A wild, hilly spear studded with brilliant beaches and thrilling bush, the Coromandel Peninsula is a magic geographical cul-de-sac. Here’s how to explore this stunning part of our backyard.
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The Coromandel is close enough to near on half New Zealand’s population that you’d almost expect it to be a bit overrun. Yet the opposite is true: aside from two chaotic weeks in high summer, when its population rises ten-fold, it’s mostly deserted. Which means its outstanding natural and human-sculpted assets are far more accessible than they have any right to be. Here are five of the best – though you could make a new list every day for a week and barely scratch the surface of this strange, special stretch of land and sea.
The Best Beach Trip
The east coast of the Coromandel is studded with more renowned spots – Whangapoua, Ōpitō, Whitianga, New Chums – but I think Ōtama shades them all. It’s a two kilometre long north-facing beach cleaved by a huge, languid stream and lagoon with pristine, squeaky-underfoot white sand. More sheltered than many of its neighbours, it’s the ideal place to bring younger children who can’t be trusted in larger waves, and the long chain of Pōhutakawa provides ample shade.
Much of the beach surrounds are wetlands under DOC reserve, and as a result there are precious few baches and only a small campground. This means the beach is sparsely populated even in high summer. When you’re parched from the tide and the heat, head back over the hill to Kuaōtunu, the nearest small town. It has a very pretty beach of its own, but what you’ll need by then is either the notorious ‘Kuaōtunu Killer’ – an enormous and probably dangerous ice cream – or a wood-fired pizza and local craft beer from the breezy, outdoorsy Luke’s Kitchen.
The Best Big Walk
The Coromandel ranges form a spine which worms its way down the middle of the peninsula, with the Thames side and the Whitianga side often having their own distinct weather and feel. Tramping up to the Pinnacles hut atop the ranges in the Kauaeranga Valley splits the difference, allowing you to take in both at once. The 80-bunk hut is fairly basic, but at $15 per adult per night you can hardly complain.
What you’re really getting is one of New Zealand’s great 360º views, from sea to shining sea. Depending on which route you choose, the walk can take anything from three-to-six hours and is steep and challenging in parts. However, the bush, the still-visible 19th century railway remnant,s and that view make the sore legs more than worthwhile.
The Best Shrine to an Obscure Hobby
Barry Brickell is an under-appreciated New Zealand icon, a polymath slashee accomplished at pottery, poetry and engineering. The Driving Creek Railway is his crowning achievement, a masterpiece which fuses all elements of his talent. After a dispiriting few years as a teacher, Brickell resigned and scratched together the funds to buy a large, hilly and bare patch of land a few kilometres out of Coromandel township in the early 70s. Over the next 40 years, he made it a kind of hippy Disneyland, setting up world-renowned pottery kilns which made use of the brilliant clay in the area, returning the land to native bush and setting up an artist’s commune which has been instrumental in a number of careers.
Yet nothing can match the imposing ambition of his railway. It stretches way up through the bush, in a small, diesel train which nods at the region’s extractive industrial-colonial past while also providing an antidote to it. It rises up hundreds of metres through the hills, arriving at a final station high on the hillside with gorgeous views of the firth of Thames. Along the way, you see literally thousands of bottles of wine made into support structures and various pottery shrines. There’s also a shop with terrific and well-priced pottery made in the area. It’s a special place, the product of a special mind.
The Best Historical Experience
The Coromandel can be seen as a strange mix of conservative rural and eco-hippy, along with a large population of non-resident property-holders from Auckland, Tauranga and Hamilton. This tension is best evidenced by a string of elections which featured close tussles between Green and National candidates.
Yet there is a third resident population, concentrated in the North but present throughout, much of which has a far longer history and greater relationship with the area as mana whenua. A number of iwi have occupied various parts at various times, including Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Marama, Ngāto Hei, Ngāti Whangaunga, Ngāti Paoa and more. Another is Ngāti Huarere, who established the pā at Opera Point, near Whangapoua. It’s set in dense, gorgeous bush, and while the path is not official DOC, it rewards those who make the effort with spectacular views. The peninsula is studded with similar sites, many of which have been made more accessible – though this is one of the prettiest.
The Best Low-Cost Spa
Hot Water Beach is on every Coromandel to-do list, with good reason. There’s something profoundly satisfying about what it entails, utilising the heat provided by an underground thermal river to dig up a natural spa you made yourself. The process begins with a spade – bring your own, or rent one from the nearby shops for $5 (surely the best business model in the region). Then, head to the surprisingly narrow spot around the middle of the beach as the tide heads out. Next, dig like crazy.
In high summer you’re all jammed up together, and your digging invariably encroaches on someone else’s wall. But the atmosphere is extremely convivial, with most experiencing this for the first time, and a lot of sharing of information about the mysterious boundaries where the hot water runs out. It’s the perfect way to relax after a Coromandel holiday – a final stop before you head back salty, sandy and spent, to the big smokes nearby.
For more from our ‘Top of the List’ series, check out the below:
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