When I mention the name of this place to people I more-often-than-not get a quizzical look from them. Mount Maunganui? Where the hell is that? The name sounds like it’s some two-shack town built on the side of a hill somewhere in the wilds of New Zealand. This couldn’t be further from the truth. The Mount, as it’s referred to, is a beach town. It’s also a harbour town.
Younger generations come here to surf and do laps in their cars up and down the main drag. Older generations come here to live out the afternoons of their lives. The beachfront Marine Parade is home to million dollar homes and rental apartments and if you follow the sand to the west you get to Mauao, what the Maori call that extinct volcanic core towering 232 metres over the town centre.
I’m not sure how many times I’ve been to The Mount. 4 or 5? The first time I was a newbie to this part of the world. Twenty years ago my partner and I stayed with his parents, boozing on his dad’s home brew or gin, hanging out at the local oldies club (The Cossie Club). More recently it’s just his mum. The home brew was taken to the clouds with his dad so now we hang out, eat and booze as usual; living up the relaxed Mount Maunganui lifestyle.
Geographically, the town is built upon a narrow sandbar that links the extinct volcano to the mainland. The ocean is on one side and Pilot Bay is on the other. The main commercial area is a compact jumble of your usual services, restaurants and cafe’s and holiday rentals. Winters get a little cool and blustery but overall the weather is subtropical and mild; hence the surfers and seniors.
On this particular visitation, the other half had already been in The Mount for several days before my arrival, telling me about a cute little caf about ten minutes walk from his mums house. Tay Street Beach Cafe is close to the beach and far enough away from the town centre, making it more of a neighbourhood cafe than one that’s part of the strip.
Weather and wind permitting, it’s all about the al fresco and casual beach vibe with your typically friendly New Zealand hospitality. You know you’ve been living in the city too long when someone serves you warmly and you look up and think … “Wow, they’re genuinely friendly and don’t expect a tip afterwards”. This is what The Mount is like. They’re a friendly lot that say hello to people they don’t know; and not just in the cafe’s. An unusual concept for this city boy.
Twice we visited Tay Street for breakfast. You know what it’s like. The first time was so good that you had to return for a second dose. Decent coffee, down-to-earth food. I don’t remember when I had savoury mince (16) prior to the first brekkie at Tay Street, but it reminded me how nurturing such a plate of food can be. Crisp, buttered toast, minced meat loaded with parmesan, diced veg and a wholesome flavour that caught me off guard that particular morning.
Even something as simple as a bagel (16) with cream cheese, bacon, tomato, avocado and red onion jam made the right impression. It must’ve been all that fresh Pacific air and the fact I wasn’t in congested Sydney.
The following morning it was all about creamy scrambled eggs (14) with bacon and a plate of portobello mushrooms (16) sautéed with Grana Padano. I seriously didn’t want the mushrooms to end. Tay Street, you really know how to knock up an honest breakfast.
A full belly of food, fresh air, rolling surf across the road and a long, shell-scattered beach that beckoned to be walked upon. Time for a bit of a wander, methinks, and what better direction to take than towards The Mount.
Admittedly we did stop at another cafe at the top of Marine Parade but that was purely for a kick-start to our semi-vertical walk up The Mount. See, this is one activity that must be done when you’re in town.
It may look a tad daunting when you look up at its summit but it’s a mere twenty minutes or less to walk to the top. For the less-than-willing, there’s an easier path that circles the base of Mauao. Open fields and the odd grazing sheep make way to many stairs and a path that ascends through semi-tropical brush, patches of punga (tree ferns) and moss-covered rocks and trees.
This walk is hugely popular with the health-nuts, jogging or striding as they belt out a friendly “hello” as they pass. Fifteen to twenty minutes later you’re rewarded with a cooling breeze at the summit and views over the town centre, surrounding islands and the expansive Bay of Plenty.
Across the harbour from The Mount is the neighbouring city of Tauranga and it was here that we ducked over for a leisurely lunch at Mills Reef Winery Restaurant. Just five minutes by car from the centre of Tauranga, Mills Reef plays a host of things. It’s a winemaking facility, cellar, wine tasting and function space as well as a restaurant. The menu at the restaurant is a bit of a hodgepodge of contemporary, Asian and gastro pub-style food made well with local ingredients.
As soon as we walked into the restaurant I noticed a plate of scallops being delivered from the kitchen; something I immediately wanted. Pan-fried Coromandel scallops (19.5) with watercress pesto, jamón serrano and parmesan tuile. The scallops themselves may have been small but the flavours were big.
