Long Weekend in Tauranga feature cover photo - Hobbiton movie set tour, hobbit holes built in the hills of the Shire
Travel

Long Weekend in Tauranga

I turned thirty about a month after moving to New Zealand, which is a bit of a milestone birthday. It landed on a Monday too, so I requested a couple of days off work. There were a few options I contemplated, but I decided my 30th birthday needed to be a special trip. And the top two things on my New Zealand bucket list for years were Hobbiton and the Waitomo Glowworm Caves. Which meant I would be spending my birthday long weekend in Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty! It was a bit too far to drive from Wellington, so I took a short domestic flight there and back, arriving Friday and leaving again on Tuesday evening.

Long Weekend in Tauranga second feature photo - bright blue sea with a beach behind it in Pilot Bay in Mount Maunganui area

Day One

Waitomo Glowworm Cave

Firstly, I definitely recommend booking Waitomo and Hobbiton tickets in advance. They’re popular attractions that will sell out! The Waitomo Caves are a 2-hour drive from Tauranga, so it was an early morning start. There are 3 caves and the combination tickets lured me in to see 2 of them. Waitomo was first, the most famous and most popular, with a 45-minute guided tour. Most guides are Māori whose ancestors have long safeguarded the cave. Due to its cultural significance, you’re also not allowed to take photographs inside.

We started by walking through the rock formations while the guide explained how the stalactites and stalagmites are formed. The central chamber is like a huge cathedral and the acoustics are so good, they sometimes host concerts. We were super lucky because our guide was a beautiful singer and treated us to a Māori song. The other groups nearby fell silent to listen too and it made the tour just that bit more special! She then explained the glowworm life cycle and why they glow. We could spot a few under a ledge where lights are set up to illuminate their hanging silk threads.

Then, we boarded the small boat and set sail in the dark to the glowworm grotto. The guide uses ropes overhead to pull the boat along so you can enjoy the quiet with no engine. The grotto was smaller than I expected, but still stunning and we circled inside it a few times. Thousands of glowworms scattered across the ceiling and down the walls like stars twinkling in the dark! They’re a native New Zealand species and it’s not often you’ll find so many in one spot. After seeing photos of the grotto for years, it was very exciting to finally see it in reality!

Waitomo Glowworm Cave postcard from a long weekend in Tauranga


Ruakuri Cave

A 5-minute drive up the road, Ruakuri was the second cave on my combo ticket. This time I could take photos and it’s a larger cave and a longer guided tour, close to 1.5 hours. You start and end with a vast spiralling ramp, a man-made feature to create a safe entrance and exit. Even though it’s not natural, it’s a pretty impressive view! Entering the cave itself, we were on walkways installed with railings and sensors to stop people touching and damaging the rocks. They are very narrow though and sometimes we had to double back to passing points to let other groups through.

The cave is filled with incredible rock formations, which have taken millions of years to reach their current state. There were so many unusual shapes and textures and colours to see. I’ve never been particularly interested in rocks, but they were so pretty and artistic, and the variety was amazing! And knowing how ancient this place is was staggering as well. The underground Waitomo river flows through the caves and we could hear the water rushing beneath us in the dark where the walkways passed over it. Ruakuri has a few clusters of glowworms too. My camera is only so good at capturing them – they’re best seen in person of course!

The guide had many stories of both the geology of the cave, and human history connected to it. It was a fairly long walk, going deep underground, before looping back to the spiral ramp again. I’m really glad I got the combo ticket, as while the Waitomo glowworm grotto is breathtaking, Ruakuri is much larger and has more rock formations and caverns to explore. They both complement each other well, and make the long drive worthwhile.


Cambridge

Speaking of that long drive, I decided to break it up on the way back. It was early afternoon by the time I’d finished at the caves and I was ready for lunch. I’d looked at the map earlier and decided Cambridge looked like a good halfway point, and a large enough town to have lunch options. I parked on the main street and went for a little wander past the shops, picking a cafe to eat at. It was even warm enough to dine outside!

