Lydia Jenkin is an entertainment feature writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Coromandel: As good as gold

Once the rain has cleared, Lydia Jenkin discovers the shining treasures above, below and off the coast of the Coromandel.
Kayak is the best way to explore the stunning cliffs and wildlife of the Coromandel coastline.
Kayak is the best way to explore the stunning cliffs and wildlife of the Coromandel coastline.

As we drive over the peak of Pumpkin Hill, two thirds of the way through our early-morning drive from Thames to Hahei, the clouds recede and the sun appears, turning the sea into a glistening temptress.

Suddenly the east coast of the Coromandel peninsula looks like summertime perfection and, boy, are we happy with the change.

The previous 24 hours had been dark, wet and bleak, and the weather had somewhat topsy-turvied our plans to explore the Sleeping God Canyon, up the dramatic Kauaeranga Valley.

A little rain never hurt anyone when climbing down waterfalls and dropping into river pools, but a lengthy torrential downpour had made it unsafe, and we were obliged to take our adrenalin levels back down a notch, and find other ways to amuse ourselves.

Fortunately there's plenty to enchant in the Coromandel in all weather, and the warm greetings from every local we encountered more than made up for our disappointment.

The Refinery in Paeroa is a hidden gem. Quite aside from fabulous food (the grilled sandwiches are outstanding), the grand building itself is worth a visit. Commissioned as the National Bank Gold Refinery in 1914, it's a cavernous structure, but the owners have made it cosy and welcoming, providing armchairs, magazines, great pottery collections and a roaring fire in the winter.

Well fuelled, on we went to the Waihi Gold Discovery Centre and mine - an eye-opening experience. That is one mighty hole in the ground, and even though it's no longer being mined (all that activity has moved underground), it's worth a look for the sheer mind-boggling size of it. Our guide was full of historical and current knowledge of the mine's inner workings, and well-prepared to answer questions political and environmental.

Mining remains a contentious issue, but it's certainly an integral part of Waihi's history, and it's fascinating to see the lengths they go to to pull that gold out of the ground.

The railway running through Karangahake Gorge was once a key part of transporting that gold, and there's plenty to see and do there too, including particularly lovely walks, and of course the cycleway.

If you're looking for a special place to stay or dine in the area, The Falls Retreat has an enchanting, slightly other-worldly quality to it, set back from the river and wreathed in twinkling fairy-lights come nightfall.

From woodfired pizzas to fancier bistro-style food, their paddock-to-plate philosophy and the top skills of award-winning chef Brad King should make this place a compulsory dinner stop any time you're heading along State Highway 2.

After all that eating and drinking, fortunately our next stop was going to involve physical activity: kayaking. Hence we were so happy to see that sunshine as we headed for Hahei.

The little seaside town, usually buzzing in summer, was pleasantly quiet in the cooler season. We were still donning hats and sunscreen as we met Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours on the squeaky white sand of Hahei Beach. After an efficient safety briefing, we were off to explore the stunning cliffs and wildlife of the coastline.

It really is just as beautiful as anything you'll find in an exotic international location, and there's a good chance you'll spot a pod of orca, or seals and, of course, plenty of birdlife.

Our guide was hugely knowledgeable on all things geological, as well as Maori history, and he managed to whip up an impressive flat white on the beach at Cathedral Cove, which was our mid-morning coffee break, combined with a refreshing swim.

After all that physical exertion we were looking forward to a somewhat more indulgent afternoon. Having checked into the delightful cabin accommodation at The Church (a sunny, private oasis with lovely staff), we headed to Purangi Estate. The family-run winery near Cooks Beach is a wonderful slice of Coromandel life, all charmingly rustic and laid-back; kiwifruit vines shading you as you sit in the sun and sip their house-made wines or cider.

Then it was time to ease our muscles at The Lost Spring Spa in Whitianga. After a quick ferry ride across the channel and a short stroll in the twilight, we found the colourful lights and soothing luxury of the natural geothermal pools, which have been transformed into an almost Disney-like wonderland, complete with caves, miniature waterfalls and tropical flowers. It was a perfect night-time activity, the steaming waters and tranquil surrounds feeling like the ultimate indulgence.

Eventually we pulled ourselves out of the pools, and headed to Salt Restaurant for more indulgence. The service at the marina-side establishment couldn't be more on point, and the food, with an emphasis on local seafood, was beautifully presented and tasty. It felt like a very upmarket experience, but they didn't mind one bit that we'd arrived in rather casual post-swimming attire.

And that's one of the most appealing things about a holiday in the Coromandel - top class experiences offered in a relaxed, humble manner that makes everyone feel welcome.


Thames is 1hr 20 minutes from Auckland via SH1 and 2. It will take you about the same time to drive from there to Hahei.


- NZ Herald

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