Stunning coastline, amazing beaches and rugged unspoiled scenery are just some of the reasons why the Coromandel is one of Aotearoa's real gems, as Rachel Pinder found out on a road trip round the region's spectacular coastlines....
The only thing about taking a fortnight's holiday on the Coromandel Peninsula is that it's not nearly long enough. Not by a long shot. I soon realised that when I headed round the Bay of Plenty to Thames , which is an easy couple of hours drive away. It wasn't the best welcome to the Coromandel because the rain was bucketing down as I arrived in the quaint little town, so the prospect of doing a walk to the Pinnacles in the Kauaeranga Valley the next day was looking remote. But the following morning there was a huge transformation, as the sun was breaking through the clouds and piercing through the curtains as I woke up to an absolutely stunning day.
So off I headed to the Kauaeranga Valley , which stretches east from Thames and finishes in the mountains. The walk actually turned into a full-on eight hour hike which finished up with climbing ladders jutting out of a rockface to reach the top. I must've been mad but I was on a mission by that point.
The Pinnacles Track was used in the good old days to bring supplies up to the millers and tree fellers, who cleared out hundreds of acres of kauri trees in the valleys. In the late 1990s, the track had become a bit of a mess so it was upgraded and rebuilt, close to what it looked like at the start of the century. The result is amazing - stone steps dominate most of the track, crossing the river three times as it rises steeply. Those steps are great to look at but they're pretty tough on the legs as I found out the hard way the next day.
It was just a shame I didn't have more time, as I could have easily spent several days exploring the Kauaeranga Valley , which has numerous short walks and at least four camping spots to set up a tent in the bush for a night or two. Thames was built on the pioneering industries of gold and kauri logging, and its colourful history can be explored at the Historical Museum , Thames School of Mines Museum, War Memorial Monument , and Rocky's Goldmine Trail. The area is also a great canyoning spot, with loads of natural pools and waterslides to explore.
So leaving Thames , I continued 55km up the Pacific Coast Highway to Coromandel town which was a quaint pretty place by the coast, with heaps of nice walks and spots to hang out.Coromandel town is right on McGregor Bay and was named after the British Navy ship HMS Coromandel. It first became known for its kauri trees, and now thrives on tourism. I ended up being taken in by the local tour bus driver and his wife, Nigel and Jocelyn Strongman, who run the Coromandel Coastal Walkway Tour. They decided to adopt me when they asked if I had anywhere to stay. So good old Kiwi hospitality was thrown upon me, and I had a great time hanging out with the locals in the workshed and checking out the local pub. The locals really are a friendly bunch who are only too happy to share their holiday playground.
The best thing I did was their awesome coastal walkway tour right at the very top of the Coromandel, from Fletcher Bay to Stony Bay and we even got picked me up at the other end - fantastic! After collecting eager hikers from around the town, Jocelyn drove us by bus to the very top of the Coromandel Peninsula over the stunning Coast Road , giving us lots of local information along the way. We passed gorgeous blooming pohutukawa trees, and checked out the rugged coastline, farmland and rolling hills which unfolded before us. The 7.5km coastal walkway was simply breathtaking and a real highlight of the trip.
I had never seen scenery quite like it - and we completed our round trip after a well-deserved cuppa via Mt Moehau, Port Charles and Colville back along the coastal road to Coromandel town.
Coromandel town is also home to the Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, a narrow-gauge train ride which winds up through kauri plantings to the Eyeful Tower lookout, where we had awesome panoramic views over the peninsula. It was created by Barry Bricknell, who spent 27 years building the railway to bring the clay and pine wood fuel down to his pottery.
After that I headed to Whitianga along the 309 Road, which has heaps of things to see and do along the way. This scenic road follows the Waiau River upstream through farmland, pine forest and extensive areas of native forest.
Highlights along the way are the Waiau Waterworks, which features whimsical contraptions all powered by water; Castle Rock, the core of an old volcano that rises above the bush of the Coromandel Peninsula Ranges; Waiau Falls; a Kauri Grove; Egan Park picnicking spot and Bush Creek Cottage, which overlooks the beautiful Mahakirau river.
It was a fantastic drive to Whitianga, which is perched on pretty Mercury Bay , and is probably the most popular stop-off point for travellers on the Coromandel, where you can walk, fish, dive and surf to your heart's content. This is Mercury Bay 's main centre, which is a haven for fishing, with a busy marina, shops and delicious cafes. The ferry crossing across the river to Ferry Landing is also worth a trip. And a short walk up the hill from the ferry leads to Front Beach then on to Flaxmill Bay . And there's plenty of amazing beaches and walking tracks to explore as far as Cooks Beach and beyond.
I was lucky enough to do some mountain biking with one of the locals on his dad's farm, thanks to Adventure Descents. I was taken through private farms to special places off the well-beaten tourist track. We started by riding up the historic Gentle Annie pack track to admire sweeping views of valleys and the Coromandel Ranges . Descending through young pine plantations and regenerating native bush, we crossed cool mountain streams and checked out the amazing scenery. It was also a great opportunity to ask my guide about the fascinating local history and geology. It made me realise there's a lot more to the Coromandel beside the coastline, and it's definitely worth venturing inland as well.
