In 2002, Cyclone Waka tore through the Kingdom of Tonga, a small chain of islands in the South Pacific. The destruction left behind devastated thousands of lives as the nation’s agriculture, from flowering to fruit-bearing trees, washed away in the storm.
Later that same year, Heilala Vanilla came to be. Founded by a New Zealand family as an aid project that established a small vanilla plantation in the village of Utungake, Heilala transformed into a product that has captured the attention of chefs around the world and revived a number of communities throughout Tonga.
Jennifer Boggiss and Ruby Grant—Heilala’s CEO and co-founder and its head of sales and marketing, respectively—still cherish that sense of support within small communities. It’s what draws them to their home of Tauranga, a beach city that lies in the enormous shadow of New Zealand’s Mount Maunganui on the island’s east coast. The town does classic New Zealand well—dramatic green cliffsides overlooking white sand beaches, the rolling blue waters of the Pacific, and a modest population of 100,000—but to these two, the laid-back energy, hidden gems, and challenging treks are what make Tauranga well worth the three-hour drive from Auckland.
Jennifer and Ruby’s Perfect Day in Tauranga, New Zealand
Quaint and Quiet Breakfast:
RUBY: An oat milk latte is my go-to coffee at George Café. It’s a cozy little spot by the beach where the team is passionate about making great coffee. They have a wide range of plant-based milk and their baked goodies are also plant-based—and use Heilala Vanilla!
JENNIFER: Spongedrop, a quaint little cake shop located in the old information center in downtown Mount Maunganui. It’s light and bright with pretty pastels, and the cabinets are always packed to the brim with cupcakes, slices, scones, macarons, and great tea options. I order the same thing every time: my favorite cheese scone (the best in town) and Earl Grey tea.
A Nice Morning Stroll:
RUBY: I love strolling through the Little Big Markets on a sunny Saturday morning. It’s an awesome community event where people can hang out, enjoy great music, good food, and have the opportunity to buy unique products from a range of artisans and producers. They have a lot of quirky jewelry that makes great gifts.
JENNIFER: Tay Street Beach Café is a favorite. You can hear the waves across the road and everyone is super relaxed. The fried calamari with fennel, radish, edamame, and salad comes with a citrus dressing that is particularly tasty.
RUBY: Eddie’s and Elspeth! Just a few minutes’ drive from downtown Mount Maunganui, Eddie’s offers amazing coffee and delicious breakfasts while Elspeth Bakery offers specialty pastries, baked on site.
The Freshest Fish and Chips:
JENNIFER: When it comes to the classic Kiwi fish and chip shop by the wharf, it is hard to beat Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market on Dive Crescent in Tauranga. Bobby’s sits directly next to the fishing quay where the fresh produce is landed. With superb batter and fluffy chips, customers love being able to pick their own fish from the window, watch the food being cooked, and eat it on the wharf outside in the sea breeze beside the fishing boat that delivered most of the day’s catch. It is a magic spot that locals love!
RUBY: Shopping! Mount Mainstreet is a relaxed yet vibrant boutique shopping strip that’s lined with phoenix palm trees and is a fun way to spend the afternoon. There’s a beautiful homewares shop, Paper Plane, which has a stylish assortment of lifestyle goods, fashion, art, and accessories that I frequent.
JENNIFER: Tauranga has a vibrant art gallery with great exhibitions featuring contemporary artists, so I enjoy visiting every few months. Every Easter, the National Jazz Festival presents a fantastic program of events in Tauranga showcasing performances from some of the best jazz musicians from both New Zealand and around the world.
Dinner and Drinks:
JENNIFER: Harbourside Restaurant is situated in a historic building on Tauranga’s waters’ edge. They are known for their sensational seafood, including oysters, mussels, miso-glazed salmon, and pan-fried fresh fish—always enjoyed with local wines. Sitting out on the patio, you can hear the sea lapping outside and smell the salt water.
RUBY: Tucked down an iconic laneway in the heart of Mount Maunganui, HIDE is a sun-drenched courtyard by day that turns into a cozy bar at night when the live music starts. There’s a long list of tap beers featuring the classics as well as seasonal and interesting creations from the locally-owned craft brewery. The wine list features the best wines from around New Zealand, including my favorite, Master of Ceremonies Rosé. For a late night bite, sample their selection of sharing plates: Miso eggplant, smoky meatballs, and Halloumi cheese fries always hit the spot.
Where to Stay:
RUBY: The Belle Mer Self-Serviced Apartments offer fantastic sea views on the beachfront, so it’s only a short stroll to the ocean for a morning dip! The apartments are great if you’re staying for a few days as they’re spacious and can accommodate friends and family. They’re located off the main drag so it’s nice and quiet but still walking distance to the shopping, cafes, bars, and restaurants.
JENNIFER: Tucked down a secluded driveway not far from our home, Willowdene B&B is a delightfully appointed property with expansive gardens! It’s perfect for a weekend escape. Hosts Sue and Colin have traveled globally, regularly staying in reputable B&Bs around the world. They have incorporated aspects of the very best of their experiences into their home and Sue cooks delicious breakfasts for all tastes.
RUBY: Ko Mauao te Maunga: Legend of Mauao is an interesting read for anyone heading to the area. Mount Maunganui (named Mauao by local Māori Iwi) is the sacred mountain at the entrance to Tauranga Harbour. Its name, meaning “caught in the light of the day,” comes from the legend in which Mauao was once a nameless mountain, spurned in love by the beautiful mountain Pūwhenua. One night, he begged the fairy-like creatures of the forest to drag him to the ocean and end his misery. But the creatures fled as the morning sun struck, and he was transfixed on the spot. The legend tells of heartbreak and struggle, but also one of endurance, strength, and unity. It is a bilingual book which includes a glossary and pronunciation guide, Mauao facts, a Mauao timeline, important places on Mauao, and oral traditions.
Know Before You Go:
JENNIFER: When climbing up Mount Maunganui, be sure to take sunscreen, sunglasses, hats, sturdy walking shoes (not flip flops), swimwear, a towel, and a camera. If you visit in the peak of summer in January or February, then be prepared for crowds and finding a car park. March and April are great months to visit when the weather is still warm but the crowds have reduced.