The Coromandel, Bay of Plenty and the East Cape Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
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 Dropdown content at the foot of the Coromandel Peninsula, with a few pleasant surprises. In the spa town of Te Aroha Dropdown content you can luxuriate in a private soda bath, while near Paeroa Dropdown content there are walks in the lush Karangahake Gorge Dropdown content, once the scene of intensive gold mining.
Jutting north, the only half-tamed Coromandel Peninsula Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content, and from quaint Coromandel Dropdown content, set in rolling hills beside a pretty harbour. On the east coast, Whangamata and Whitianga Dropdown content offer a plethora of water activities and long sandy beaches. Whitianga is also handy for Hot Water Beach Dropdown content, 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, Dropdown content at the base of the Coromandel Peninsula, theBay of Plenty Dropdown content 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 Dropdown content and the contiguous beach town of Mount Maunganui Dropdown content. The east revolves around Whakatane Dropdown content, the launching point for boat excursions to active White Island Dropdown content, as well as dolphin swimming and wilderness rafting on the Motu River Dropdown content.
Contrasting with these two regions is the rugged and sparsely populated East Cape. Dropdown contentWith 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.
The Bay of Plenty occupies the huge bite between the Coromandel Peninsula and the East Cape, backed by rich farmland famous for its kiwifruit orchards. Its western end centres on the prosperous and fast-growing port city of Tauranga and its beachside neighbour Mount Maunganui. These amorphous settlements essentially form a single small conurbation sprawled around the glittering tentacles of Tauranga Harbour. A combination of warm dry summers and mild winters initially attracted retirees, followed by telecommuters and home-based small businesses.
Both towns have a thriving restaurant and bar scene, and a number of boats help you get out on the water to sail, or swim with dolphins. On land, make for Tauranga’s modern art gallery, or head inland to picnic beside the swimming holes at McLaren Falls or paddle to see glowworms. With all this, it comes as no surprise that the area is a big draw for Kiwi summer holidaymakers.
Heading southeast along the Pacific Coast Highway (SH2), the urban influence wanes, the pace slows and the landscape becomes more rural, with orchards and kiwifruit vines gradually giving way to sheep country. You’ll also find a gradual change in the racial mix, for the eastern Bay of Plenty is mostly Maori country; appropriate since some of the first Maori to reach New Zealand arrived here in their great waka (canoes). In fact, Whakatane is sometimes known as the birthplace of Aotearoa, as the Polynesian navigator Toi te Huatahi first landed here. Whakatane makes a great base for forays to volcanic White Island or the bird reserve of Whale Island. Further east, Opotiki is the gateway to the East Cape and to Gisborne, as well as trips on the remote and scenic Motu River.
Tauranga is a major centre for kiwifruit-picking, a tough and prickly task that generally requires a commitment of at least three weeks. The picking season is late April to mid-June, but pruning and pollen collection also take place from mid-June to early September and again from the end of October to January. You’re usually paid by the bin or by the kilo, so speed is of the essence. If this doesn’t put you off, you’ll find up-to-date information at the backpacker hostels, which will often help you arrange work.
Habitually sun-kissed in summer, Tauranga’s neighbouring beach resort, MOUNT MAUNGANUI, huddles under the extinct volcano of the same name, a modest cone that’s a landmark visible throughout the western Bay of Plenty. It was once an island but is connected to the mainland by a narrow neck of dune sand (a tombolo) now covered by “The Mount”, as the town is usually known. The sprawl of apartment blocks, shops, restaurants and houses isn’t especially pretty but is saved by the 20km-long golden strand of Ocean Beach, itself enhanced by a couple of pretty islands just offshore and lined by Norfolk pines. It’s wonderful for swimming, surfing and beach volleyball, and there are good restaurants and bars nearby where everyone gravitates for sundowners. Naturally, it is a big draw for Kiwi holidaymakers, some of whom give it a party-town reputation, especially at New Year when the place can be overwhelming and accommodation hard to come by.
