06 November 2017

New Zealand North Island Road Trip I: Coromandel Peninsula

I commenced my first New Zealand trip in Auckland — later than planned thanks to Qantas incompetence — but I’ll be returning there before I fly home next week, so for now, I’m skipping ahead to the next section: a short North Island road trip. I rented a car from central Auckland (it was under $200 NZD for a Toyota Corolla for six days) and was soon heading south on State Highway 1. Here is what I got up to along the way.

Coromandel Peninsula
Although the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula is accessible by public transport or by tour, it’s more convenient if you have your own transportation because then you can stop at whichever scenic spots and small towns take your fancy. There isn’t much to do in most of the towns and villages, especially this early in the season, so it was nice to have the flexibility to stop off, have a wander, grab a coffee and then hit the road again.

I headed first for the small town of Thames — hey, I’m from Oxford and live very close to the river now — which took about 90 minutes from Auckland. The roads were good and it was an easy drive. I stopped for a rather good Coffee Supreme piccolo at Coco Coffee Bar, walked up and down the high street (there was a cool indoor marketplace called The Depot with various independent shops and eateries) and then continued. There’s also a small town museum and a mining museum, but not much else.

From Thames, I followed the SH 25 north along the western side of the peninsula. Navigating was easy, partly because I was using Google Maps on my iPhone and partly because there is generally only one road. The roads, however, quite quickly became rather precarious, although they afford splendid views of the sea as they weave along the coast and inch up the steep, verdant mountains. Most of the trickiest bends have handy suggested-speed indicators, which helped in judging the severity, and I soon got used to the concept of one-way bridges. Although I occasionally got stuck behind a slow vehicle or, more often, frustrated other drivers for sticking to the speed limit, it was a decent drive.

I stopped for lunch an hour later at Coromandel Town, which, like Thames, is a small mining town that was less picturesque than I had expected, although had a bunch of quirky independent shops and plenty of character. I should have stopped for seafood at the Coromandel Mussel Kitchen just outside town but missed the turn and instead was left with the main street offerings. I ended up having a decent Allpress piccolo and scrambled eggs on sourdough at a place called Wharf Road (on Wharf Road).

I wasn’t sure I’d have time to go all the way to the top of the peninsula so I cut east to Whitianga instead. There are two routes — the southern is ‘less travelled and legendary’ (according to the Lonely Planet) but sounded like a more challenging drive, so I went for the northern route, which had some steep climbs and fantastic sea views. I stopped briefly at a couple of beaches on the way, one (pictured below and at the very top) primarily because I saw a penguin ‘warning’ sign. There weren’t any penguins, unfortunately (I’m beginning to think they’re as mythical as goats in trees in Morocco, which I didn’t see either), but the beach was gorgeous. I found out later that it's called New Chum Beach, and has been voted one of the most beautiful beaches in New Zealand. 

I arrived in Whitianga about 45 minutes later but there was little there to divert me longer than it took to walk down to the esplanade and back.

Hahei, where I stayed for the night, is only a short boat ride from Whitianga, but by car, you have to go the long way round which takes about 30 minutes (longer if they are resurfacing the road, which they seemed to be doing in large parts of the North Island during my trip). Hahei itself is a tiny but pretty village, with a handful of shops and eateries, and a few hundred residents. There are two main attractions nearby, which I’ll get to shortly, but both require specific tide timings, which I’d missed. As it was a sunny afternoon, I went for a stroll on the beautiful Hahei Beach, and then hiked up to the Te Pare Reserve, which had great views down over the bay — it reminded me a little of Ha Long Bay, Vietnam.

I stayed at Tatahi Lodge in Hahei, in a private room in their backpackers’ lodge. The lodge was comfortable, clean and thoughtfully appointed, even if it did feel a bit like sleeping in a particularly nice shed (especially when it poured with rain overnight). I went for dinner at The Pour House, a local craft brewery and pub. I had the fish and chips, which was really good. I even had a sample of one of the beers brewed on site (the Easy Rider, which the bar tender was recommending to most customers), although it was rather too beery for me (I don’t like beer).

In the morning, I rose early and headed out to Cathedral Cove, one of Hahei’s two main sights. It’s about a 50-minute walk from central Hahei, but I decided to jog instead. Note, though, that it’s an extremely steep route, although has great views. I was rewarded when I got to Cathedral Cove beach and found it deserted, which meant I got the iconic view through the cathedral-like hole in the cliff face of the ship-shaped Te Hoho rock to myself for a few minutes before a group arrived. It was such a beautiful and peaceful place. Try to go in the morning (it’s east-facing and so the light is better) and at low tide (otherwise you might not be able to walk through the cave).

I returned to my hotel to shower and check-out and to borrow a beach towel and a spade from the owners. It was almost low tide and I was headed to Hot Water Beach, a ten-minute drive from Hahei. For two hours around low tide, you can dig yourself a hole on the beach that fills with warm to hot water, depending on your spot. I got there about 45 minutes before low tide and the beach was already busy. The Germans had, of course, already found the best spots. There was a lot of asking around as to how hot everyone's water was. Mine wasn't the hottest but I dug it by myself and the water was indeed pretty hot. A fun, if somewhat tiring, activity. I ran into the (rather cooler but still tolerable) sea to clean off and then, after dropping off my spade and towel at the hotel, got on my way.

Wairere Falls

My destination was Rotorua, a three-hour drive from Hahei. I was hoping to find a nice cafe or roadside eatery to stop at for lunch, but although the drive was beautiful (again, many steep, winding mountain and coastal roads), there wasn’t much along the way. However, passing near Matamata (most famous for its Hobbiton attractions; I’m from Oxford, though, so there’s only one Shire for me), I saw a sign for Wairere Falls and, in an effort to be more spontaneous, I took the turning. There was nothing about it in my Lonely Planet but at 153m, it’s the tallest waterfall on the North Island, and you can either take a 40-minute hike to the viewing platform, about halfway up, or climb to the summit if you have three hours or so to make the round trip. Having not had lunch and having done a steep jog at Cathedral Cove, I stuck to the shorter walk, which was a relatively easy if steep hike. The views of the falls at the top were well worth the detour.

And before I knew it, I was approaching the outskirts of Rotorua, of which more in my next blog post.

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