Touring the Coromandel Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island
Boasting an enticing mix of beaches and beautiful native forest, The Coromandel Peninsula region extends from Waihi in the south to Port Jackson in the north.
The Coromandel ranges run the length of the peninsula and provide some of the most dramatic bush clad mountain scenery in the North Island. The tallest peak is Mt. Te Aroha at 953 metres. Luckily for visitors a road hugs the coastline, east and west. A spectacular drive this winding road connects a series of interesting towns.
When gold was discovered in the ranges in the 1850's the population of the area, Coromandel Township in particular, grew very quickly as miners followed the gold rushes of the era. Today there are still known deposits of gold, silver, lead and zinc throughout the ranges. But residents and conservationists are unlikely to allow any form of exploitation of the region other than tourism.
Touring The Peninsula
Most visitors will travel around the peninsula in a clockwise direction starting in Thames, the last town of any size for the next 2 days if you plan to really enjoy the area. Almost immediately after leaving the town the road heads straight for the sea and hugs the rocky coastline for the next 30kms. Not that it has a choice with the steep bush clad hillsides seeing to that. This is a road you don't want to rush for many reasons. Firstly, and probably most importantly, if you do its likely you will end up in the Pacific Ocean and secondly you won't get to absorb the view, which is the whole point of driving the 'Pacific Coast Highway'.
There are a few detours that might interest you one of which is around half way along the coastal section. In the township of Tapu, turning inland here for 6km's brings you to Rapaura Water Gardens, a tranquil setting and café but for most the coastline more than delivers on scenery, tranquility and there is plenty of space to enjoy your picnic lunch.
Turning north east towards the township of Coromandel (named after the ship HMS Coromandel who derived the name from a region in India), you cross the foothills of the northern Coromandel Ranges and arrive at the Coromandel Harbour. The conditions here are ideal for shellfish and there are plenty of opportunities to try the local produce. The township itself is small but has at least one or two of almost everything. A couple of general stores, pubs, cafes, take-a-ways, gift and art stores have everything you need for a stay here. As with almost every small town it has its own museum telling the local story and the information centre is the ideal place to get the best and latest information.
Driving Creek Railway is one of the top attractions in the town. Its eccentric owner Barry Brickell has developed his pottery and railway into something of a local legend attracting tens of thousands of visitors each year just for the purpose of riding his hand built narrow gauge railroad. His original idea was to build a railway to transport clay for his pottery but as time went on and his passion for conservation grew so did the railway ensuring the area returns to its original glory and remains so. Don't miss it!
Heading towards the east coast now the first town of any size is Whitianga which sits on Mercury Bay. It's here that Captain Cook anchored for a short time in 1769 to observe the transit of the planet Mercury. He knew his stuff. It's an idyllic sheltered area with sweeping sand beaches. It's no wonder this is one of the most popular kiwi family holiday destinations on the coast. If Cook's adventures interest you then the Whitianga Museum opposite the wharf is a must see.
Hot Water Beach
For many visitors Hot Water Beach lists high on their must do's. Just 30 minutes further south is this now world famous (at least in New Zealand) spot. A whole micro industry has developed based around this geothermal phenomenon which releases hot water under the sand at a specific area on the beach. A couple of hours either side of low tide is the best time to visit but be prepared to get there early if you want the prime spot. Enterprising businesses rent shovels so you can excavate your perfect private natural hot pool.
Tairua & Pauanui
Although the Coromandel Peninsula officially extends further south, Tairua is the last town on the coast to have the ‘Coromandel feel'. It's hard to describe if you haven't visited the region before but ‘good old fashioned seaside' is close. Dominated by an extinct volcanic cone, Paku Hill, the town sits on the northern side a fantastic harbour. On the southern side is Pauanui, a more upmarket development which doesn't quite fit the bill of the Coromandel but it is home to the excellent Puka Park Resort.
To fully enjoy the Coromandel you need at least 2 nights, 1 night in Coromandel Township and 1 night on the east coast but 1 night is possible if you make an early start. So pack your jandals, shorts and swimming togs and hit the beach kiwi style.