I stuck around in town a little longer, going for a walk in the park, Lake To Koo Utu Reserve. It’s a small lake, sunken down below street level, with a shaded path around it. Water lilies float on the surface and a few pūkeko birds pottered around the shore. It was a pretty relaxed, easy walk before circling back to the car. It was late afternoon by the time I got back to Tauranga, and after lots of driving, I was ready to chill for the evening!


Day Two

Mount Maunganui Hike

As luck would have it, I got fantastically warm, sunny weather for my outdoorsy, beach day! Mount Maunganui is an area of Tauranga jutting out on a long peninsula running parallel down the coast. It’s also the name of the actual mountain at its northern end. I caught the bus over, saving myself the hassle of finding parking, and hopped off at the base of the mountain to tackle the hike. It’s not huge, but it is a fairly steep climb, which left me sweaty in the sunshine! There’s a couple of routes to the peak, and I went up the stairs on the east side and back down the sloping west.

The ascent mainly offered views of the wide, open Pacific Ocean, which was a dazzling turquoise in the sun. As the path curved around the hillside, views of the peninsula appeared. You can really see what a narrow strip of land it is from up here! The actual peak has a lot of trees so you don’t get a full 360-view, but there are various lookout points. I lingered on a bench for a while, to catch my breath again. Coming back down the other side, there were views of the North Island coast and the various islands and peninsulas dotting the Bay of Plenty. There was even a small flock of sheep near the bottom!


Moturiki Island & Beach

Back in town again, I picked one of the many beachfront cafes for some brunch and iced coffee to refuel, before hitting the sand. The beach stretches far down the coastline so I only walked a tiny portion of it. It’s all very scenic with the mountain overlooking the coast. I paddled through the shallows for a while, accompanied by some small birds.

Then I took a wander around Moturiki Island which isn’t really an island since it’s still connected to the mainland. It barely takes 15 minutes to go around it, following narrow trails under the cover of the trees. There’s an open clearing at the end, where people more daring than me were clambering over the rocks jutting out of the sea. I continued wandering along the beach past the next bay where a few surfers were out riding the small waves. Picking a spot to sit, I watched the surfers, read and even napped, for a very chilled couple of hours.

Mount Hot Pools

In the late afternoon, I left the beach for my last destination of the day. The Mount Hot Pools are at the base of Mount Maunganui, where the natural hot water is pumped into a series of swimming pools. What makes this place unique, is that it’s saltwater. They believe it’s the only natural hot ocean water in the Southern Hemisphere, maybe the world. And of course, hot water bathing and saltwater both have all sorts of healing, nourishing, rejuvenating qualities. So both at once is even better!

I also liked that there are a couple of pools inside, ranging in temperature. The hot pools consist of two small spa pools which are the hottest and one larger warm pool. Then there’s also a slightly cooler pool for swimming. I like a hot pool, but I do overheat quite quickly – as the Scandinave Spa in Whistler taught me last year – so the temperate pool was a welcome addition. Having the different pools to rotate between allowed me to cool off enough that I could stick around for longer than I might have otherwise.

Once I had bathed enough, I left the pool to grab dinner nearby. A friend from Tauranga (who now lives in Canada) recommend the Pilot Bay fish & chip shop. It’s been forever since I had a proper chippie, so I followed her advice. It also has a nice view, with the sun starting to dip alongside the mountain while I waited for my order. Just keep your chips away from the seagulls… Then I hopped back on the bus to turn in for the night again.


Day Three

Hobbiton

I woke up bright and early on my 30th birthday, drove 45 minutes west of Tauranga and arrived at one of the most magical places in the world: Hobbiton. When I tell you I was so excited about this! The journey there hinted at what was to come, with rolling green hills of pasture that looked so like the English countryside that inspired the Shire. The original Hobbiton set was removed after Lord of the Rings finished filming. It was recreated for the Hobbit trilogy and the family whose farmland it sits on requested to keep it afterwards, to open to visitors.

After parking and checking in, I boarded a bus with the rest of my group and our guide to be transported deeper into the farmland where the village is tucked out of sight. The guided tour starts at the Hobbiton sign and we walked in via the same path that Bilbo hurtles along, shouting his iconic line, “I’m going on an adventure!” As we rounded the corner, the iconic scene unfolded before my eyes, with dozens of hobbit holes scattered up the hillside, each with its own chimney and various gardens and washing lines. That first sight is a breathtakingly magical moment!

