Locals say The Coromandel is ‘good for the soul’ and it’s easy to see why in the sublime coastal scenery filled with peaceful blue coves and white sandy beaches, topped with a warm beach holiday vibe. And, being within easy reach of Auckland, it has long been a popular get-away haven for city types and travellers alike.
Nature is the architect of this extraordinary peninsula playground of rolling hills and lush green rain forest plunging down into impossibly picturesque coves and beaches framed by graceful pohutukawa trees.
For somewhere so close to the city (2.5 hours from Auckland, even closer to Tauranga and Hamilton), it’s a remarkably unspoilt environment with 400 kms (250 miles) of coastline brimming with recreational potential from pure relaxation through to seriously energetic experiences. Exercise also couples with history on walking tracks through the hilly rain forests revealing stories from ancient times, and former gold-mining and logging days.
Then, to satisfy the appetites worked up, there’s the seafood – oysters, mussels and scallops – a Coromandel specialty.
Ancient Māori village sites are evidence of the first settlements on the coast which provided a welcoming, fertile and comfortable climate for the population that had navigated across the Pacific to Te Whanganui-o-Hei (the great harbour of Hei).
British explorer and navigator Captain Cook arrived on The Endeavour in 1769, and his mission to observe the transit of Mercury across the face of the sun inspired Mercury Bay’s English name along with neighbouring Cook’s Beach. The crew spent 12 days forging relationships with the local Māori tribe Ngati Hei, who welcomed them to their headland village at Wharekaho / Simpsons Beach.
Cook’s journal documented that first European visit to a Māori pa and Te Whanganui-o-Hei / Mercury Bay will play a significant role in late 2019 as New Zealand commemorates the 250th anniversary of the first encounters between Māori and European cultures.
The towering kauri trees depicted in Cook’s journal attracted the earliest European settlers who came to mill the hardwood forests that once covered the peninsula. More fortune seekers followed, lured by New Zealand’s first gold discovery and a gold rush which yielded 16 million tonnes of gold ore between 1862 and 1952.
These days, caring for the land is a major focus and with 34% of the region under the protection of the Department of Conservation (DOC), the Coromandel Peninsula has become the starting point for many conservation projects involving its precious flora and fauna, with kauri and kiwi among the top beneficiaries.
One of the first safe havens for the flightless kiwi is the Moehau Kiwi Sanctuary, and in its heart is the Tangiaro Kiwi Retreat where, from the comfort of a luxurious bush hut, guests can sit on the deck at night and hear kiwi calling to each other.
Conservation successes can also be seen in Te Whanganui-a-Hei marine reserve where marine life is thriving thanks to a 20-year-old community-led project that created a ‘no-take zone’. Now, from glass-bottomed boats, visitors can view all sorts of marine life from seals and stingrays to blue penguins, orca and dolphins.
The Coromandel is also home to some of rarest and smallest frogs in the world living at Papa Aroha, a protected habitat for Archey's and Hochstetter's frogs.
Walking, biking, and getting into hot water
Two of the region’s most popular icons are found on the eastern Coromandel coast. Cathedral Cove (a 2-hour return walk or a guided kayaking trip) is an idyllic location for swimming, snorkelling and picnicking. This limestone archway and pristine golden beach has been immortalised in both film (‘The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian’), and countless photo opportunities.
Further south, at Hot Water Beach, underground thermal activity provides bubbling hot water so beachgoers can pick up a shovel at low tide and dig themselves their own natural jacuzzi.
Many walking tracks are steeped in mining and logging history, such as the Windows walkway which follows an old rail line through the Karangahake Gorge past gold-mining relics and riverside scenery. The two-day Pinnacles trail through the Kauaeranga Valley was once a bridle path for horses carrying supplies to pioneer loggers, gum diggers and gold-miners. Early risers overnighting in the DOC hut will be treated to a spectacular panorama as dawn breaks over the Pacific.
Up north there’s the Coromandel Coastal Walkway, which, like some of the forest treks, also provides a challenge for mountain-bikers. The easier-going Hauraki Rail Trail is 82 kms (50 miles) of nice flat cycling for up to three days riding.
In summer Kiwi families flock to The Coromandel to stay in baches (holiday homes) and camping grounds. But regular events and festivals through every season make it a year-round holiday destination for visitors who can experience the region’s unique way of life and environment.
The Coromandel locals are famously laidback, offering a warm and relaxed welcome. Inspired by the lifestyle and the natural beauty around them, the region’s artists contribute to the quirky, creative vibe. In autumn, artists and artisans open their studios for the Mercury Bay Art Escape and the Coromandel Arts Tour.
And in winter, the Coromandel celebrates the scallop harvest at the Whitianga Scallop Festival, a weekend of local food, wine, entertainment and family activities
And by the way…
Thames, the gateway to the Coromandel Peninsula (pop: 7000) was once New Zealand's biggest town. It boasted more than 100 pubs and was proposed as the country's capital city.
Thames' colonial architecture goes back to its gold-mining heritage.
The name Coromandel has an Indian origin. HMS Coromandel, the first ship to bring European settlers to the region, was named after India’s Coromandel Coast.
Foodies consume about 100,000 scallops in a single day at the Whitianga Scallop Festival.
Archey's frog is New Zealand’s smallest native frog, growing to only 37mm in length, and is also one of the world's oldest frog species: fossils show it has hardly changed in 150 million years.
The Coromandel is an ideal self-drive destination.
Thames, on the doorstep of the Coromandel, is less than 2 hours' drive from Auckland, Tauranga, Rotorua and Hamilton. Whitianga is 2.5 hours’ drive direct from Auckland, 1 hour 20 from Thames. A shuttle service connects Auckland Airport with many of the Coromandel’s hot spots or take the 2-hour scenic ferry cruise from downtown Auckland to Coromandel town.