Every year the best-selling Lonely Planet travel guide raves to overseas visitors about the stunning experiences New Zealand has to offer. In the latest of a series, reporter Isaac Davison visits Cathedral Cove.
The crystalline sea near Cathedral Cove was supposedly one of the places Hawaiki voyager Kupe first sailed to in New Zealand, drawn to the bay by migrating birds.
A thousand years on, I mimic the last stage of his voyage, surrounded by bird life but aboard a shiny two-person kayak and with a cappuccino in the sands.
A rugged, arduous tour of the wilderness this is not. The open-water kayaks are steady, the swell is gentle, and we complete the 2-hour tour with little sweat and few aches. The spread of coffee laid out at the half-way mark adds to the leisurely feel of the paddling trip.
We launch from Hahei beach, about 2 hours' drive from Auckland. It is a wide, gentle arc of light-orange sand which we have mostly to ourselves on a grey day in early December. The tour takes us north around two of the larger islands, with breaks in a cove for morning tea before drifting along the coast back to Hahei.
The popularity of the tourist venture lies in the setting, a myriad of rock formations and small islands which dot the untouched coastline. Volcanic activity has formed fingers of rock, honeycombed rock faces, arches, jagged shapes and caves which our kayaks can weave around and through.
I choose the popular half-day trip to Cathedral Cove, directly east of Whitianga, and site of the iconic cave which was used to depict a portal to Narnia in the recent movie adaptations of C.S. Lewis's books.
It does not appear as mystical on the day we visit. Glaring safety barriers have been placed in the tunnel after a rockfall nearly struck a tourist in October. The cave joins Cathedral Cove and Mare's Leg Cove, both glittering, sheltered swimming spots which are reached only by boat or a 45 minute tramp.
It is an overcast day, but on a clear one the waters here are pellucid. Photographs on the Cathedral Cove Sea Kayaking website show kayakers on water so clear it gives the illusion that they are floating on air.
At one point our group of six cluster three kayaks together and hold up a makeshift sail, which pulls us with a bow wave out to Motueka Island. There we slip through caves so narrow our paddles scrape the sides.
Shags and gannets are the only wildlife we see on our tour, but the kayak guide, Ross, mentions regular sightings of dolphins, orca, and surprised tourists. "We often catch backpacking couples having a romantic moment in the back of a cave."
For those who want to avoid the more crowded Cathedral Cove - the spot has 150,000 visitors a year - there are alternative trips to more remote coastline, and sunset and sunrise tours.
Five minutes' drive from Hahei is Hot Water Beach. Visitors are advised to take care when swimming here, as the rock-littered bay produces a gurgling, unforgiving rip which catches out tourists and surfers.
The true attraction, however, is on land where a shallow dig in the sand will create a wonderful natural spa, with temperatures which fluctuate from perfectly warm to searingly hot.
Accommodation: Tatahi Lodge - 19 Grange Rd, Hahei, Coromandel.
Tatahi Lodge is five minutes walk from the sea, nestled among native bush and overlooking a misty valley. While the lodge has budget options and studios and units, its owners say they try to avoid the slacker backpacker image, and the comfortable rooms are often booked by older couples and families.
The owners have kept the communal lounge free of a TV to encourage conversation between guests. The units are immaculate and homely, right down to the crisp sheets. We were woken by an alarm clock of tui and morepork in the pohutakawa.
In the summer months, Hahei swells from a tiny community of a few hundred to 7000 holiday-makers. Tatahi Lodge was full during our midweek visit, even before the holiday rush, so advance booking is essential. Don't be concerned by the frequency with which an old air-raid siren goes off nearby - it gathers volunteer firefighters, not for battling a blaze, but for an evening drink at the station.
Eating: The Church - 87 Hahei Beach Rd, Hahei, Coromandel.
Set in a former Presbyterian church, the fine dining room is a cavernous space.
Servings on the a la carte menu are hearty and I was overcome by what I thought were the lighter options - tomato and goat's cheese soup and ravioli. Aucklanders should be pleased by the range of local and foreign beers. The fresh seafood is locally sourced and wines are from the Coromandel region. Two courses with wine cost two of us $168.By Isaac Davison @Isaac_Davison Email Isaac