Fifty miles east of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, The Coromandel Ranges contain vast tracts of unspoiled landscape ideal for hikers and sightseers, while small towns dot the coast, offering pristine beaches, surfing and hot springs.
The Coromandel Ranges, a mountain range dominating a peninsula which juts out like a giant green thumb from the island, separates the Hauraki Gulf from the Firth of Thames. The beauty of the Coromandels is that they contain so many secrets within their rainforested emerald green flanks, be it day hikes up the Billy Goat Track or the waves at the scenic resorts of Waihi, Whangamata or Whitianga with its wide fishing estuary.
Much of the coastal part of the peninsula is picturesque New Zealand scenery, pristine coastline with beaches, coves and quaint small towns. With its mix of artists and the more well to do, the landscape features everything from campgrounds to house trucks (trucks converted into living quarters) to exquisite eco-retreats such as the Ohui and Mana Retreat. The area’s proximity to Auckland also makes it a sought-after Christmas holiday destination. Ask almost any Aucklander about going there during the holidays, and most can regal you with stories of staying year after year. Indeed, if you buy them a beer, you might even find out about a few secret fishing spots around the Mercury Islands or just past the Whangamata Inlet.
Mountains & Rainforests
Table Mountain, the ranges’ tallest peak at 2,800 feet, and the nearby Pinnacles (2,500 feet) are popular draws for hikers. Located in the Kauaeranga Valley on the eastern side of the ranges, the flat topped Table Mountain is a good 4 – 5 hour hike, starting from the parking lot, heading over the swing bridge and Webb River (crossing at several points), then ever on upwards, taking the same route as the packhorses of old. In fact, you’ll be climbing up stone steps cut into the rock back in the 20’s logging days. Some of the smaller trails still harbor remnants of those tough times such as partial kauri (timber) dams and rusty equipment.
One to one and a half hours in, is the old hydro campsite (a campsite with running water). From the clearing, continue on to the Long Trestle/Billy Goat track junction. Follow the tramline route past the short trestle and BG Falls (and yes, you feel like a bit of a Billy Goat negotiating this part), until emerging at the Kauaeranga River. If continuing on to the Pinnacles Hut, the trail sneaks off from the hydro track, coming out onto an open ridge which has spectacular views of the eastern coast. The hut itself is down a signposted trail, ten minutes away. Just a short distance from the hut, is the long-abandoned, peculiarly monikered Dancing Camp Dam.
If you plan to stay overnight, tickets at the Kauaeranga Visitor Information Center must first be purchased from the Department of Conservation, the Government-run organization responsible for environmental matters in New Zealand (website). Keep in mind that season and annual tickets do not include the Pinnacles Hut. The hut sleeps eighty people in bunks and has cooking facilities, solar lighting and cold showers. There’s also a DOC warden (ranger) onsite at all times. Despite the challenging terrain, the Pinnacles hike is the most popular of all the Coromandel Ranges walks.
Not surprisingly, spectacular natural beauty draws artistic and creative souls, and the Coromandel Ranges are no exception. Famous kiwi potter, Barry Brickell hand built the nation’s only narrow-gauge railway, Driving Creek Potteries and Railway, over much of his property. Attracting some 30,000 people a year, this popular railway runs through Brickell’s working pottery and wildlife sanctuary, winding over viaducts and through native bush. At the end, visitors climb out to visit Brickell’s latest construction, the Eyefull Tower, with its gorgeous views of the valley and islands dotting Hauraki Gulf. The Driving Creek Railway is open daily from 10am to 5pm during summer, with reduced hours the remainder of the year. Reservations are strongly recommended and can by made by phone or email through the website. (Fares: Adults $25, Kids $10, Family – 2 adults, 2 kids, $60).
Off the Tapu-Coroglen Road are the popular Rapaura Watergardens (website), a 64 acre estate with gardens and a swimming hole, featuring the Seven Stairs of Heaven, where the Tapu River runs over seven cascading waterfalls. Rapaura also has boutique accommodations and a cafe onsite.
With the area’s proximity to Auckland, the resort towns along the coast swell during the summer and Christmas holidays. Probably the best-known area is Pauanui with its glitzy houses, golf course and private airstrip. Built back in the 70s, it quickly became the playground of well-to-do Aucklanders. Here, daytrippers can stroll along the golden sand beach or visit Puka Park Resort to indulge at the resort’s spa.