The grassy slopes of the Mount (Mauao in Maori) rise 232m above the golden beach and invite exploration. A mostly level walking track loops around the base of the mountain, offering a sea and harbour outlook from under the shade of ancient pohutukawas. The base track links with a hike to the summit that is tough going towards the top but well worth the effort for views of Matakana Island and along the coast.
Once you’re through the protecting ring of suburbs, it’s apparent that rampant development hasn’t spoilt central TAURANGA (“safe anchorage” in Maori), huddled on narrow peninsula with city parks and gardens backing a lively waterfront area.
You can easily spend half a day checking out the art gallery, strolling along the waterfront or lingering in the shops, restaurants and bars in Tauranga’s compact city centre, concentrated between Tauranga Harbour and Waikareao Estuary. Come summer, though, you’ll soon want to head over to Mount Maunganui (see p.000).
In 1864 the tiny community of Tauranga became the scene of the Battle of Gate Pa, one of the most decisive engagements of the New Zealand Wars. In January the government sent troops to build two redoubts, hoping to prevent supplies and reinforcements from reaching the followers of the Maori King (see p.000), who were fighting in the Waikato. Most of the local Ngaiterangi hurried back from the Waikato and challenged the soldiers from a pa they quickly built near an entrance to the mission land, which became known as Gate Pa. In April, government troops surrounded the pa in what was New Zealand’s only naval blockade, and pounded it with artillery. Despite this, the British lost about a third of their assault force and at nightfall the Ngaiterangi slipped through the British lines to fight again in the Waikato.
The Tauranga and Mount Maunganui region is great for getting out on the water. There’s a full range of boats to take you cruising, fishing, sailing, swimming with dolphins and even out to Tuhua (Mayor Island). Tauranga Wharf has recently been overhauled, with a barge converted into a finger pier from which a number of trips depart though others leave from Tauranga Bridge Marina, over on the Mount Maunganui side of the harbour.
Waimarino (waimarino.com) offers kayak trips on Tauranga Harbour and unguided exploration of the placid sections of the Wairoa River, or the iconic Glowworm Tour to the glowworm canyon on Lake McLaren.
Prettily set between cliffs and a river estuary, the 15,000-strong town of WHAKATANE, 65km east of Te Puke, sprawls across flat farmland around the last convulsions of the Whakatane River. It has had a turbulent history but is now a relatively tranquil service town with a couple of cultural attractions, and walks along the spine of hills above the town and to the viewpoint at Kohi Point.
It also makes a great jumping-off point for sunbathing at Ohope Beach, swimming with dolphins, visits to the bird sanctuary of Whale Island and cruises to volcanic White Island, which billows plumes of steam into the sky.
The area has had more than its fair share of dramatic events. The Maori word Whakatane (“to act as a man”) originated when the women of the Mataatua canoe were left aboard while the men went ashore; the canoe began to drift out to sea, but touching the paddles was tapu for women. Undeterred, Wairaka, the teenage daughter of a chief, led the women in paddling back to shore, shouting Ka Whakatane Au i Ah au (“I will deport myself as a man”); a statue at Whakatane Heads commemorates her heroic act.
Apart from a brief sortie by Cook, the first Europeans were flax traders in the early 1800s. In March 1865, missionary Carl Völkner was killed at Opotiki and a government agent, James Falloon, arrived to investigate. Supporters of a fanatical Maori sect, the Hau Hau, attacked Falloon’s vessel, killing him and his crew. In response, the government declared martial law, and by the end of the year a large part of the Bay of Plenty had been confiscated and Whakatane was a military settlement. Te Kooti chose Whakatane as his target for a full-scale attack in 1869 before being driven back into the hills of Urewera.
