The Hauraki Gulf is separated from the Pacific Ocean by the mountainous, bush-cloaked Coromandel Peninsula, fringed with beautiful surf and swimming beaches and basking in a balmy climate.
Along the west coast, cliffs and steep hills drop sharply to the sea, leaving only a narrow coastal strip shaded by pohutukawa trees that erupt in a blaze of red from mid-November to early January. The beaches are sheltered and safe but most are only good for swimming when high tide obscures the mudflats. Most people prefer the sweeping white-sand beaches of the east coast, which are pounded by impressive but often perilous surf.
At the base of the peninsula, Thames showcases its gold-mining heritage and is the most convenient place from which to explore the forested Kauaeranga Valley’s walking tracks. Further north, Coromandel town offers the opportunity to ride the narrow-gauge Driving Creek Railway and is close to the scenic trans-peninsular 309 Road. For really remote country, however, head to Colville and beyond, to the peninsula’s northern tip. The sealed SH25 continues east to Mercury Bay, centred on more populous Whitianga, near which you can dig a hole to wallow in the surfside hot springs that lure hundreds to Hot Water Beach, or snorkel in a gorgeous bay at Cathedral Cove Marine Reserve. Yet more beaches string the coast further south around Whangamata and Waihi Beach, the latter of which is separated from nearby Waihi by about 10km of farms and orchards.
If you’re here between mid-November and early December you’ll come across the Pohutukawa Festival (w pohutukawafestival.co.nz), during which the whole peninsula marks the crimson blooms of these distinctive coastal trees with picnics, wearable art competitions and music: look for posters and leaflets.
The peninsula is divided lengthwise by the Coromandel Range – sculpted millions of years ago by volcanic activity, its contorted skyline clothed in dense rainforest. Local Maori interpret the range as a canoe, with Mount Moehau (the peninsula’s northern tip) as its prow, and Mount Te Aroha in the south as its sternpost. The summit area of Mount Moehau is sacred, Maori-owned land, the legendary burial place of Tama Te Kapua, the commander of one of the Great Migration canoes, Te Arawa.
Except for the gold-rush years, the peninsula largely remained a backwater, and by the 1960s and 70s, the low property prices in declining former gold towns, combined with the juxtaposition of bush, hills and beaches, lured hippies, artists and New Agers. Most eked out a living from organic market gardens, or holistic healing centres and retreats, while painters, potters and craftspeople, some very good, hawked their work (i-SITEs have details of rural craft outlets all over the peninsula). These days much of the peninsula is a more commercial animal: increasingly Aucklanders are finding ways to live here permanently or commute, and are converting one-time baches into expensive designer properties, raising both the area’s profile and the cost of living.