Tauranga has more heritage sites than first meets the eye. They range from the elegant Elms Mission House to Fisherman’s Wharf, and the rail bridge. Local members of the Historic Places Trust have produced an excellent illustrated pamphlet called Historic Tauranga that covers the 25 most signifcant, interesting sites all within walking distance of each other in the heart of the city. All are pinpointed on a handy map. The guide is available from the i-SITE visitor centre in Willow Street.
A stone’s throw from Mid City Mall (Red Square) across the road, is one the weirdest fountains you’ll ever see —trains run through the middle of it —in a manner of speaking, that is. To accommodate the railway that runs along the waterfront, the fountain was built in two separate halves on either side of the tracks. On the town side is a stone frieze with a pair of leaping dolphins, while the seaward side features the legend of Maui.
Straight across from the fountain is the historic ferry-turned-restaurant, Kestrel. Built in Auckland in 1905, the elegant old double-ended ferry was for a time, the oldest commuter ferry in service —on the run between Auckland City and Devonport. Originally steam powered, she was ftted with a diesel engine in 1951.
Two of Tauranga’s former Post Offices are well worth seeing. One is a fine art deco building on the corner of Spring Street and Grey Street, now occupied by the National Bank. The building dates back to 1938. Outside is a gourd sculpture inspired by the Maori legend of Taurikura, who turned herself into a reptile.
The Hotel St Amand, opposite the reclamation, now a backpackers, is the oldest remaining hotel building in Tauranga, dating back to 1917. Towards the opposite end of the Strand, the Tauranga Hotel was built in an art deco style in the late 1930’s. It’s now the Grumpy Mole bar, with a mock-western frontage. One piece of old Tauranga that’s survived the modernisation of the waterfront is Herries Arch. The stone memorial arch at the northern end of the Strand dates back to the 1920’s.
Near the Arch are seven carved pou (poles) which symbolise Matariki, a constellation used by Maori in navigating their way to New Zealand. The sailing of the voyaging canoes to New Zealand is expressed by a 17-metre tall stainless steel waka (canoe) wind sculpture. The design is an abstract interpretation of the original vertical-rig sails used on the sea -going waka of the migration. The ‘sail’ is on a pivot allowing it to move in the wind on the top of the 12-metre mast. The sculpture changes colour at night. ‘Arrival’ is suggested by a taniko pattern, symbolising waves over the sand, that’s been placed in the Strand footpath in the approximate position of the original beach.
More imposing, and a must-see for history buffs and sightseers, the Old Post Office in Willow Street dates back to the early 1900’s. The impressive building now on the site was erected in 1905/1906. The building was painstakingly renovated and converted into offices in the late 90’s. A museum room to the left of the entrance is open during office hours. Up the stairs, original brick work has been left exposed to view. Across the road from the Old Post Office is the Aspen Tree a towering specimen that can be seen in photographs as early as the 1880s. According to the Historic Places Trust it’s in fact a cottonwood poplar. One story has it that the tree grew from a stake pushed into the earth by a soldier who wanted to tie up his horse.
Across busy Cameron Road at the Elizabeth Street intersection, Brain Watkins House is one of the city’s oldest. Boat-builder Joseph Brain built the kauri villa in 1881 with timber shipped from the Coromandel Peninsula. The house was named after one his fIve daughters —the last married William Watkins. On her death, the Victorian home was gifted to the Tauranga Historical Society. It’s regarded as a prime example of a 19th century home —complete with original furniture and bric-a-brac.
At the northern of the Strand , near the carved Maori poles, is a ‘must-see,’ the magnificent Te Awanui Waka (canoe) which was a carved from a totara (native timber) log by late master carver Tuti Tukaokao. Te Awanui is the original name for Tauranga Harbour. The waka is still used on ceremonial occasions. Across from the waka, the Bond Store is still standing. The warehouse was built in 1883 by J.A. Mann and was used to store goods on which customs duty had to be paid. It was built of brick, in response to a number of fires that seriously damaged wooden properties in the late 1870’s and early 1880’s.
On up the hill past the store is the Monmouth Redoubt, a Maori pa that was turned into a redoubt (fort) by soldiers of the 43rd Monmouth Light Infantry. A plaque notes that in the late 1860’s, local women and children sometimes took shelter here for fear of a Maori uprising. In 1867 it became the Armed Constabulary headquarters, and then in 1886 it transferred to the police, still based next door in Tauranga’s main police station. Past the redoubt in Cliff Road, Robbins Park was land occupied by Maori in pre-mission days. It was used by the Armed Constabulary for a gym and messroom in the 1860’s and 70’s. The police grazed horses here until about 1940 when it was transferred to the council. The park, created in 1946, was named after Benjamin Conrad Robbins, a Mayor in the 1900’s.
North of Robbin’s Park, at the end of the cliff just off Marsh Street, is the magnifcent Mission Cemetery, a tapu (sacred) place that tells some bloody stories of the Land Wars of the 1800’s. One ‘mass grave monument’ made from black marble marks the death of 14 Maori warriors who fought British troops in the key battle of Te Ranga, in June 1864. British soldiers and sailors are also buried here, along with early identities such as Archdeacon Alfred Brown.
Fishermen’s Wharf in Dive Crescent is used mainly by long-line fishing boats. It was originally known as the Railway Wharf, built in the late 1920’s for cargo to be trans-shipped from ship to rail. Driving north from the Strand along Dive Crescent are cargo sheds erected in the 1920’s and 30’s, now the Cargo Shed creative markets. At the opposite end of the Strand, the Rail Bridge connects the Tauranga waterfront to the Matapihi Peninsula. The bridge was part of the East Coast Main Trunk Railway project begun in 1910, but delayed by World War One. The rail bridge was opened in the summer of 1924. A popular fishing spot, the wooden walkway provides foot and cycle access to the peninsula.