ANY doubts I had that the beautiful beaches of the Bay of Plenty were still off-limits following the recent Rena oil disaster were blown out of the water last weekend with a visit to the seaside town of Mt Maunganui.
The surf schools were all up and running on the main beach, there were plenty of people fishing from kayaks on the Pilot Bay side of the peninsula, and, perhaps most tellingly, Sunday saw 500 athletes in town for the annual Tinman Triathlon which included a harbour swim.
The triathlon, coupled with the Sunday afternoon departure of the Clipper Round-the-World Yachts which had been resting in Mt Maunganui for the week, meant the resort town was packed to the gunnels and absolutely heaving, despite the summer holiday season still being a few weeks away.
We settled in for the weekend at the luxury Pacific Apartments nestled at the foot of the Mount, an ideal base from which to explore.
Our two-bedroom apartment on the fifth of 10 floors offered great views of both the beach and the harbour sides of the township, easy access to the walking tracks up and around the mountain (its Maori name is Mauao), and was a 10-minute walk to the main shopping and eating strip.
Getting back in the water was the theme of our stay, and the sun came out just in time for my paddleboard lesson with Seaton Rolleston of East Coast Paddlers.
Seaton gave me a few tips on the beach on a large inflatable board before we headed out on to the harbour. We cruised around Pilot Bay on our knees getting used to the feeling of the board and practising our paddling and steering.
It didn't take long for me to get my balance and feel quickly confident skimming along the flat water. Seaton talked me through getting slowly to my feet and this went okay too, bar a few wobbles.
The sport, while rather relaxing, works out all your core muscles, and although I didn't feel it at the time, even a few days later my legs were still aching.
After a quick stop in at the excellent weekly Little Big Markets for a few Christmas pressies (including vintage gears and wares, all manner of crafty items, and delicious home-made treats) we made the 35-minute drive south to the Seaside Cafe at the historic coastal town of Maketu.
The cafe, though nothing flash, is known for its fresh seafood menu, and we scoffed a scrummy fish burger with two large fillets of terakihi so fresh they fell apart in our mouths, while enjoying dramatic views of the cliffs to its right and the wild coastline back to the Mount on the left.
Later that day on the news we saw some of the people who had been at the cafe releasing rare dotterels back on the Maketu Spit following their rehabilitation after the oil spill.
Yes, everything seemed to be getting back to normal following the disaster, with the locals proving they can see the lighter side of the situation - groovy Mt Maunganui sushi restaurant and bar Satori Lounge (try the delicious raw tuna and avocado California maguro roll) had a cocktail on its menu called the "Rena": chilli-wrecked vodka, Kahlua espresso slicked with chocolate.
A soak in the geothermally heated salt water pools next to the Pacific relaxed us for an early bedtime in preparation for a morning sea kayaking appointment with Blair Anderson from Waimarino.
Fighting a 10-15 knot wind, our 6km round trip took us along Tauranga Harbour towards the Mount itself, past huge logging and container ships and a cruise ship docked at Salisbury Wharf.
"Kayaking is the laziest sport ever," Blair tells us, and it's certainly a pleasant way to spend the morning, with just a few pauses needed to occasionally rest our arms.
The return journey was with the wind and tide in our favour, and we zipped back to our launching spot with half the effort.
We rounded the weekend off with a stop at the area's biggest winery at Bethlehem. Mills Reef winemaker Paul Dawick gave us the grand tour around its beautiful grounds and function areas, including the former barrel room in the basement which can play host to over 300 guests.
We tried (and promptly bought) their sparkling wine, as well as a fruity viognier and award-winning Elspeth syrah (2009) and cabernet sauvignon (2009).
The Elspeth is their boutique range and its grapes are all hand-picked from their vineyards in the Gimblett Gravels district in the Hawkes Bay.
So yes, rest assured the Bay of Plenty is back in business in time for summer. As a weekend destination it continues to tick all the boxes: great food, wine and accommodation, as well as plenty of opportunities to enjoy those gorgeous beaches.
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