Whakatane’s star attraction is White Island (Whaakari), named by Cook for its permanent shroud of mist and steam. roughly circular and almost 2km across, White island lies 50km offshore, sometimes a rough ride. neither this nor its seething volcanism deters visitors, who flock to its desolate, other-worldly landscape, with billowing towers of gas, steam and ash spewing from a crater lake sixty metres below sea level. Smaller fumaroles come surrounded by bright yellow and white crystal deposits that re-form in new and bizarre shapes each day. The crystal-clear and abundant waters around the island make this one of the best dive spots in new Zealand.
Whaakari embodies the ongoing clash between the indo-australian Plate and the Pacific Plate that has been driven beneath it for the last two million years. This resulted in the upward thrust of super-heated rock through the ocean floor, creating a massive volcanic structure. Sulphur, for use in fertilizer manufacture, was sporadically mined on the island from the 1880s but catastrophic eruptions, landslides and economic misfortune plagued the enterprise. The island was abandoned in 1934, and these days it is home only to 60,000 grey-faced petrels and 10,000 gannets. You can only land on the island via a guided boat tour or by helicopter.
Some of the best wilderness rafting trips in New Zealand are on the Grade III–IV Motu River, hidden deep in the mountain terrain of the remote Raukumara Ranges, with long stretches of white water plunging through gorges and valleys to the Bay of Plenty coast. In 1981, after a protracted campaign against hydro-dam builders, the Motu became New Zealand’s first designated “wild and scenic” river. Access by 4WD, helicopter and jetboat makes one- and two-day trips possible, but to capture the essence of this remote region you should consider one of the longer trips in which you’ll see no sign of civilization for three days – a magical and eerie experience.
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.
The peninsula’s northernmost town of any substance is charming little COROMANDEL, 58km north of Thames, huddling beneath high, craggy hills at the head of Coromandel Harbour.
From the south, SH25 becomes Tiki Road and then splits into two: Wharf Road skirts the harbour while Kapanga Road immediately enters the heart of town, which is made up of photogenic wooden buildings, where all you’ll find are a couple of supermarkets and petrol stations, a bank and a cluster of cafés. A couple of blocks further on, it becomes Rings Road, before heading northwards out of town towards the main attractions, the stamper battery and the Driving Creek Railway.
The town and peninsula took their name from an 1820 visit by the British Admiralty supply ship Coromandel, which called into the harbour to obtain kauri spars and masts. A more mercenary European invasion was precipitated by the 1852 discovery of gold, near Driving Creek.
If you’re after more exertion than swimming, fishing or lolling about on the beaches, consider hiking from Fletcher Bay to Stony Bay along the gentle Coromandel Walkway (11km one-way; 3hr). The walk starts at the far end of the beach in Fletcher Bay and heads off into a no-man’s-land, first following gentle coastal hills that alternate between pasture and bush, before giving way to wilder terrain as you head further south past a series of tiny bays. Several hilltop vantage points provide spectacular vistas of the coast and Pacific Ocean beyond. Stony Bay is a sweep of pebbles with a bridge across an estuary that’s safe for swimming. The DOC leaflet Coromandel Recreation Information briefly describes the walk and shows a map, but the path is clearly marked.
The ingenious Driving Creek Railway is the country’s only narrow-gauge hill railway. It was built mostly by hand and is the brainchild of Barry Brickell, an eccentric local potter and rail enthusiast who wanted to access the clay-bearing hills.
The track is only 381mm wide and climbs 120m over a distance of about 3km, rewarding you with spectacular views, extraordinary feats of engineering and quirky design; at the end of the line panoramas extend from a specially constructed wooden lodge, the Eyefull Tower. The journey starts and ends at the workshops, where you can see various types of pottery: stoneware, bricks and earthenware items, and sculptures made from terracotta. There’s also a video about Brickell and a sculpture garden in a wildlife sanctuary designed to protect the local and visiting birdlife.
