Rugged, Art-filled, and Worth the Drive
By Max Hartshorne
On a map, New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula juts straight up, just to the right of the capital city of Auckland. Though it doesn’t look far from Auckland on the map as the crow flies, it’s a long and winding journey up a beautiful coastal road that takes longer than any new visitor thinks it should from the capital.
It’s called The Coromandel, and for any Aucklander the name conjures up fond memories of swimming at Cook’s Beach, picnicking on Hot Water Beach in Hahei, and camping along the scenic road, Rte 25, that winds up along the shoreline to the penisula’s biggest town, Coromandel Town.
Many families used to camp here and later were able to buy small houses on the coast, passing them down through their families over generations. The people I met in Coromandel described it as a place that people escape to..first as vacationers and then for some, forever as residents.
On to Thames
I was lucky to make the trip on a gorgeous spring (November) afternoon, passing by the city of Auckland then driving by freeway, down, down then as the road thinned out to two-lane, finally up and headed north to Coromandel town. I remember looking at my GPS and groaning when we hit the first town, a small flat city of Thames. There were 52 more kilometres to go!
The big news in Thames when I visited was that the days of waiting at the one-lane bridge crossing were finally coming to an end. A shiny steel new two-lane bridge was dedicated in December 2011, alleviating hours-long waits by Aucklanders returning home after weekending on the peninsula.
The alternative was to drive the long way around, a detour of about 50 kilometers. Needless to say, residents and visitors alike rejoiced when the new bridge opened up. (I bet many have shaken their heads wondering why it took until 2012 to convert a one-lane bridge into two!)
Coromandel town, on the peninsula, is located just about directly across from Auckland as the crow flies, but my drive would wind me along the narrow road hugging the shore for another 52 kilometers over six hours of driving.
The Coromandel Peninsula is strengthened by its location, and the remoteness is enhanced by the forced scenic, slow drive to get there. It’s a little like Hana, Maui, which is only accessible by a similarly scenic road, but once you get there—well, you’re glad you made the drive
400,000 on a Weekend
Aucklanders long ago discovered the beauty and joy of being here, so the numbers well drastically in January, when as many as 400,000 people come here on busy weekends. The year-round population is about 40,000.
One of the highlights of the Penisula is Hot Water Beach in Hahei, where the beach boils with volcanic water that gushes from the ground. People dig holes to bath in, carefully scooting over when the temperature becomes too hot to take.
I spent some time on Hot water beach with a man who had thousands of dollars in gold in his car trunk, his name is Kiwi Dundee. Dundee isn’t interested in cashing in his gold, no, he’s a collector who genuinely loves finding these nuggets and the simple beauty of the metal in its rocky encasing. He most interested in the lore of the ancient peoples who used to live here and the incredibly rich history of gold mining in early settlers days and kauri-tree logging from long ago.
He leads tours to this beach and shows people sites, sounds and animals that most of them would never see. During our visit he pointed out scrape marks made on the rocks at Hot Water Beach, which were used to create weapons and tools. The Maoris, who until the Europeans came in the 1840s, never had seen a white person before. These distinct marks of an ancient civilization were remarkable, and most people at the beach would never notice them.
The Hahei Explorer, a local tour operator runs rigid inflatable boats into Cathedral Cove and the coastal islands of the marine reserve. You’ll see massive sea caves and bays, and the volcanic scenery is striking.
I jumped on the ferry that takes people the short distance across the channel from Cook’s Beach to Whitanga. The small town has another attraction with hot water…The Lost Spring, run by Alan Hopping, provides a hot pool that resembles a Pacific island, albeit manmade. The water is a glorious 32-41 c all year round. There’s an on premises cafe with burgers, salads plus cocktails and wines. Definitely worth a sto
Indigo Bush Studios
Robyn Lewis was born in West Auckland and is half artist, half B&B hostess. Her spartan yet comfortable accommodations immediately put me in relaxation mode…hey that’s what happens with no television nor internet connection.
I did remedy the latter, but being in those woods and soaking in the big claw foot tub outside the door was supremely relaxing. After I settled in, Robyn invited me to join her and her friend Nigel to a 50th birthday party in town.
An eleven piece band was blasting funky saxophone tunes and I mingled with a crowd of Kiwis, most of whom were from Auckland. Moving to Coromandel is a dreamy idea to many, and a top vacation spot for others. Like many residents, Robyn makes her own art and has a small studio in town where tourists pop in to view the latest artwork.
One Man’s Railroad
One morning I woke up and met a man who has built his own railroad, that winds up a mountain just outside of Coromandel Town. It’s called the Driving Creek Railway, and in tiny cars it pulls paying passengers up and down a small mountain.
His name is Barry Brickell, and when we met I offered up the usual questions about family etc. What he told me was startling: In his long life of 70 plus years, he has never had a relationship, with either a female or a male. “I have never had time for that, no time at all!
There’s too much to do!” He said this while we hurried through an interview in his art studio and residence under construction near the railway terminus. He has said that when he passes away he will donate all of this to the local trust to be preserved forever.
His handcrafted narrow guage railroad engines, cars and meters of twisty track are just a part of what Brickell does to keep so busy. His railroad has been a tourist staple in town for decades, the trip takes one hour and you get a chance to climb “The Eyefull Tower” and gaze upon the beautiful bush and the view of the ocean, before the ramble back down. Along the way, Brickell has placed sculptures, pottery and all manner of outdoor art that blends in nicely with the encroaching bush.
Rapaura Estate in Tapu
After my railroad journey, I hopped into my car to drive south toward Thames, to the village of Tapu. There I turned off Rte 25 and was soon in a lush garden, a 64-acre private estate smack in the middle of the Coromandel Forest Park.
There are native trees, lovely trails to walk, and a treat at the end, a big waterfall. Owners Sally and Sacha told me about the terrible destruction that had taken a big toll on the 30-year-old property several years ago.
It called Sally, Sacha’s mother, back to NZ from Hong Kong to take it over and rebuild. Sacha is an accomplished chef, and a lunch in their restaurant was Coromandel’s best meal, hands down.
Wine is an important part of any trip to New Zealand. It’s one of the few places where every time I’ve ordered just a glass, the server lets me sample before I buy. Love that. We enjoyed tasting the Coromandel-grown wines at Mercury Bay Estate Cellar with owner John Donnelley. This small family-owned winery emphasizes using sustainable grapes and their relaxing cafe at the winery is a great place for a lunch break.
We arrived at the winery by Harley. A great way to get around Coromandel is by Harley. Bularangi Tours specializes in getting New Zealand visitors and locals onto America’s original superbike and swoop among the curvy scenic roadways in a big square shape from Thames to Coromandel to Whitianga and then Tairua.
I appreciated when my driver, Gilbert, took it pretty slow around the winding curves as we drove through a rainstorm with me white with fear riding on the back of the motorcycle.
The Coromandel is a favorite spot for Aucklanders and other Kiwis who have discovered its striking beauty and the charm of a place that’s a little hard to get to. It’s definitely worth adding to your New Zealand itinerary.