Last November, I revved the engine on my ageing camper van and tore down the highway heading out from Auckland, New Zealand’s biggest city, to visit the often overlooked Coromandel Peninsula. A picturesque stretch of coastline dotted with some of the countries’ best beaches, it also offers great walking, marine activities and some unique and unusual attractions. Considered by many Kiwis to be a highlight of the North Island and a popular local holiday destination, tourists often skip it – but I wanted to explore and see what the fuss was about. You can drive around the peninsula in a long day, indeed some tour buses do. But to do it justice you really need to take at least three or four days to enjoy the highlights – especially if you have to deal with New Zealand’s notoriously fast-changing weather! I’ve also created a Google Maps route with pins in case you’re interested in visiting yourself, you can trace my route and see where some of the photos were taken – click here.
Arriving late afternoon after a nice straight drive through the flat farmlands of Waikato, the windows open in the hot spring weather and some classic tunes on the stereo, my first stop was the attractive campsite Tapu Camp in the tiny village of Tapu. After passing through the small town of Thames to pick up supplies, the road here winds along a narrow and twisting road just meters above the sea, passing rocky beaches and through hamlets with hilly forest and roadside cliffs on the right and great views across the Firth of Thames on the left– the landmass of the Whatakawai area just visible across the ocean. I’d found the campsite through the useful WikiCamps mobile app (CamperMate is the other popular choice), and it didn’t disappoint. The main camping field sat right on the edge of a deserted beach with lovely views and seabirds out in full force. Strolling along the beach I even found a protected nesting area for some waders where a mother sat on her eggs, the Department of Conservation in fine form as usual. Some dramatic clouds made for a great sunset and the sea breeze kept the mosquitos at bay as I tucked into fish and chips bought from the very local pub across the road.
The next day was a stunner and I continued north, following the winding coastal road admiring the views and dodging trucks and huge boat trailers before climbing steeply inland, the summit opening out to a great viewpoint overlooking the north of the peninsula. The usual mix of New Zealand tourists were present – older couples in massive campervans, backpackers with ageing cars and campervan hybrids (like me), wealthier groups in shiny rental cars and Kiwis out for the day. Winding down the hill I soon arrived at the nice little town of Coromandel.
I popped into one of the trendy cafés for a much needed caffeine fix and pottered around looking at the old buildings on the main street. The helpful man at the Tourist Information recommended the nearby Driving Creek Railway to me. It’s a popular attraction so I called to reserve a place and a five-minute drive later I arrived at the visitor centre at the base of a densely forested hill.
In the grounds, I explored the rather eccentric station populated with sculptures and watched a video about this mini narrow gauge railway’s inception. A labour of love for over thirty years, the creator Barry Brickell (who sadly died earlier this year) had constructed much of this railway by hand (with a little help) as a personal project and eventually opened it to the public. He’s now bequeathed it to the community so they can continue to enjoy the steep trip up the mountain through the forest. One of the cute little trains trundled into the station and I took a seat.
As we chugged up through the forest for about half an hour, the entertaining driver alerted us to the many sculptures hidden along the route, and a number of times we glimpsed the other train as the narrow one track system only passing at certain points. We were dropped off at a viewing tower at the hilltop boasting an impressive vista reaching out to the sea, with the peaceful sounds of the forest drifting up from below. Although I wouldn’t normally go in for this kind of attraction, I actually really enjoyed it and what an achievement from one man!
Hopping back in the van, I drove to the other side of the Coromandel peninsula, which involved some grumbling engine sounds whilst ascending a long and steep climb to a viewpoint followed by a plummeting descent. I wasn’t the only one struggling, but thanks to the wise Kiwi passing places I wasn’t held up by the poor huge trucks straining up the hill. A lovely rocky coastal drive followed with white sand beaches lined with green Pohutukawa trees, entering flowering season with their distinctive red bristles adding colour to the scene. I stopped briefly at the harbour town of Whitianga.
It seemed too touristy and developed for my liking, but I enjoyed the peaceful views from the flower-lined shore of Whitianga Harbour, a large inlet where kayakers battled the strong wind on the flat water and shags perched on rowing boats. Continuing southward inland, I crossed rolling hills and green farmland as the shadows drew longer, arriving at the small touristy coastal town of Hahei and checking into the pleasant Tatahi Lodge Resort, a lodge/hostel with luxurious facilities for a backpacker like me. After a tasty pizza and lager at the busy brewery restaurant Pour House Bar, I drove up the steep road behind to see Hahei’s famous sight – Cathedral Cove, where a large cave in the white rockface links two beaches. The striking bright cliffs and rock formations in the sea were immediately visible from the car park and I arrived just in time for an amazing orange New Zealand sunset as the large sun dipped beyond Hahei.