With the opportunity to dig your own hot pool in the sands next to the breakers, Hot Water Beach is understandably one of the most popular destinations on the Coromandel Peninsula. The hot springs which bubble up beneath the sand can only be exploited two hours either side of low tide (less in rough weather; check tide times at the Whitianga i-SITE). Wander 100m across the sands to the rocky outcrop that splits the beach in two, dig your hole and enjoy the hot water, refreshed by waves. You’ll need a spade to dig your “spa”: rent one from your accommodation, the Hot Water Beach Store or Hot Waves Café.
The springs have become so popular – up to 500 people crowd the beach at peak times – that some prefer to come at night: bring a spade and a torch. The beach here has a dangerous tidal rip: take care when swimming.
The steep-sided Kauaeranga Valley stretches east of Thames towards the spine of the Coromandel Peninsula, a jagged landscape of bluffs and gorges topped by the Pinnacles (759m), with stupendous views to both coasts across native forest studded with rata, rimu and kauri. It’s reached along the scenic and mostly sealed Kauaeranga Valley Road snaking 21km beside the river, providing access to some of the finest walks in the Coromandel Range. The road winds through regenerating bush containing scattered “pole stands” of young kauri that have grown since the area was logged a century ago: only a handful in each stand will reach maturity.
The ease of access to these tracks can lead trampers not to take them as seriously as other tramps, but in bad weather the conditions can be treacherous, so go properly prepared.
Note that the soil-borne kauri dieback disease is not present in Coromandel kauri forests. If you’ve recently visited the Auckland or Northland forests (which do have kauri dieback), be extra vigilant about cleaning your footwear.
The Coromandel’s gateway and main service hub, the historic former gold town of THAMES is packed into a narrow strip between the Firth of Thames and the Coromandel Range. It retains a refreshingly down-to-earth sense of community, and its range of accommodation, eateries, transport connections and generally lower prices make it a good starting point for forays further north.
Its gold legacy forms the basis of the town’s appeal and you can spend half a day visiting the several museums, though they’re all volunteer-run and, frustratingly, open at different times – summer weekends work out best.
Fans of Victorian architecture can spend a happy couple of hours wandering the streets aided by the maps in two free leaflets – Historic Grahamstown and Historic Shortland & Tararu.
Inland, the industrial heritage is all about kauri logging in the Kauaeranga Valley, a popular destination for hikers visiting the Coromandel Forest Park and easily accessible from town.
Thames initially evolved as two towns: Grahamstown to the north, and Shortland to the south. The first big discovery of gold-bearing quartz was made in a creek-bed in 1867, and by 1871 Grahamstown had become the largest town in New Zealand with a population of around 20,000 and over 120 pubs, only a handful of which remain today. Due to the reliance on machinery (rather than less costly gold-panning), gold mining tailed off during the 1880s and had mostly finished by 1913. Little of significance has happened since, leaving a well-preserved streetscape.
SH25 and SH2 meet at the southernmost town on the Coromandel Peninsula, WAIHI, 30km south from Whangamata. The small town merits a quick stop to sample its gold mining, both past and present.
Gold was first discovered here in a reef of quartz in 1878, but it wasn’t until 1894 that a boom began with the first successful trials in extracting gold using cyanide solution. Workers flocked, but disputes over union and non-union labour ensued, and the violent Waihi Strike of 1912 helped galvanize the labour movement and led to the creation of the Labour Party.
Although underground mining stopped in 1952, extraction was cranked up again in 1987 in the open-cast but well-hidden Martha Mine. As the open-cast mine slowly winds down (possibly closing around 2020), recent finds of deep veins have re-focused mining minds on tunnel mining. Current proposals to mine right under the town are likely to be challenged in the Environment Court by concerned residents.
Pretty WHITIANGA clusters where Whitianga Harbour meets Buffalo Beach, a long curve of surf-pounded white sand on the broad sweep of Mercury Bay.