Whilst the duck liver pâté (9.5) and fish & chips (24.5) were just that, the other stand-out dish that afternoon was the pork belly (24). All sticky and sweet from cha siu sauce, it had all of us swooning over its melting texture.
The soft centred dark & white chocolate fondant (14.5) came as a well done version of what it was intended to be; it’s usually liquid centre mimicking the texture of the pâté we’d just eaten and surrounded by a rather dry and crumbly sponge exterior. The raspberry compote was the hero on this dessert plate.
Back in The Mount, or rather, just at its base across the road from the caravan park and hot pools, is Mount Bistro. It was my request that we reserve a table for dinner as I liked the sound of its menu when I sussed it out online prior to leaving home. Contemporary New Zealand food with a nod to European and Asian methods. Pheasant, duck, venison and fresh seafood, to name a few of the proteins featuring on the menu.
In true Mount Maunganui fashion, the service is once again warm and homely. A little kooky if I can mention the young dude that wafted around and did little twirls near the kitchen as he looked for things to do.
Of course I went for the pork belly (21) when I spotted the delicious words peering up at me from the entrée menu. A perfect wedge of it with crispy skin, cider pearls, strips of yuzu apple and a crackling twist. Wowzers. Not only was the pork incredible but the size was verging on being a main course.
The other entrée, a rabbit hotpot (24), was equally generous in size. Nice big chunks of bunny slow-cooked in cider and rosemary with a sliced chestnut dumpling on the side. The dumpling was much like the bready ones you get in Germany and Eastern Europe and was tinted with what I can only assume is beetroot. Very wintry flavours overall and an absolute pleasure to tuck into.
Our mains continued on with more meats and again, some very wintry flavours. A duck medley (42) that consisted of pistachio duck ballotine and seared breast fanned next to green beans, honeyed cranberries and buttery mash stabbed with duck crackling. Over to my plate and it’s all about local Cervena venison (42), seared to undercooked perfection with beans, Parisian potatoes, raspberry coulis and an almost unnecessary thick smear of liquorice. The quantity of meat was massive and the quality, spot on. Still not sure about the liquorice.
We seriously didn’t need to hit the sweets but when you’re on holidays you need to indulge, right? Crème brûlée (18) with vanilla vodka and boysenberries, anyone? A pretty good example in the brûlée department and by far the largest either of us had ever seen. This thing was surely two-cups worth.
I was glad that I ordered the cheese board (26) to help wind down on the richness and deliciousness we ate. It was a true celebration of the local Kapiti cheese that can be found just about everywhere in New Zealand. Double cream camembert, havarti, aged cheddar and Kikkorangi, neatly piled with peppered cashews, quince paste, bourbon-poached figs, pear and honeycomb. Cheese of champions, is all I can say, and a mighty fine bistro in a beachside town.
All the great food and local wines we consumed the previous day meant our bodies needed another walk to Mauao. It was breakfast at Tay Street Beach Cafe again and another walk along the beach to The Mount. I probably would have collapsed if we walked to its summit again but we opted with walking around the base instead. Much, much easier and less inclines.
My last visit to The Mount could have been six or seven years prior to this one and I remember eating some mighty-fine crumbed snapper & chips at a little takeaway joint in the industrial estate. Sadly it’s no longer around but the mother-in-law said she’d recently eaten a good f&c over in Tauranga. Ok then, That’s lunch sorted.
Bobby’s Fresh Fish Market is appropriately down by the harbour and, by first impression, is teeming with locals out for a good feed on fresh seafood. The only downside is that they don’t offer crumbed fish, a personal preference of mine. Not to worry. What we all got to share was a huge platter of lightly battered snapper fillets that defeated us with its mammoth size. One thing I can confidantly say is it’s the best fish & chips I’ve had in many, many years. Aside from the freshness of the snapper, it was the light batter that assisted in its greatness.
I even loved how a few of the (clearly regular) locals brought a loaf of sliced white bread with them to make sandwiches using the chips. They’re onto it!
Whilst parking the car near Bobby’s I spotted this coffee roaster across the road and suggested we drop in after lunch for a nosey. Fixation Coffee is indeed a roaster but, better for us, we could sit inside and perk up on some seriously good caffeine. A macchiato of perfection, as was the piccolo and even the fussy mother-in-law seemed chuffed with her long black.
More on The Mount here.