The long sweep of bays and peninsulas east of Auckland is split into three distinct areas, some of the most beguiling coastal strips in the country. Visitors and locals flock to the jagged Coromandel Peninsula, its volcanic spine cloaked in rainforest and its edges nibbled by endless rugged coves and sweeping golden beaches. Its coast blends into the Bay of Plenty, strung by yet more beaches and dotted with islands, notably the fuming, volcanic White Island. Further east, the East Cape is one of the least-visited parts of the country where time virtually stands still and life is measured by the rhythm of the land. This is the most intensely Maori part of the country, but as far away from the performance-and-hangi shtick of Rotorua as you could imagine.
Coromandel-bound from Auckland you’ll cut across the dairy country of the Hauraki Plains at the foot of the Coromandel Peninsula, with a few pleasant surprises. In the spa town of Te Aroha you can luxuriate in a private soda bath, while near Paeroa there are walks in the lush Karangahake Gorge, once the scene of intensive gold mining.
Jutting north, the only half-tamed Coromandel Peninsula is an area of spectacular coastal scenery, offering walks to pristine beaches and tramps in luxuriant mountainous rainforest. Its two coasts are markedly different. The west has a more rugged and atmospheric coastline, and easier access to the volcanic hills and ancient kauri trees of the Coromandel Forest – best explored from historic Thames, and from quaint Coromandel, set in rolling hills beside a pretty harbour. On the east coast, Whangamata and Whitianga offer a plethora of water activities and long sandy beaches. Whitianga is also handy for Hot Water Beach, where natural thermal springs bubble through the sand, and the crystalline Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve, ideal for dolphin spotting and snorkelling.
From the open-cast gold-mining town of Waihi, at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, the Bay of Plenty sweeps south and east to Opotiki, traced along its length by the Pacific Coast Highway (SH2). The bay earned its name in 1769 from Captain Cook, who was impressed by the Maori living off its abundant resources and by the generous supplies they gave him – an era of peace shattered by the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s, when fierce fighting led to the establishment of garrisons at Tauranga and Whakatane.
The Bay of Plenty has the best climate on the North Island, making it a fertile fruit-growing region (particularly citrus and kiwifruit). The coast, though popular with Kiwi holidaymakers, has remained relatively unspoiled, offering great surf beaches and other offshore activities. The western bay is home to one of the country’s fastest-growing urban areas, centred on Tauranga and the contiguous beach town of Mount Maunganui. The east revolves around Whakatane, the launching point for boat excursions to active White Island, as well as dolphin swimming and wilderness rafting on the Motu River.
Contrasting with these two regions is the rugged and sparsely populated East Cape. With a dramatic coastline backed by the Waiapu Mountains, a rich and varied Maori history and great hospitality, this isolated region provides a taste of a more traditional way of life.