It may be called the Bay of Plenty, but my first view of this legendary coastal wonderland only reveals an ocean of shipping containers, derricks and asphalt. Where are the surf beaches, the frolicking dolphins and the groves of kiwifruit?
Visiting busy container ports is an inescapable part of most cruise ship adventures, but thanks to its smaller size the 30,277-tonne Azamara Quest is able to berth at several smaller ports on its 15-Night New Zealand & Australia Voyage. Tauranga, our current location, is one of New Zealand's fasting growing regional cities and its port one of the busiest in the country. Luckily there is more to see than shipping containers.
This morning I'm joining 10 fellow Azamara guests for a brisk hike to the summit of Mauao, an incongruous lava dome that rises 232 metres above this bustling, affluent streets of Mount Maunganui, a seaside suburb of Tauranga.
Our guide is Brian, a retired civil engineer with a passion for local history; especially anything to do with the Musket Wars which raged across this part of the North Island in the early 1800s.
"This was a sought-after place by the Maori," he says. "There was a good harbour and plenty of fish, eels and flax – all the things that they needed. But Mauao was a source of conflict between the tribes – it changed hands every 60 years or so as one tribe displaced another."
At the base of the volcanic outcrop we pause to admire the sweep of Main Beach and the new lifeguard headquarters before Brian introduces us to the Legend of Maua, a complex story about a doomed love affair between two hills. When a pononga (slave) discovers that the shapely Puwhenua is promised to another he asks the people of the forest to drag him into the ocean to drown, but at dawn they flee back to the forest leaving Mauao marooned at the water's edge where he is today.
The walking track to the summit of The Mount is steep but well-maintained and extremely popular – a million people hike or jog to the top of Mauao each year. While the trek can be completed in just over an hour, it's worth stopping to admire the view and the native vegetation that is now returning to the wind-blown sides the outcrop.
En route to the summit Brian points out stands of mountain flax, rata, silver fern and the much-loved pohutukawa (New Zealand Christmas tree).
"As you can see the pohutukawa has these magnificent bright red flowers and because it blooms around Christmas time it is always associated with the festive season," he says.
The view from the summit is truly spectacular, providing the walker with a bird's eye view of the Bay of Plenty south to Maketu. On a clear day the outline of distant Motiti Island, a remote offshore farming community is visible. On the return leg we are rewarded with fantastic views of the entrance to Tauranga Harbour and Matakana Island, a 20-kilometre-long stretch of land which separates the waterway from the ocean.
As we descend to sea level Brian points out the location of several pa sites. The outline of their fortifications, middens and gardens are clearly seen.
"This is a paradise for archaeologists," he says. "The Maori were here for more than 1000 years."
After a couple of hours of solid walking most of my companions head off the nearby Mt Maunganui Hot Salt Water Pools before returning to the ship for a late lunch, but I decide to explore the nearby suburb which is packed with funky bars, microbreweries cafes and restaurants. Ten minutes later I am happily seated in the Astrolobe Brewbar, a '60s surfer establishment on the main street. A glass of Miss Conduct dry hopped pilsner and a satisfying bowl of salt and pepper squid are ample reward for my gentle hike up lovelorn Mauao.
Qantas, Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia have regular flights to Auckland, the departure point for this Azamara Club Cruises voyage around New Zealand's North Island. See Qantas.com, airnewzealand.com.au, virginaustralia.com.
Azamara Club Cruises 15-night New Zealand & Australia Voyage departs from Auckland and sails to the Bay of Islands and then down the North Island to Wellington via Gisborne and Tauranga. The Australian leg includes Sydney, Moooloolaba, Airlie Beach, Townsville and Cairns. Guests can choose from a wide range of shore excursions, such as Maori cultural experiences, winery tours, reef walks and hosted city tours. Fares start at $5709 a person twin share and include gratuities, selected spirits, wines and beers, soft drinks and shuttle service to and from the port and concierge service. For bookings call 1800 754 500 or visit azamaraclubcruises.com