Serenity is the new gold in the Coromandel

By Andrew Laxon

There are times when parents of young children decide they'd like a bit of time to themselves. Preferably in a luxury, kid-free location with access to good scenery and even better restaurants.

So - purely in the interests of research - we drove south one Friday evening, left our three children with an obliging mother-in-law in Hamilton, and headed across the Waikato back roads to Coromandel.

We stayed just north of Coromandel township at Driving Creek Villas, near the spot where a prospector named Charles Ring made New Zealand's first authenticated discovery of gold in 1852, kicking off the country's first gold rush.

Today the main tourist attractions here are the goldfields and the narrow-gauge Driving Creek Railway, which runs through replanted kauri forest.

The two villas, which lie a short walk down the road, share a large back lawn alongside the once-famous creek. Both are surrounded by native bush and it's so quiet you can hear tui singing above the sound of the stream.

Owner David Foreman, who designed and built the self-contained accommodation, has gone for luxury in an understated Kiwi-Pacific way - bright orange and dark purple furnishings against white walls and polished wooden floors, a huge kitchen with chrome everywhere and a loft-style bedroom with two single beds upstairs for those who do want to bring the family.

Bi-fold doors open on to a deck and a front garden with its own picnic table. For lazy weekend types like us, the big living area is well set up for a night in, with a TV, DVD player and stereo.

After sampling David's excellent cooked and continental breakfasts on Saturday morning, we discovered the railway was closed for repairs. Unable to think of an excuse fast enough, I agreed it was time to hit the craft trail.

Coromandel has a reputation as a home for potters and artists of all kinds, so there are many styles on offer. The best advice is to shop around, using the craft trail pamphlet available from the tourism centre. If you want the genuine Coromandel article, it pays to be wary - one shop in the main street was full of Morris and James pottery from Matakana, in Northland.

Our favourite place was The Source, where we found a good selection of local artists. Across the street, Weta had an interesting range of local paintings and photography.

In the further interests of research, we tried out the local produce for lunch, starting at Tere's delightfully laidback organic deli and general food store. The stereo was playing JJ Cale as we walked through the door and a sign on the fridge read: "Sorry, no milk until Tere returns from the farm at 11.30."

We picked up Dutch goat cheese, tamarillo chutney from the local Castle Rock winery and some fat, juicy black olives. Down the road at The Coromandel Smoking Company (which also has a store in Manukau), we bought delicious smoked kahawai and garlic mussels, which went down well with a beer and fresh bread from the bakery.

You could eat well for several days in Coromandel without going near a dishwasher. At the Peppertree restaurant that night we enjoyed the superb fish of the day - orange roughy with prawns and scallops - in front of a roaring fire.

Sunday morning took us to Umu for hearty cafe breakfasts.

Even the laziest weekend needs a bit of exercise - especially after this much food - so we tried out some of the walks listed in the tourist centre guide.

The first, on Saturday, was a pleasant half-hour stroll, starting from Long Bay reserve and camping ground. The track leads up a hill, through a grove of young kauri trees and down to a secluded bay on the other side, with views across the water to baches clustered around bays on the Colville road. We headed back round the coastline, admiring views of the nearby islands and Waiheke in the distance.

On Sunday, we were determined to be more ambitious and headed towards the 309 road to Whitianga, where a 45-minute climb would take us to the top of Castle Rock and magnificent views of the peninsula. Or so they say - as we left town under a brilliant blue sky, a heavy rain cloud rolled in and began to pour down on to the ranges.

We took the hint and headed back to town, where we tackled the more modest but enjoyable Kauri Block Pa Track, which starts near the wharf.

A steep but well-formed track heads up to the pa site at the top of the hill, where you get an overview of the town and the harbour.

We stood in the sunshine and took in the landmarks - SH25 snaking up the steep hill to the east on its way to Whangapoua Harbour, the little nine-hole golf course nestled in the hills to the north, and the baches and bays on the far side of the harbour. It was beautifully quiet.

We walked down the other side, then back past the mussel farm and the almost deserted wharf, before heading back to Hamilton and the return of noise.

* Andrew Laxon stayed as a guest of Driving Creek Villas.

Coromandel Driving Creek Villas

Luxury modern accommodation, just north of Coromandel Town. Single $175, double $195-$245 (low/high season), extra person $25, breakfast $15 a person.
Ph: (07) 866 7755, fax: (07) 866 7753. www.drivingcreekvillas.com (see link below).

Eating out

Peppertree Restaurant: Upmarket restaurant with adjoining pub. 31 Kapanga Rd, ph: (07) 866 8211
Umu Restaurant & Cafe: Casual cafe food. 22 Wharf Rd, ph: (07) 866 8618

What to see

The Source: Selection of work by local artists, 31 Kapanga Rd, ph: (07) 866 7345.
Weta: Also showcases local artists, with emphasis on painting and photography. 46 Kapanga Rd, ph: (07) 866 8823
Coromandel I-Site Visitor Centre: Guides on accommodation, food, walks, town history and tourist attractions. Opening hours: Mon-Sat 9am-5pm, Sunday 10am-2pm. 355 Kapanga Rd.
Email: coroinfo@ihug.co.nz. Ph: (07) 866 8598/8527, fax: (07) 866 8527.

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