Then, as I started to peruse each individual hobbit hole more carefully, I was even more wonderstruck. Every home is uniquely designed, with the items in their gardens and yards giving you hints at who lives there. The woodcutter, the beekeeper, the baker, the artist… Some doors are tiny, so you are wizard-sized next to them, while others are large enough to pose as a hobbit yourself. Our guide slowly led us uphill, giving us time to study each home, but still moving the group along quickly enough.

Long Weekend in Tauranga feature cover photo - Hobbiton movie set tour, hobbit holes built in the hills of the Shire


Bagshot Row

At the very top of the hill is the most famous hobbit hole: Bag End, home to Bilbo and later Frodo. You can’t enter, since it’s just dirt beyond the door. But the famous “no admittance except on party business” sign is pinned to the gate, and the vast green door sits slightly ajar. Speaking of party business, we then headed downhill again to the party field, with its grand tree and the lanterns strung overhead.

After a short wait, it was our turn to head to Bagshot Row. Now, like Bag End, most of the hobbit holes here don’t have anything inside, since the interior sets were built and filmed elsewhere. But so many visitors wished they could enter a hobbit hole – so they built not one, but two! The group gets split in half, since we can’t all fit inside, so you only get to see one of them. Both are slightly different inside, each home to a different family, but I’m sure they’re equally wonderful.

The hobbit hole was actually huge inside, with so many rooms to explore. And this is an average hobbit family home, not as large or grand as Bag End. Every room is filled with furniture and belongings and tiny details that make it feel like someone really lives there. From the children’s bunk beds and toys, to the noticeboard of village events – even the newspaper next to the toilet! I could’ve spent so much time poring over every item, but the guides do have to kick you out for the next group eventually. How I wish I could live in a hobbit hole though!


The Green Dragon

The last stop of the tour took us away from the hobbit holes and along the path to the Mill House by the river. Next was the famous stone bridge that Gandalf rides over in the very first movie, leading us across the river. And on the other side, sits the thatched roof Green Dragon, the local pub and the heartbeat of Hobbiton. Inside, we were handed brightly coloured clay tankards, with a choice of drinks – I tried the beer, of course! Don’t forget your ID though. There are snacks available to purchase, and the regular tour ticket ends here.

However, there are three meal option tickets available – Second Breakfast, Lunch and the Evening Banquet. The banquet would have meant a late night drive back to Tauranga. Second Breakfast was my first choice, served in the Mill House, but it was already sold out when I booked. So, lunch it was. This is served buffet-style in the tent behind the Green Dragon. Honestly, the food itself was fine, nothing super memorable. But the setting and decoration was fun, and it allowed me to spend a little longer in Hobbiton, before we finally had to leave.

With one last glance across the water at the hobbit holes, we boarded the bus to return to the main entrance. After wanting to visit for so many years, Hobbiton certainly didn’t disappoint and I had the most magical (I need a new word, but it’s honestly the best one to describe Hobbiton!) and memorable 30th birthday!


McLaren Falls

It was early afternoon still, so I made a stop on my way back to Tauranga. McLaren Falls Park is only about 10-15 minutes outside of town. The parkland is mainly a forested area along the shores of Lake McLaren, with various paths to wander. I did a big loop from the car park, which probably took me around an hour total. I followed a tiny stream uphill to a small waterfall – not the one the park is named after. There’s glowworms on this trail too, but obviously I couldn’t see them in the daylight. Then, I wandered down to the lake, following a path along its shore. The trees were still mainly green, though I imagine it’s very pretty here later in autumn. The lake is also home to many birds, including large black swans with startling red beaks.

McLaren Falls are actually outside the main gates, near the tiny, narrow bridge I’d driven over on the way in. I’d been so focused on the road while driving, I hadn’t noticed the falls at all! So, I had to walk back down the steep hill, following the path besides the road. From the bridge itself, I could look down at the falls from above. They flow over a large jumbled pile of rocks, half a dozen small falls scattered throughout. People were climbing out on the rocks to get closer, but that felt a bit dangerous and I was satisfied looking from up here. Then I had to scale the hill again to reenter the park gates and return to the car, before heading back to Tauranga.


