Coromandel: Golden streets

By Paul Rush

The harbour at Coromandel township. Photo / Supplied
The harbour at Coromandel township. Photo / Supplied

It's a satisfying feeling to escape the City of Sails by boat. One minute I'm wading through CBD rush-hour crowds and the next I'm ensconced in the comfortable cabin of a ferry that leaves stress floundering in its foaming wake. In the Waiheke channel, we are joined by a pod of playful dolphins that delight in entertaining us.

In a little under two hours, the ferry pulls in to Hannaford's Wharf on the Coromandel Peninsula, where a coach is standing by to whisk passengers to Coromandel township. By the time I arrive, I've already made the adjustment to the slower pace of life.

This rustic, unspoiled colonial town is crammed with fascinating memories of the past. It sits astride a thousand tunnels that once yielded gold to boost the young New Zealand economy. The hills sacrificed their dense cover of kauri trees to fine stately homes and masts and spars for Lord Nelson's fleet. Today, the new gold rush is adventure tourism, conservation, mussel farming, coastal real estate, arts, crafts and the area's rich pioneering heritage.

I'm staying at Coromandel Colonial Cottages, in a self-contained motel unit that places me in an authentic Victorian setting. Climbing bougainvillea in a profusion of deep-red blooms has become intertwined with the spokes of wooden wagon wheels. Replica gas lamps add to the atmosphere. A double row of white weatherboard cottages, topped with finial posts and ornamented with delicate fretwork, enclose a garden of peace and tranquillity - a perfect place to chill out.

The main homestead is a classic Victorian bay villa, built in 1895 for a mine manager, Captain Albert Argall. A succession of mine managers lived here, followed by medical superintendents serving the hospital across the road. Famous English author Fay Weldon spent happy childhood holidays in this house.

Old Coromandel Town is easy to get acquainted with. From my motel, it is a 1km walk along Rings Rd to the town centre. Along the way I pass a rich stock of historic buildings from the gold mining "boom and bust" era. Rings Rd commemorates New Zealand's first discovery of gold in 1852 by Charles Ring, in the gentle Kapanga Stream that quietly meanders through the town today.

I recreate those heady days by visiting the old stamper batter in Buffalo Rd, a wonderful example of history in action. This fully operational gold processing plant is the last of its kind in New Zealand and boasts the largest working waterwheel in the Southern Hemisphere. Drop-heads and pulley systems mesmerise shed blokes, while ladies drool at the sight of a 40kg ingot of shining gold.

Kapanga Rd, Coromandel's main street, is steeped in history, too. There's a rich stock of heritage buildings from the 1890s, when the town boasted 10,000 citizens and 19 hotels - only two hotels remain, the Coromandel and the Admirals Arms. I amble past St Andrews Presbyterian Church, with its imposing tiered tower and false buttresses. Across the road, the original School of Mines now serves as the district museum.

Further down the street, the old courthouse is a busy visitor centre. On the intersection with SH25, the original classical Victorian Assay House still stands as a monument to the past. Diggers cashed up their gold here before heading to the pubs. Inside the old building, where two furnaces once melted gold, there is now a fishing tackle shop.

The shop fronts on Kapanga Rd, with their colonial facades and shiplap cladding, are straight out of a spaghetti western set. I finish my walk at the sun-soaked courtyard of the Pepper Tree Restaurant. In a town where fortune-seekers once came from far and wide to strike it rich, tourists now flock to savour fresh seafood, farmed in the bay. I decide on mussels and scallops from the extensive menu.

Visitors are spoiled for choice. The town offers a feast of heritage buildings, craft shops, cafes, bars and restaurants. Around the town are the hills, the sea, beauty and quietness, where self-reliant, practical people have left their mark on the land.

Pioneer potter Barry Brickell is a fine example of the "Coro Spirit". At over 70 years of age, he is still intensely engaged in his labour of love and locomotives. For many years he has soldiered on, in sandals, shorts and T-shirt, summer or winter, laying every rail on Driving Creek Railway - Coromandel's premier visitor attraction. From his "Eyefull Tower", I marvel at the breathtaking views of Coromandel town and the islands of the Hauraki Gulf.

The 309 Road (an old Cobb and Co trail) has more fascinating visitor attractions. The Waiau Water-Works and its wonderfully whimsical, water-powered inventions has the wow factor, as do the Waiau Falls, Kauri Walk and Castle Rock. Just outside town are Waitati Gardens and Taraire Grove Gardens, both a delight to the eye in a peaceful environment.

Further afield are the Coromandel Walkway, linking the Cape Colville and Port Charles roads, the Kaipaua Trig Walk and Lucas Lookout Track. The Mt Moehau Summit Track provides what I believe is the finest panoramic view in the Auckland region.

Old Coromandel Town is a great weekend escape - a breath of fresh air in busy metro lives. It is ideal for a family holiday or a quiet romantic break away. All you need are walking shoes, sunhat, sunglasses and a sense of adventure.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: By car two hours from Auckland or two hours by Kawau Kat from the downtown ferry wharf on Tuesday and Sunday mornings and Friday evenings. The ferry is met by Strongman Coachlines.

History: The town was named after a visit by HMS Coromandel in 1820, seeking Kauri spars for the British fleet. The name comes from a place on the Madras coast of India.

Accommodation: Colonial Cottages, 1737 Rings Rd, Coromandel. Eight one- and two-bedroom self-contained cottages in two acres of gardens - Qualmark Four Star rating.
Email: coromandelcolonialcottages@xtra.co.nz

Other contacts:

Coromandel Tourism: info@coromandel.tourism.co.nz
Kawau Kat Cruises: info@kawakat.co.nz
Strongman Coachlines: njstrongman@xtra.co.nz

- NZ Herald

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