The town is a relaxed place to chill for a day or two, perhaps trying bone carving or getting pampered at The Lost Spring hot pools. It also makes a central base from which to make a series of half-day and day-trips to some of the Coromandel’s top spots. A short passenger ferry ride across the narrow harbour mouth to Ferry Landing opens up a bunch of gorgeous beaches such as Lonely Bay. They’re often deserted out of season, though from December to February you’ll have to work harder to find tranquillity. By taking a bus from Ferry Landing (or driving south via Whenuakite) you can access Cathedral Cove, a stunning geological formation with great swimming, and magical Hot Water Beach, where natural hot springs bubble up through the sand.
Offshore, the protected waters of Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve offer superb snorkelling and scuba diving. Cathedral Cove, the marine reserve and the extraordinary array of volcanic island and sea caves offshore are the main focus of a range of boat tours and kayak trips from Hahei and Whitianga. Bottlenose dolphins and orca are often seen.
Jutting into the South Pacific northeast of Opotiki and Gisborne, the little-visited East Cape (also known as Eastland) is an unspoilt backwater that’s a reminder of how New Zealand once was. Between Opotiki and Gisborne, the Pacific Coast Highway (SH35) runs 330 scenic kilometres around the peninsula, hugging the rugged coastline much of the way and providing mesmerizing sea views on a fine day.
As soon as you enter the region you’ll notice a change of pace, epitomized by the occasional sight of a lone horseback rider clopping along the road. Maori make up a significant percentage of the population – over eighty percent of land tenure here is in Maori hands, and locals are welcoming, particularly once you take time to talk to them and adjust to the cape’s slower pace.
The coast is very much the focus here but there are also hiking opportunities, and just about everywhere you go there will be someone happy to take you horse trekking, either along the beach or into the bush. The towns, such as they are, don’t have much to recommend them and you’re better off planning to stay at scattered places in between, perhaps by a rocky cove or wild beach.
Inland, the inhospitable Waiapu Mountains run through the area, encompassing the northeastern Raukumara Range and the typical native flora of the Raukumara Forest Park. The isolated and rugged peaks of Hikurangi, Whanokao, Aroangi, Wharekia and Tatai provide a spectacular backdrop to the coastal scenery, but are only accessible through Maori land and permission must be sought.
Australian tea tree oil is famous for its antimicrobial qualities. The oil of the almost identical New Zealand manuka is generally just as good, but in 1992 manuka oil from the East Cape was found to have super-strong antibacterial and antifungal properties. The small factory at 4464 Te Araroa Rd, 2km west of Te Araroa (Nov–April daily 9am–4pm; May–Oct Mon–Fri 9am–4pm; t 0508 626 852, w eastcapemanuka.co.nz), extracts the essential oils by steam distillation from the twigs of manuka trees grown in the surrounding hills. You can’t tour the factory, but a wide range of manuka-oil soaps, medicinal creams and aromatherapy potions (all exported around the world) is sold in the shop/café where you can also sample manuka tea and buy local manuka honey.
According to legend, a great ariki (leader) from the East Cape was drowned by rival tribesmen, and his youngest daughter swore vengeance: when she gave birth to a son called Tuwhakairiora, she hoped he would make good her promise. As a young man, Tuwhakairiora travelled and encountered a young woman named Ruataupare; she took him to her father, who happened to be the local chief. A thunderstorm broke, signalling to the people that they had an important visitor among them, and Tuwhakairiora was allowed to marry Ruataupare and live in Te Araroa. When he called upon all the hapu of the area to gather and avenge the death of his grandfather, many warriors travelled to Whareponga and sacked the pa there. Tuwhakairiora became renowned as a warrior, dominating the area from Tolaga Bay to Cape Runaway, and all Maori families in the region today trace their descent from him.
Ruataupare, meanwhile, grew jealous of her husband’s influence. While their children were growing up, she constantly heard them referred to as the offspring of the great Tuwhakairiora, yet her name was barely mentioned. She returned to her own iwi in Tokomaru Bay, where she summoned all the warriors and started a war against rival iwi; victorious, Ruataupare became chieftainess of Tokomaru Bay.