By this point in my trip I was quite tired from days of driving and non-stop action, so I wasn’t planning to do sunrise at Cathedral Cove the next day and treat myself to a lie-in. However, I roused when I heard some of the hostel head out around 5:30am and thought, hell, you only live once, let’s have a look. The weather was clear and I arrived at the clifftop car park just as the sun crested the horizon, the cliffs bathed in golden light. Hoisting my camera gear and some water, I set off on the path down from the cliff top to the Cathedral Cove beach. It was a nice walk and a steady descent through forest, brushland with windswept trees and some final steep steps down to the white sand of the cove, if a bit tiring at 6am with no breakfast or coffee inside me!
My early bird behaviour was rewarded though, as the beach, usually swarming with tourists, was practically deserted. Aside from another friendly photographer and a couple, I had the serene place to myself. After photographing the huge arch and taking in the peace and quiet as the sea lapped on the sand, I walked through the arch (it was low tide, it’s partially submerged at high tide) and came across a strangely shaped spire on the other side, and some snorkelers kayaked ashore from a motor boat which had arrived. The cove sits in the protected Te Whanganui-A-Hei marine reserve with plenty of sealife opportunities to spot for those with the budget. The photographer I’d met told me he was enjoying some time off to explore the hidden gem beaches of New Zealand and had already spent three weeks travelling the coast in search of them, giving me some insider tips on some well hidden spots.
A steep climb back to the carpark had me ravenous, solved by a hearty English fry-up at Hahei Beach Café. The next stop was the Coromandel’s other big attraction, the Hot Water Beach. Only a twenty minute drive from Hahei, this long beach boasts a particular spot where a thermal spring flows from inland into the sea. People dig holes in the sand here with shovels (which you can hire everywhere in Mercury Bay) to enjoy a personal hot pool – though finding the perfect place where the sea water mixes to make the temperature just right is difficult. As I expected, it was crazy there, with every inch covered in people digging, sitting in holes or playing in the sea. As the day was scorching, I failed to see the attraction in sitting in the boiling water, dipping my feet into a few was enough – the temperature ranged from scorching to tepid, but it was a cool thing to see – only in New Zealand!
On the way back to the other side of Coromandel peninsula I made one last stop – one of the top rated beaches in the world – New Chums. It was a half hour detour into the heart of the countryside to the settlement of Whangapoua and then a half hour walk along the coast and through the forest over a small headland to reveal a pretty, long white sand beach lined with forest and cliffs. The Department of Conservation wisely keeps the car park far from the beach so it’s unspoiled, and high tide prevents you from crossing the headland for hours at a time. The Pohutukawa trees’ red flowers at the beach edge were in full bloom here and it was a nice peaceful spot with lots of cubby holes for the visitors making it seem much quieter than it was.
I concluded my trip on a leisurely drive retracing my route all the way back to Tapu, making frequent stops at lay-bys and viewpoints to soak in the coastal views and sunny weather. It’s a wonderful area to potter around with something nice to look at every few miles. Back at Tapu Camp I rejoined some French friends I’d randomly ran into at Hahei and we enjoyed some beers in front of another moody sunset as the clouds rolled in. Now that’s what New Zealand’s all about.
One day I hope to revisit Coromandel, it’s a beautiful place with lots of variety in coastline and there’s still much more to see, like the wild north which has some great walks and the plentiful east coast beaches. On a larger budget there’s also tons of activities like cruises, kayaking, snorkelling and some fine seafood restaurants. But you don’t need to spend much to enjoy Coromandel Penisula, there’s plenty of budget options and campsites, although it’s wise to book in advance in the busy summer. The trip was certainly one of my highlights of the North Island, so if you go to New Zealand, at least take a day or two roadtrip there and don’t miss out!
I’ve shared a Google Map with the route I took and pins showing where the points of interest and photo locations were, you can check it out by clicking here.
Here’s a gallery with some more photos from the trip – just click to enlarge.