The Mount was summer. My grandparents lived at Mt Maunganui so my first 16 summers were spent there, from the beginning of the school holidays to the end, seemingly endless golden days defined by sunshine, sea, sand, seagulls and swimming.
With three siblings and four cousins around the same age, there was always someone to play with, sandcastles to build, warm pools left at low tide to lie in, shells to gather and surf to dive under.
To the north, the once-nameless mountain, Mauao, was a constant full stop. The end. Whereas, to the south, the beach went on forever. Boxing Day always involved a family walk around Mauao – up it, as we grew older – and during the slow, sunny amble of the holidays, we went fishing off the rocks, netting for piper at Pilot Bay and, on stormy days, to view the blow hole at the end of Moturiki, a rocky promontory that cuts through the beach.
Now, during the summer months, Mt Maunganui becomes a victim of its beauty and popularity. The three roads that end at Mauao bottleneck and clog with cars, the cafés overflow, service becomes frazzled and there are people licking ice cream everywhere.
The beach is big enough to hold thousands. The lifeguards watch as hundreds bob between breakers, there is beach volleyball, surfers, board paddlers, and the campground at the base of the mountain takes on the look of an upmarket refugee camp, with tents and caravans placed as closely as eggs in a carton.
When the summer crowds go, usually by the beginning of March, the locals heave a collective sigh, “Thank God that’s over,” and get back to enjoying their place.
Geographically, it’s extraordinary. Mauao, an extinct 232m-high volcano, is joined to the land by a thin, sandy peninsular. It looks, from above, like a very large dot on top of an ‘i’. On one side, the surf beach is a sweep of golden sand with Pacific waves rhythmically thundering in, and on the other side, 300m away, Pilot Bay is a calm haven for kids and kayakers.
Mauao – the name means caught by the dawn – is the focal point of the Bay of Plenty and, always, as I drive over the Kaimai Ranges, I look for the first sight of it.
It’s sacred to the local iwi and received it’s name via a long mythological story about its unrequited love for another mountain and subsequent attempt at suicide by drowning in the ocean. Fairy people were helping this conical mountain to the ocean, so it could end its misery, but they could only live in darkness so were forced to flee when dawn’s light approached. It was left, stuck, next to the sea.
Mauao pulls people like a magnet and everyone who visits this town either climbs up it or walks around it. The locals are the ones with the nicely curved calf muscles; they do the climb most days. They gambol past me, some running and others chatting during a fast walk. The out-of-towners puff and stop often to look at the view.
And what a view it is; its splendour changing as the path circles upwards. Across the skinny harbour-mouth, Matakana Island is mostly forested with a perfect ocean beach, stretching to infinity. Long may this island remain forest. Developers are itching to get their financial fingers, then millions of beach houses, on it.
On the west side of Matakana, the tendrils of Tauranga Harbour curl up valleys and around headlands, and on this still winter day the land is reflected in silvery water.
In Pilot Bay, kayakers, board paddlers, and sailors are busy on the water and, further out, fizz-boats zoom out of the harbour entrance. Despite the winter, two young men are waist-deep in the water slowly pulling a net to shore.
For me, post walk, it’s food time and I join my brother and his wife, who have an apartment here, for brunch. They, being locals, jogged up the mountain twice while I dawdled the same path once. We settle at one of the cafés.
Low winter sun makes a dazzling ladder over the sea. Hardy surfers are having a whale of a time, happy they don’t have to share their waves with hundreds of summer visitors.
I explore the main-street shopping strip. The ambience is stylish, but also relaxed and beachy.
It’s a cold, star-spangled night, and after dinner we stroll to the beach. Scorpio curls across the sky and the Milky Way is a long swoosh from which brighter stars seem close enough to pluck. Mauao is a spooky shadow, darkly waiting for dawn and its many walking and running admirers.
Mt Maunganui top five:
1 Whether you run, jog or amble, climbing Mauao is a must. There are a number of tracks to choose from, depending on energy level.
2 Enjoy the scenery – the harbour and ocean views make the climb well worth the effort.
3 The Mount’s surf beach is patrolled year-round, making it perfect for a family day out.
4 Experienced surfers can take advantage of the artificial reef, which churns out consistently surfable waves.
5 Visit one of the many cafés and restaurants in this bustling resort town.