North of Pauanui, near Hahei Beach, is the area’s best known attraction, Cathedral Cove, recently featured in the film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. You can access the cove either via the parking lot or by walking from gorgeous Hahei Beach. The walk to Cathedral Cove encompasses the surrounding Te Whanganui-A-Hei marine reserve as well as Stingray and Gemstone Bays. Cathedral Cove, the soaring cave which connects Cathedral Cove with Mare’s Leg Cove, is only passable at low tide, when you can run through the massive limestone archway, pretending for a moment that seconds earlier magic somehow transported you from war-time London to present-day New Zealand. Sadly, there won’t be any talking lions offering profound advice and wisdom, nor will any Minotaur-type monsters run riot through the forest. Although if some Maori legends are to be believed…?
Nearby is Te Pare Reserve, a Maori historic site once home to two pa (Maori settlements) of the Ngati Hei people. Not much remains today but the views up and down the coast from atop the steep cliffs are spectacular.
A couple of miles farther south is Hot Water Beach. For a few hours either side of low tide, you can dig a hole in the sand, uncover the hot springs beneath and relax in your very own ‘spa’ pool. But Hot Water Beach is not the place for swimming – the area has very strong undercurrents and swimming off shore is not recommended.
At Whangamata, the tiny town swells its population by several thousand during the summer months. New Year’s Eve partying on the beach, in town, almost anywhere that there’s room, is de rigueur for adolescent kiwis – as at a few other hot spots around the country. Nevertheless, the good-natured locals put up with the influx of holiday crowds, knowing that once the busy season is over, peace reigns once more. Yet what some others may discover in a hangover haze, the locals know through-and-through – the resort with nearly four miles of beachfront has some of the safest swimming and surf breaks anywhere in New Zealand. Add in the recreational and game fishing, and Whangamata starts to sound like a really happening place. Plus – and this is the town’s most secret of secrets – twice a year, colourful Nautilus shells wash up on Hauturu and Whenuakura Islands. Nearby, The Lost Spring (website) is a hot thermal spring fed by an underground water supply. Opened in 2006, the beautiful complex includes a day spa and restaurant.
Opoutere Beach, approximately eleven miles north of Whangamata, is one of region’s best-kept secrets and it’s possible to have the entire place to yourself, especially mid-week. Glistening white sands, a laid-back lifestyle, and glorious turquoise waters make the effort of driving the rugged terrain to reach it worthwhile. It’s also part of the Wharekawa Sand Spit Harbor Reserve, which is home to the rare New Zealand dotterel, small birds which nest in the fenced-off areas, their eggs barely visible in shallow sand scrapes. For that reason, vehicles and canines are forbidden at Opoutere.
For bibliophiles, Opoutere is known as the home of the late New Zealand historian Michael King, whose book on the history of New Zealand brought the Maori wars and land rights issues into the forefront of kiwi consciousness.
Where to Stay
Flaxhaven Lodge (995 Purangi Road, Whitianga, +64 7 866-2676, website) is a B&B with cottage and room accommodations surrounded by 1 ½ acres of gardens and greenery. Rates from $150 in low season to $180 in high season (two night minimum).
Kaeppeli’s Bed & Breakfast (40 Gray Ave, Kuaotunu, RD2, Whitianga, +64 7 866-2445, website) is a secluded, romantic B&B overlooking Kuaotunu Beach. Double rooms for two from $90 to $125 (high season), vegetarian breakfast included.
Pacific Harbour Lodge, (223 Main Road, Tairua, +64 7 864 8581, website) has a number of chalets and waterside rooms among tropical vegetation. Rooms start at $140 in low season, $155 in high season with frequent advance booking specials on the website.
Puka Park Resort (Mount Avenue, Pauanui Beach, +64 7 864-8088, website) is a resort with rooms, a restaurant, solar pools and a spa. Rooms from $150.
When to Visit: The area experiences warm, dry summers and cool, comfortable winters. The most rain falls during the winter and spring (June – October). Christmas and New Year’s are extremely busy, with the resort towns swelling and accommodation rates skyrocketing.
Getting There: The Coromandels are located 50 miles east of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. Take State Highway 1 at the bottom of the Bombay Hills across the Hauraki Plains to Thames.
Driving: Some roads in the area such as the 309 are gravel. Check with your rental car company as some don’t allow their cars to be driven on unpaved roads.
Currency: New Zealand dollar (NZD), all prices in this article quoted in US dollars. Credit cards are widely accepted (Visa and MasterCard) and ATMs are found in every town
Visas: Americans do not need a visa to visit New Zealand for stays less than 3 months
Tourist Information and Photo Credit: TheCoromandel.com