Descending from a clifftop, I step from the boardwalk and feel the sand between my toes. The view is magical and scenes of Cathedral Cove from the film The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian actually flash before my eyes. To my left, a gigantic arched cavern cuts through a white-rock headland to join two secluded coves, and the cathedral-like arch gives the whole area an air of grandeur. The beach is sandy and shady pohutukawa trees line the foreshore. To my right is a freshwater waterfall tumbling directly onto the beach and into a pool, only five meters from lapping waves that trickle out to the ocean. This area is one of many highlights of New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula, starting one-hour south of Auckland.
The Coromandel Peninsula is renowned for its natural beauty, cloaked with misty rainforests and pristine golden beaches. My journey through the area commences with a late-night arrival by campervan to the town of Thames. Waking the next morning, I hear rushing water, which I had mistaken for wind the previous night, and I open the door to discover I am perched on the edge of a rocky creek bed. I spend the next few hours caressing the surfaces of the many pebbles and moss-covered rocks that abound in this natural beauty, which is standard landscape for the locals.
The day’s journey beckons, and I follow the arum lily-covered west coast of the peninsula north, pulling over routinely to indulge in a hot chocolate when a quirky roadside pit stop beckons me. After a warm drink, I pause a little longer to hunt for flotsam and jetsam on the jasper-stone-clad coastline.
As I approach the town of Coromandel, the abundance of oyster and mussel farms and roadside outlets dotted by the road beckon further exploration. I decide to indulge in oysters – freshly shucked off the neighbouring rocks – with a squeeze of lemon. The town is home to a collection of independently owned arts-and-crafts boutiques, while restaurants inspired by local produce line the main street. I also visit the famous Coromandel Smoking Co., where each day the local catch is smoked in a variety of fragrant flavours.
An overnight stopover at nearby Shelly Beach has me wandering the beach at low tide, with the crunching sounds of broken shells at each step echoing this location’s reputation. Alone on this otherwise-peaceful beach, I watch how the low tide reduces the entire bay to a thin layer of water that beautifully reflects the dusk sky.
The next day I wind my way up the peninsula and cut across to the east coast. The views across picturesque farms and inlets, the Hauraki Gulf and Auckland in the far distance are simply breathtaking.
Just outside the town of Whitianga, I come across an unassuming roadside landmark that captures my attention. It’s a little hut labelled ‘trip trop’ perched over a bridge. Its occupant, a goat, pokes his head out of the hut and bleats a farmyard greeting. I soon discover that this is Whiti Farm Park. It’s like the park is Wonderland and I am Alice, bouncing around visiting animals amongst a scene of oversized mushrooms, castle-like treehouses, idle fire engines, cubby houses, old rusty tractors and mysterious forests, which are all sign-posted in their own special way to take me on a magical journey. To top off its unique status, this quirky little farm comes complete with a public liability release on entry.
With another low-tide experience planned ahead, I drive the short distance to Hot Water Beach. This beach’s natural springs can be found opposite the off-shore rocks by standing on the sand in different spots and waiting for a hot sensation at your feet to identify their location. Within two hours of low tide, I dig into the sand allowing hot water to escape to the surface and form a hot water pool. The water, with a temperature as hot as 64ºC, filters up from two underground fissures. Then all that’s left to do is dig and build sand castles. I find myself looking around, all of us madly digging to create a warm pool to lounge in, some with a beer or glass of wine in hand. But, only minutes later, we are quickly escaping a now ‘too-hot’ pool and taking a few steps towards the water’s edge to start again. This is a ritual that continues over an hour or so until the crisp evening takes hold and we diggers retreat to a warm shower and a local restaurant.
Not far from Hot Water Beach is Cathedral Cove, accessible only by boat or on foot. My walk begins at the northern end of the town of Hahei. The one-and-a-half-hour return walk descends through a landscape reminiscent of a Sir David Attenborough documentary. It’s filled with local farms spotted with grazing sheep, vibrant mossy forests with arched canopies that draw me down their path, vast coastal views and trickling streams that each have their own thriving ecosystem.
Coromandel’s farms and coastlines, mountains and creeks, towns and people all contribute to its harmony. The winds, waves, cold and rain balance its warmth and volcanic foundation to allow the area’s beauty to shine.