Another legend that has shaped this wild land is one of rivalry between two students – Paoa, who excelled at navigation, and Rongokaka, who was renowned for travelling at great speed by means of giant strides. At the time, a beautiful maiden, Muriwhenua, lived in Hauraki and many set off to claim her for their bride. Paoa set off early but his rival took only one step and was ahead of him; this continued up the coast, with Rongokaka leaving huge footprints as he went – his imprint in the rock at Matakaoa Point, at the northern end of Hicks Bay, is the most clearly distinguishable. En route, they created the Waiapu Mountains: Paoa, flummoxed by Rongokaka’s pace, set a snare for his rival at Tokomaru Bay, lashing the crown of a giant totara tree to a hill; recognizing the trap, Rongokaka cut it loose. The force with which the tree sprang upright caused such vibration that Mount Hikurangi partly disintegrated, forming the other mountain peaks. Finally, Rongokaka stepped across the Bay of Plenty and up to Hauraki, where he claimed his maiden.
The fertile Hauraki Plains stretch southeast from the Coromandel Peninsula forming a low-lying former swamp-turned-farming region which, in typically laconic Kiwi fashion, describes itself as “flat out and loving it”. The Firth of Thames, the final destination for a number of meandering rivers, borders it to the north.
The hub of the plains is Paeroa, not much in itself but handy for walks in the magnificent Karangahake Gorge, running almost to Waihi.
The real gem hereabouts is Te Aroha, a delightful Edwardian spa town (little more than a village) at the southern extremity of the plains, where you can hike Mount Te Aroha and soak afterwards in natural hot soda springs.
Karangahake Gorge was the scene of the Coromandel’s first gold rush, though in this leafy cleft it’s hard to envisage the frenetic activity that took place around the turn of the twentieth century. The steep-sided gorge snakes along SH2 as it traces the Ohinemuri River to Waihi.
The largest (though still tiny) settlement is Karangahake, where a car park marks the start of several excellent walks along the rivers and around old gold-mining ruins. They range from twenty minutes to several hours and are detailed in DOC’s Karangahake Gorge leaflet. Beyond, minuscule Waikino is the western terminus of the Goldfields Railway.
PAEROA, 120km southeast of Auckland, is “World Famous in New Zealand” as the birthplace of Lemon and Paeroa (L&P), an iconic home-grown soft drink founded in 1907 using the local mineral water (though it is now made elsewhere by Coca-Cola). It’s pretty artificial-tasting but more lemony than Sprite and the likes. The L&P logo is emblazoned on shopfronts throughout town and there’s a giant brown L&P bottle at the junction of SH2 and SH26.
On the fringes of the Hauraki Plains, the small town of TE AROHA, 21km south of Paeroa, is home to New Zealand’s only intact Edwardian spa. In a quiet way it is a delightful spot, hunkered beneath the imposing bush-clad slopes of the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park. The 954m Mount Te Aroha rears up immediately behind the neat little town centre, providing a reasonably challenging goal for hikers.
Everything of interest – banks, post office, library – is on or close to Whitaker Street, its old-fashioned feel enhanced by an old air-raid siren which sounds daily at 8am, 1pm and 5pm: some people still measure their day by it.
The town was founded in 1880 at the furthest navigable extent of the Waihou River. A year later, rich deposits of gold were discovered on Mount Te Aroha, sparking a full-scale gold rush until 1921. Within a few months of settlement, the new townsfolk set out the attractive Hot Springs Domain, 44 acres of gardens and rose beds around a cluster of hot soda springs which, by the 1890s, had become New Zealand’s most popular mineral spa complex. Enclosures were erected for privacy, most rebuilt in grand style during the Edwardian years. The fine suite of original buildings has been restored and integrated with more modern pools fed by the springs and nearby Mokena Geyser.