just one image of New Zealand to whet the appetite of anyone planning a trip. Two hours south-east of Auckland is the coastal town of Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty. The focal point of Mount Maunganui is the feature for which the area is named. Towering above the beach resort, the mount stands 232 metres high and is 3.2 kilometres in diameter around its base. Parts of it are easy level inclines, which allow the casual walker to smell the aromas of the trees, flowers and herbs that are growing but, at other points, the incline is so steep that it takes even the fittest person’s breath away.
At the very top of the mount there is a stunning view across the Pacific to the east; to the west is Manatakana Island; and to the south, the town of Maunganui.
The residents treat the Mount with a mixture of reverence and commercial interest. On the one hand, early mornings see people heading up the Mount in droves, sometimes walking, sometimes jogging, sometimes just walking up the mountain and meditating at the top. But then, in downtown Maunganui, the shops carry names such as Mount Sushi, the Mount Surf and Ski shop, and the Mount Pharmacy.
Surfer’s Paradise in the Pacific
The beaches are a surfers’ paradise. Split into two long, sandy expanses, challenging, lively waves roll up the beach and all along the roadside are spaces for the ubiquitous camper vans to park up and dispel their blond-haired, sandied-bodied athletes, clutching surf boards and never quite able to tear their gaze from the distant horizon, in case they miss the big waves.
In the town itself, the residents go about their business with energy. Each house is immaculate, with well-tended gardens, clean wooden verandas and flowering pots that add colour to the balconies and window boxes.
In one garden an eighty-year-old woman wields a chain saw to chop down the thickened branches of an over-grown rosemary bush. In another, a young mother plays catch with her toddler, throwing a beach ball, both of them laughing as the ball bounces gently off the toddler’s head, her arms grasping at empty air as the ball falls to the floor. Along the beach-front, men and women of all shapes, sizes and ages jog or run, enjoying the feel of sunlight, salty air and muscles stretching and releasing before they go about their daily business.
But if the visitor is conned into thinking that this is some health freak paradise, there are the usual characters who prop up the diner, the burger joint and order everything with fries and extra large. They just don’t appear on the sea front before 10 am.
The town of Maunganui has three main areas. The east-facing beach has a road running parallel. Near the Mount, bars and cafes offer fresh fish, cold drinks, gelatos and coffees. As the road winds out of town, houses and apartments replace the cafes. Architectural masterpieces of glass and wood jostle side-by-side with bungalows and chalets that are stuck in the 70s and 80s, their local owners grimly hanging on, despite the inflated offers from the city dwellers seeking their idyllic weekend getaway.
Two small islands sit a hundred metres off the shore. When it is low tide, it is possible to walk across the sand to the island. On weekends, brides and grooms sit on rocks as a photographer flits around taking shots that reflect the romance of the day, the situation and the venue.
Bits of washed-up driftwood provide the furniture to the scene. Photographers stop and spend hours getting the perfect shot in the perfect light. Dogs cock their legs up the whitening bark and children clamber over the obstacle, their imagination turning the wood into ships, motorcars or fortresses.
The second and third areas are in the town itself. Two blocks from the beach is the strip of cafes, bars and restaurants. These are interspersed with expensive little boutiques selling the latest fashions, plus locally-crafted and highly over-priced locally-crafted jewellery. This is the area of picture postcards, luxuriously long breakfasts and dreams of aspirational lifestyles. It is here that the middle-aged couple talk of leaving their sales jobs and opening a coffee shop. Young newlyweds picture walking on the beach hand-in-hand while their toddlers play in the waves and the sixty-year-old man relives his youth as a surfer and rock-god.
And then you move in town. Here is the gritty reality of life in New Zealand. Oil companies, timber companies and fertilizer distributors dominate the industrial areas. Woolworths replaces the chic little food stores and cheap, practical clothing is sold in the mall.
This is the scene of the Chiefs rugby union ground, the local sports club and the motor racing track. It is where the locals come on a Friday night to watch their teams, wash away the week with Tui beer and tuck into “battered savs,” a saveloy sausage in a batter stuck on a stick. It is here that the mullet remains the hairstyle of choice and the body type is either flabby and over-sized or stunted and stick-thin.
Café Culture in Mount Maunganui
Down on the sea front, from Marine Parade to Oceanview Road, there is a selection of cafes and restaurants all serving a range of coffees and sea food. It is here that a visitor can perch on a stool, order a locally-caught fish dish and wash it down with some of New Zealand’s citrusy sauvignon blanc. It is also where things cost the most.
Take a turn inland and hit the numerous cafes as they serve coffees and cakes, freshly baked spinach and feta cheese filo pastries and enormous fruit-filled muffins. Until noon there is a choice of brunch items – Eggs Benedict, pancakes with banana and bacon, mushrooms on toast. The emphasis is on local, sustainable and independent. There is a sole Starbucks, but it stands forlorn except for those tourists who search for something familiar before they pluck up the courage to venture into the unknown.
As with everything in life there is extraordinarily good and unbelievably bad. Café 88 is in the former category – small, intimate, friendly and with a range of products that would tempt a saint off a diet.
Ambience in 88 is the key. The décor is artisan, slightly graffiti-styled and totally cool. A blackboard is peppered with messages from across the world and in this small, independent, non-corporate setting is an ironic pile of Coke cans.
The coffee culture is only three to four-years-old in New Zealand, but boy have they grasped the concept. Flat whites are the coffee of choice and the intricate patterns formed on top of the foamy milk seem to reflect the Maori fern etchings, rather than represent the US and UK influence on coffee drinking habits.
The worse end of the Maunganui café culture is to be found in the coffee shops that try to bring a hint of somewhere else. The Swiss-styled Chalet and its neighbour Ambrosia were poor. In trying to bring a European feel to the New Zealand coffee scene these two cafes fell somewhere between the two and fared badly for it. In a land with so much to offer, there is little need to pretend to be anywhere else.