Day Four

Tauranga

Ok, so this whole post is a long weekend in Tauranga, but I’ve barely mentioned the town so far. On the last day, I had to check out in the morning but my flight back to Wellington wasn’t until early evening. I’d already wandered the town centre the previous evenings, but I had another go around this morning too. It’s not a big city (not many of New Zealand’s are) and it doesn’t take long to get around the city centre on foot. There’s a few blocks of shops and most of the restaurants are concentrated on pedestrianised Wharf Street and The Strand along the waterfront. I got takeaway from a different restaurant each night, to eat back at my hotel, but did dine out for brunch this morning.

There’s an art gallery in the town centre too, although it was closed for renovations. A smaller, pop-up version of it exists in the meantime and I stuck my head in to browse the ocean-themed exhibit. Very fitting for a harbour town, of course. There are plenty of murals and public art dotted around the city too. My favourite was the Hairy Maclary & Friends sculpture, featuring several characters from the children’s book series. I read the books as a child, and I remember reading them to my younger cousins too. But I had no idea the author was even from New Zealand, never mind Tauranga specifically!


Kaiate Falls

Since Tauranga is a small city, with limited options on a weekday morning, I hopped back in the car for another adventure. Kaiate Falls is another waterfall hike, though a little more remote than McLaren Falls. I was a bit worried about getting lost as I followed the sat nav into the hills, with not much phone signal to be found. Thankfully, I ended up in the right place and there were half a dozen other people in the car park or on the trail, so I wasn’t alone.

The trail forms a loop down one side of the river and back up the other, with two bridges spanning the water. It’s a very steep trail though, mainly built out of stairs down into the ravine. It’s worth it though, because the waterfalls are beautiful. There are two main cascades, shrouded in the thick, green ferns of the New Zealand bush. It almost looked like a tropical jungle, with the crystal clear, deep blue plunge pools! People swim here in summer, but it was a little overcast and chilly today, plus I don’t swim alone in these sorts of locations for safety. I lingered by the water in a couple of scenic spots though, just enjoying the view and the peace and quiet, before tackling the ascent again.


Pāpāmoa Hills

I still had a few hours to spare, so I found another area of parkland en-route to the airport. Pāpāmoa Hills Regional Park is both a place of natural beauty and cultural significance. The hills are home to the archaeological remains of several Māori pā, which are fortified settlements, like hill forts. Today, the area is mostly farmland, but the creation of the park protects the archaeological sites. You do have to keep the country code in mind though, as the trail passes flocks of sheep, over stiles and the farmer came by with dogs in tow.

The hike itself is a pretty steep climb for the most part and despite the fact I hike fairly often, I was winded by the top (I don’t do cardio). But as well as the pā sites and their information boards, Pāpāmoa is worth a visit for the views! From the hilltop, I had a sweeping panorama of the Bay of Plenty, from Tauranga along the coastline. It was a bit of an overcast day, but still clear enough to see pretty far. The rolling hills here definitely had echoes of British countryside. And as the route took my through fields of sheep atop the hill, I was reminded of tramping over farmland back home.

The loop of the hilltop eventually rejoined the first path again, descending the hill back to the car park. For a late addition to my itinerary, and a bit of a detour, I was glad I visited in the end. From there, I had just enough time to grab an afternoon coffee and snack before heading to the airport.


Long Weekend in Tauranga

Ticking off two of my top bucket list items for New Zealand was definitely a strong start to my year here! The Waitomo Glowworm Cave was stunningly beautiful, as was Ruakuri. And Hobbiton was a (what else?) magical, unforgettable experience. But my long weekend in Tauranga unearthed many new surprises too! That relaxing afternoon in Mount Maunganui was a luxurious break from my more active adventures. And of course, I certainly covered a lot of ground on walking and hiking trails. I almost saved this trip for later in the year, not wanting to rush through my New Zealand list too quickly. But it was such a fun, diverse, memorable trip, so I’m glad to have kicked off my 30s with it!

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