As a visitor from Hawke's Bay, by way of Wellington, I view with an outsider's wry detachment the exodus of a certain subset of Aucklanders to the Coromandel each summer. Holidaying on the Coromandel is as intrinsically Auckland as traffic jams, inorganic rubbish collections and ignoring your neighbours. It has shades of National Geographic - as if the mindless annual migration is some instinct programmed deep within the DNA.
But I must confess that for the last eight years I've been part of this peculiar tribe that races across the Kopu bridge - a brand new two-lane one this year - in the obligatory 4WD vehicles laden with groceries, grog and vomit buckets for the children. (There are energetic debates about whether the winding costal road from Thames is less vomit-inducing than the hill route.) Our anticipation is as sharp as if we were headed towards the sun-soaked Italian Riviera not a New Zealand beach edging the coldest slice of ocean I've ever dipped a toe into.
Over recent years the local lifestyle magazines have done a compelling job of re-packaging the quintessential Kiwi beach experience for the modern day consumer. Sandy feet, sunshine and pohukawa trees? Absolutely. Soggy bread and bog-standard sausages for tea? Not so much. Make my dinner a cumin-spiced, lemon-drizzled, rice-stuffed whole snapper just like the one in Cuisine magazine, please.
I've certainly been seduced by the idea of lazy days and holiday homes with en suite bathrooms and all mod cons as promoted by real estate agents and magazine editors. The Coromandel held no fascination for me - in fact I'd never even spent a night there - until I became a parent and discovered an urge to create clichéd summer memories of jandals, Mr Whippy and boogie-boarding for my offspring.
The only difficulty lies in deciding which particular beach appeals. Accessible Pauanui has long been Aucklanders' most obvious holiday spot of choice. Cooks Beach and Hahei are perennially popular while, further afield, Whangapoua is favoured for its laidback vibe.
Picturesque Front Beach - accessed via a two-minute ferry ride from Whitianga - is where Auckland's old-money families congregate. It turns out that, just as in the city, geographical levels of hierarchy exist - albeit in a more diluted form - in the Coromandel.
The beachfront sections at Matarangi come with their own unspoken judgements depending on whether they're located in the old part, the new part or the posh part.
Over the years we've hiked to New Chums beach, joined the manic New Year's Eve queues at the New World in Whitianga, evacuated the sea following shark sightings, seen protected dotterels, spotted Phil Keoghan, marvelled at entries in sandcastle competitions and watched non-PC beauty contests being judged. Mainly, though, we've lounged about - on the beach, on sofas and on all-weather outdoor beanbags.
Regardless of the day's activities, when five o'clock rolls around it is cocktail hour for myself, my first husband and any friends who may have drifted along. There's a whole retro vibe to the occasion. I feel like I should be wearing a long patterned frock and pouring colourful cocktails.
Oh, who am I kidding? I usually do wear a long patterned frock and pour colourful cocktails. Probably strawberry daiquiris - or "daktaris" as an old work colleague of mine once memorably called them. Comprised mainly of lime juice, white rum and lashings of fresh strawberries, it's the perfect summer drink. Even those among us who've decided to stay home this year and mind Auckland for the Coromandel set could do worse than whip up a batch in the blender. Happy new year to all of us!
- HERALD ONLINE