Back on the coast, the sheltered waters of Mercury Bay are great for all water sports, and the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve includes the infamous Cathedral Cove and a snorkelling trail. I managed to get a glimpse of life below the surface with some awesome diving off the coast with Whitianga Dive HQ, where we spotted heaps of fish, as well as eagle rays and moray eels. I also did some amazing kayaking to Cathedral Cove which was named because of the natural rock arch connecting it to Mare's Leg Cove. I saw some of the most spectacular beaches I'd ever clapped eyes on from my kayak as I bobbed up and down on the waves with the sun shining down on my back. We also paddled through amazing sea caves, explored offshore islands and the unique volcanic coast, topped off with a delicious cappuccino on the beach. But if you don't want to get on the water, the other option is to take the one and a half hour return walk which leads down to Gemstone and Stingray Bays as well as Mare's Leg and Cathedral Cove.
Hot Water Beach
Nearby Hahei is another of Mercury Bay 's popular beaches, with access to Cathedral Cove and the marine reserve.
Just a few kilometres south is Hot Water Beach, which is heated under the surface by lava rocks so you can take a spade and dig your own little hot pool - a very unique experience. But you have to time it just right, as the best time to go is two hours either side of low tide.
From there I headed to a pristine place at the top of the charts of tranquilness - Opoutere, which was a gorgeous spot - just a spectacular five kilometre white sandy beach, a massive estuary and a hill with a pa on top. The beach is renowned for the sandspit forming the Wharekawa Wildlife Refuge, a nesting ground for the endangered New Zealand dotterel. I checked out the area with a local bushman called Tony Milne, who runs Wildman Milne Adventures, and he showed me all the disused gold mines and tunnels on a guided nature walk around the area.
Sharing his extensive knowledge of the Coromandel Peninsula , I heard about the colourful history of the area, more about the diverse flora and fauna, and the fascinating ecologies of the mountain, stream, estuary and ocean. And Tony certainly knew his stuff alright. So off we went, clutching torches, into a tunnel in the middle of the forest, which was a bit like something out of Lord of the Rings or Enid Blyton's Folk of the Faraway Tree. Then he told me to stand in the corner and hum, so away I went. The next thing I knew, all these wetas sprang out from nowhere - and some were the size of my hand.
After not finding any frogs, I got to see these fellas up close and also heaps of glow worms which was pretty awesome. And I've probably been shown every variety of tree there is in New Zealand so I feel like a bit of an expert - but I've not had chance to wow anyone with my new-found tree knowledge just yet.
So my last stop was Whangamata, but I managed to call in to Tairua on the way, another pretty town which sits next to a beautiful harbour on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula . This popular holiday settlement has a sheltered river estuary as well as an ocean beach for swimming, surfing, boating and fishing. I stopped here to do another dive with Dive Tairua, where I got up close and personal with some of the sea life of the Alderman Islands , just 12 nautical miles off-shore from Tairua. It was still a bit colder than I was used to after diving in the warmer waters of Australia and South Africa as it was only about 16 degrees - but rest assured, it warms up a bit more in summer. It was a fantastic spot for diving - with plenty of pinnacles, walls and caves to check out, and I got to see heaps of fish and underwater creatures.
After a night in Whangamata, another idyllic beach resort with a fantastic combination of rainforests and a stunning ocean beach with great surfing and safe swimming, I managed to fit in one last pit stop on my way home. I called in to Martha Mine in Waihi, which is probably one of the most well-known gold mining towns in New Zealand . Martha Mine is an operating open pit mine, which produces more than one million dollars of gold and silver every week. Its history goes back three centuries, and I decided to check out the open pit from the viewpoint in Moresby Avenue , which is just five minutes' walk from the town centre. The town itself has kept its quaint appearance, with old wooden buildings and not a shopping mall in sight.
It's just a shame I didn't have time to check out Waihi Beach , which is the first of a string of stunning beaches which stretch down the coast as you arrive in the Bay of Plenty from the west. But at least I'll leave something new to enjoy for next time because I'm definitely planning a return trip.
Rachel Pinder's trip to the Coromandel was courtesy of Coromandel Discovery (www.coromandeldiscovery.co.nz), Driving Creek Railway (www.drivingcreekrailway.co.nz), On The Beach Backpackers Lodge, Whitianga (www.coromandelbackpackers.com), Dive HQ Whitianga (www.divethecoromandel.co.nz), Cathedral Cove Sea Kayaking (www.seakayaktours.co.nz), Adventure Descents Mountain Biking (www.adventuredescents.co.nz), Opoutere YHA Youth Hostel (www.yha.co.nz), Wildman Milne Adventures (www.wildman.co.nz), Dive Tairua (www.divetairua.co.nz), South Pacific Accommodation, Whangamata (www.thesouthpacific.co.nz).