The waitresses of Coromandel don't stand on ceremony. At one cafe we watched as the fish of the day, held aloft, was carried out the door and up the road to a fellow shopkeeper; at another we were served by a lady in gumboots who made a mean milkshake.
It's this kind of old-fashioned Kiwi charm that identifies Coromandel town and made it such a refreshing getaway for me and my 10-year-old son, Jack. The town is still immersed in its colourful history and the proud locals seem determined to keep it that way. Shops on the main street seem virtually untouched from the days when goldminers inhabited the area. Locals wave out to each other and shopkeepers stop for a chat between customers. The pace is sleepy and relaxed.
We chose a leisurely way of getting there too. Instead of driving we took advantage of the ferry that departs from downtown Auckland. The two-hour trip is quicker than if we'd battled traffic out of Auckland on a wet winter evening, and we could enjoy a drink and read while someone else did the driving. Returning to Auckland on a calm, sunny Sunday was as scenic a boat ride as any in the world.
On our first morning we set off on a guided tour to Port Jackson at the tip of the peninsula, followed by a three-hour hike to Stony Bay, just north of Port Charles. Our guide, Barbara Peddie from Coromandel Discovery Tours, was full of fascinating information about Coromandel's history and geography, told well enough to keep even a 10-year-old enthralled. The hillside walk isn't difficult, but it's good to take advantage of the rest spots while enjoying the breathtaking view out to sea.
Later, as we emerged from lush pohutukawa groves and native bush, Barbara was waiting with a hot cuppa and a ride back to town.
We relaxed that evening with dinner at Pepper Tree Restaurant, where we warmed up by the open fire and enjoyed fine local cuisine served by cheerful, helpful staff.
Back at our accommodation, The Anchor Lodge Resort, Jack still had more than enough energy to sit up and watch the All Black test while I dozed. We stayed in a separate, self-contained apartment in a treetop setting, which even in deepest winter was toasty and comfortable.
First stop on Sunday was The Waterworks, a quirky adventure playground showcasing Kiwi ingenuity at its best, including moving, interactive water sculptures. Jack loved the human hamster wheel, water cannons and flying foxes; both of us were fascinated by the giant water-powered clock and we vied for first place in the mini-boat races where we are told cheating is compulsory. There are barbecue and picnic areas, and a cafe, so it's easy to spend all day here.
Just north of Coromandel town is the Driving Creek Railway, lovingly built by local artist and railway enthusiast Barry Brickell. The one-hour round trip in one of the specially built passenger trains leads to the Eyefull Tower, which sits 165m above sea level and offers stunning views over valleys of native bush to the Hauraki Gulf.
Don't miss the Gold Stamper Battery, a gold processing plant, where geologist Ashley Franklyn exuberantly shares his passion of the extraction process and had Jack intrigued at the prospect of finding gold in nearby hills.
It was a fitting end to a weekend that was like stepping back in time. You leave hoping Coromandel town won't change, and that its waitresses will continue to hand-deliver dinners to locals as part of the service.
How to get there: Coromandel township is about 2 1/2 hours drive from Auckland or a two- hour scenic ferry ride with 360 Discovery cruises from downtown Auckland. Adults from $79, children from $49, return. Ph 0800 360 DISCOVERY (0800 360 3472), or see 360discovery.co.nz.
Where to stay: The Anchor Lodge Resort has beautifully presented apartment-style units and studios ranging from $95-$145 (studio) to $160-$220 (family) in winter; and $165-185 (studio) to $225-300 (family) in summer. Phone (07) 866 7992.
What to do:
Coromandel Discovery has a great range of tours or can tailor a tour for you. Ph 0800 668 175.
The Waterworks is an interactive water sculpture park. Adults from $18, children from $12. Ph (07) 866 7191.
Driving Creek Railway offers rides on the custom built passenger train to a hilltop with jaw-dropping views. Adults $23, children $13. Ph (07) 866 8703.
Coromandel Gold Stamper Battery has history lessons like no other. Adults $10, children $5. Ph (07) 866 7933.