Kia Ora – hello and welcome back. So glad you can join us for the first leg of our epic New Zealand road trip in a campervan. Sticking to our plan of staying away from the bigger cities, we decided to pick up our van from the airport in Auckland and drive straight over to Coromandel Peninsula. After a very long 20 hour flight from New York, that might not have been the best idea in hindsight but we managed anyway. We drove for 3 hours in the pouring rain and made it to Cook’s beach with just enough time to celebrate Fausto’s birthday before we both passed out.
The Coromandel Peninsula is renowned for its pristine sandy beaches, magnificent coastal scenery and rugged rainforests. Located on the north-eastern coast of the North Island, its proximity to Auckland makes it one of the country’s top holiday destinations. Despite being close to New Zealand’s most populous city, this remote place has a peaceful feel that’s very inviting. The peninsula is dotted with quaint little seaside towns and hidden bays.
Accommodation: For our first stop, we decided that it would be best to rent a cottage and ease ourselves into the van life. Flaxmill cottage was our home base to explore the surrounding Mercury Bay Area in stunning Coromandel. We had a charming one bedroom cabin that came with a kitchennette, dinning/living room area, and ensuite bathroom. It also had a cute porch that came equipped with Adirondack chairs and a picnic table perfect for two people.
Across the street was Cooks Beach, named after the famous Captain James Cook who discovered its sandy shore while exploring Mercury Bay. Also a short ferry ride away is Whitianga, a town known for its deep-water harbor, scallop festivals, and cute waterfront restaurants. Other nearby attractions include the scenic Shakespeare’s Cliff, the spectacular Cathedral Cove, and the popular Hot Water Beach.
Located between Cooks Beach and Flaxmill Bay is Shakespeare’s Cliff, an interesting scenic reserve. To get to the top you can choose a short 45 minute hike or an even shorter 5 minute drive. The hiking trail starts at the eastern end of Flaxmill Bay, and goes along the headland to a large grassy reserve with pohutukawa groves before ending at the gravel road that takes you the rest of the way to a small parking area. The lookout is a few minutes walk from this cul-de-sac. This horseshoe shaped lookout is one of the Coromandel’s most outstanding vistas providing sweeping views of the ocean, overlooking Cooks Beach and Lonely Bay. This laid back place is a great spot to have a picnic on a nice day.
The Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) is one of the “must visit” sites on the Coromandel Peninsula. The 9km square marine reserve, maintained by the Department of Conservation, is known for its diverse wildlife and unspoiled rugged coastline. The place got its name from the cave that joins the two secluded coves. This place is also well known to many visitors as the filming location for the Narnia movie. The cathedral-like arch was the entrance, transporting the Pevensie children to the magical land.
This place can only be reached on foot or by boat. From the top of the carpark, it is a steady 45 minute walk down to the beach below. The well marked path is mostly downhill on a semi paved gravel road. It’s not hard to walk, but the uphill climb on the way back can be a little tiring. Along the way, you can detour off the path to Gemstone Bay or Stingray Bay. The trail leads you to Mare’s Leg Cove where you’ll see the cathedral-like arched cavern that leads to the secluded Cathedral Cove.
On both sides, you’ll find undeveloped beach surrounded by shady trees, a perfect place for a picnic and a swim, just make sure to bring plenty of food and drink. The nearby Te Hoho rock structure is the dramatic centerpiece and draws much of the photographic attention from visitors.
Pro Tip: Make sure you get there early to snatch one of the few parking spots in the upper lot. The beach was practically empty when we arrived around 7 am, so we had more opportunities to take pictures without photobombs. When we got back to the top around 9 am, the lot was packed and cars were lining up waiting for someone to leave. Along the drive out, we also saw many signs advertising paid parking spots, but obviously the further away you park, the more you’ll have to walk.
Hot Water Beach
New Zealand is known for its many thermal hot springs, one of them is the unique Hot Water Beach located in the southern part of Mercury Bay. It is a natural phenomenon created by underground fissures that pump extremely hot water to the surface through the porous sand. In some areas, the water bubbling up can get as hot as 60ºC or 140ºF.
Aside from the beautiful setting, the geothermal water is full of minerals that have many health benefits. That is probably why this place is well known by many locals and tourists alike, attracting over hundreds of thousands of people to this little beach every year. During peak season this tiny beach can get very crowded, so make sure you allow enough time to get there, find a spot, and dig your hole.
The geothermal area is located near a rocky outcrop at the southern end of the beach. It’s only during the two hours on either side of low tide where the water level is low enough to expose the area of sand with hot water underneath. The time of the low tide changes every day, so make sure you check online or at one of the local cafes. You can bring your own shovel or pay $5 to rent one at the nearby cafes.
Once you have your spade, you can join the throngs of people and dig your very own personal hot spa pool in the sand just meters from the stunning Pacific Ocean. The idea of lying in a self-made hot pool while watching the waves crashing in is very enticing, but as we quickly learned, the Sisyphean task of digging the actual pool is quite daunting. We were there during the low season, and the beach was already full of people. We toil to dig and build a dam around our pool, and watched our work literally get washed out to sea every time a big wave came in. We took turns digging deeper to find a hot water pocket, but alas, the cold ocean water continued to dilute our efforts. As the tide continue to recede, we could finally see hot steams rising out of the ground. We joined forces with another group of people and finally got to lie down and enjoy the fruits of our labor. The warm water made us forget how cold it was outside.
After a few hours, the tide came back in and the small craters get filled as if it never happened in the first place. Then another group comes to dig it up all over again 12 hours later. The whole process reminds me of the little sand crabs that spend all their effort making tiny sand balls that get washed out to sea.
- Distance: 210 km from Auckland airport
- Accommodation: Flaxmill Cottage $200/night