Along the Seabird Coast, on the western side of the Firth of Thames is quiet peaceful Miranda, known for hot springs and its resident and migratory bird population. It's an hour's drive from Auckland or Hamilton, and a 20-minute drive from the Coromandel Peninsula.
From Auckland, the direct route is via State Highway 2, heading to Thames and turning left at Mangatawhiri. Taking the scenic route is a relaxing way to gradually leave behind suburbia, shops and the din of the metropolis.
It passes by the rolling hills of Clevedon, tidal shelly Kawakawa Bay, past Tapapakanga Regional Park and the Hunua Ranges. At Waimanangu Point the road runs parallel to the Firth of Thames. On the left, across the water are the interesting ridges of the Coromandel Ranges, on the right, cows graze on flat farms, while behind dotted on the green hill tops are newly built homes. From the small settlement of Kaiaua it is 9km to Miranda.
It soon becomes obvious why it's called the Seabird Coast. Mangroves, shell banks and chenier plains -- made of shell or sand atop marine muds --provide roosting for birds during high tide.
New Zealand dotterel and other native birds breed there while migrant birds that journey from Alaska and Siberia like the bar-tailed godwits arrive each September, wading and feeding in the mudflats until late March. At varying times of the day birds rise together flying in unison like a swirling dark ribbon against a pale sky.
After bird watching, and soaking in the hot pools, the region's flat straight roads welcome exploring by bicycle or taking a short drive, passing stalls selling home-grown veges, to Ngatea, Thames or beyond.
HOT MINERAL POOLS
Steam rises from the thermally heated mineral pools at Miranda Hot Springs. The pools vary in temperature, there are private spas, barbecues and a play area. Next door Miranda Holiday Park has one large outdoor thermal hot pool, which is a child-free zone in the early mornings and late evenings.
Not only for twitchers, there's a warm welcome at the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, the number-one stop for all necessary bird information, the latest sightings, happenings on migratory and native birds and tide timings. Walking tracks have excellent information boards and there's a large, comfy viewing hide � binoculars essential.
On Saturday night customers leave the Kaiaua Fisheries fish-and-chip shop in droves with their newspaper parcels tucked under an arm. The chippy lives off its award-winning reputation when it took out the national title of best fish and chips in 1995. There are dining tables inside, barbecue tables outside. Kaiaua also has a pub, dairy and a petrol station.
On the outskirts of town is the start of the Hauraki Rail Trail -- an 82km bike ride to Paeroa, Waihi and Te Aroha. Every Saturday morning locals hold a street market on Thames' main road. Word of mouth has it that The Wharf Coffee House, by the wharf, is worth a visit.
Don't be put off by the bland entrance of Ngatea Water Gardens. On the other side is a welcome surprise -- large gardens, including waterwheels, ponds, bridges and a waterfall and throughout is fun trickery that will force a smile on even the grumpiest face. There's also an impressively large drinking can collection.
Need to know
MIRANDA HOT SPRINGS
Miranda Road, RD 6
Phone: 07 867 3055
MIRANDA HOLIDAY PARK
Camping and cabins, mini golf, trampoline, massage therapy and hot pool.
Phone: 0800833 144
941 East Coast Road,
Phone: 09 2322776
Open 9am to 9pm
PUKOROKORO MIRANDA SHOREBIRD CENTRE
283 East Coast Rd
Phone: 09 232 2781
NGATEA WATER GARDENS
Phone: 07 867 7275
What is going on in Thames: www.thamesinfo.co.nz