Coromandel: A mid-winter marvel

By Catherine Smith

Cold nights are lit up with fire breathers, tin lanterns and fluorescent faces, finds Catherine Smith.

The parade of lights during the Illume Festival in Coromandel.
The parade of lights during the Illume Festival in Coromandel.

Dish after dish of oysters, mussels, flounder so fresh it was jumping out of its batter, and hot fresh chips were coming our way. What with the sparkling views of the Firth of Thames, it was difficult to concentrate on the stories Brenda Kelsey and Annie Louden were telling us.

The pair, along with a committee of five brave souls from the Coromandel Business Association, were about to push the plunger on the town's first big festival of light, Illume.

"We're a bit like World War I generals," laughs Brenda.

"We lead from behind the lines."

They certainly manage to rally the troops - particularly after discovering that their town of a mere 1500 souls harboured a retired lighting engineer, Ed Bucket, and artist Matt Sefton. The men worked tirelessly to create projections on the side of the town's biggest buildings (the Star and Garter Hotel, the old assay building and the town library), light up the main street of vintage shop fronts, create coloured treescapes in the park and more.

They roped in local electricians to deal with the tricky installations, and the council stepped in with seed funding and event management help.

By the time we caught up with them last Friday afternoon in the seaside picnic area outside Annie's Coromandel Oyster Company on the edge of town, Annie and Brenda were expecting maybe three or four hundred people to show up for the opening party.

My husband and I were happy to find they were wrong.

When we stepped out into the darkening streets at 5.30 - we were staying in a pretty apartment in the back of a smartly renovated old commercial building at the north end of town - there were already clusters of excited people filling the pavements. We were puzzled at a fleet of women dressed in colonial garb as we hurried past the chip shops doing a roaring trade.

Then we realised that this is a town where everyone multi-tasks to make things happen - the costumed ones reappearing in the parade later in the evening.

Street performers at the Illume Festival.

By the time Brenda and her committee kicked things off the streets felt as busy as Ponsonby Rd during Hero Parade. A local thesp in cloak and top hat welcomed the surviving member of the Strongman family, which first brought electricity to the town in 1946, to throw the switch. That's not a typo: it was not until after the war that the family built a private power plant that was not replaced with lines from the national grid until decades later.

The plunger duly plunged and the town lit up, the parade began.

Led off by an appropriately Coro icon, the teepee, it was a charming mix of trucks and lights and banners. It was so popular that the floats circled back and did a second pass by so the crowds could get a better look and all that decorating effort wasn't wasted.

Mobbed after the parade were local performance artists, the Twisty Twins, who worked the crowd in their lampshade skirts and hats and elaborate stilt dancing (their acrobatic shadow piece showed yesterday). Kids danced with glee, adults called out to mates in the parade, paraders veered out of formation for a chat. It was totally charming.

And those crowd estimates? Out by about five-fold. At least 1500 people lined the streets, with parties coming across the hills from Whitianga and Thames.

Saturday night had a different vibe, the freezing-cold not-stopping families wandering the closed-off streets listening to music from the stage-truck. Thrillingly for us townies a blacksmith had his brazier fired up and was beating steel into shape - entrancing for kids, nostalgia for the oldies.

Projections tell stories about the Coromandel.

In the meantime, Annie and Brenda did not want us to starve, or miss the town highlights.

We joined the humming crowds at Pepper Tree the first night, indulging in one of the best Monteith's Wild Food dishes we've ever had, smoked kingfish and mussels. We couldn't resist more seafood for lunch the next day, this time just damn fine fish-burgers at the Star and Garter Hotel (actually renovated from the haberdashery store, after the original was sinfully demolished).

Our final night was a fine feast at Umu Cafe (which also does the best coffee in town, we reckon). We fell in love with this time-capsule town. And we have already added the Illume Festival 2015 to our diaries - given the energy, the excitement and the crowds, we know this will become the winter festival of the region.

Festival fun

The Illume party for the final weekend includes street beats from 6pm at the Samuel James Reserve with the lit-up stories and lights.

See: Start your Illume experience from Auckland, on board the 360 Discovery Ferry.

Stay: There is a variety of quality cabins and apartments in town and near the beach, beautifully looked after by Coromandel Apartments.

Eat:

Pepper Tree Restaurant and Bar, 31 Kapanga Rd, Coromandel Town, Ph (07) 866 8211

Umu Cafe, 22 Wharf Rd, Coromandel Town.

Star and Garter Hotel, 5 Kapanga Rd.

Discover:

Take a guided tour to one of the remaining groves of giant kauri. Ph 0800 462 676.

Ride gentle ponies along the grassy flats and up the hills of White Star sheep station.

Catherine Smith was a guest of Coromandel Business Association.

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