New life in Coromandel town

By Janetta Mackay

If the journey is almost as important as the destination, then hopping on a ferry and heading across the Hauraki Gulf for the weekend may be just the ticket.

It certainly appealed to us as we boarded a Kawau Kat at the downtown Auckland pier one Friday evening bound for Coromandel town. The lights of the city receded rapidly in our wake as we relaxed into the rhythm of the ride - no fears of motorway madness or the deadly Maramarua stretch to contend with.

In a little less than two hours we were a world away from rush-hour traffic and ready for a laid-back weekend. The area's attractions proved the destination matched the journey for easy escapism.

Our last visit to Coromandel town was about 10 years ago and we'd thought it the hippyish poor cousin to Whitianga and the beaches of the peninsula's east coast. But the town has spruced up and, unlike many rural centres, is growing.

It has period charm. Its once tatty wooden shop facades have been restored to give an olden-days grace to a main street well stocked with cafes and craft and curio shops, as well as the endearing staples of small towns: the general store and the takeaway bar.

A Sunday day trip is an option, but tourism operators are hoping the appeal of the relatively new Friday ferry service will keep visitors in town for two-night stays.

Ferry tickets to Hannafords Wharf include a coach ride and disembarking passengers are greeted with a cheery "Welcome to Coromandel town" before being ushered aboard a coach for the 11km trip into the former goldmining centre.

Coach operator Jocelyn Strongman is one of the leading promoters of the Coromandel Discovery packages, and keen to impress upon visitors that there is plenty to do to while away a weekend.

Strongman's runs tours to the Driving Creek Railway and Gold Stamper Battery or Waiau Waterworks. The tours are on Sunday, timed for ferry day trippers to lunch then look, but they're also available to those who have come over earlier. Tours connect with the afternoon ferry to be back in Auckland by 5.30pm.

Visitors can, of course, simply do their own thing and on our trip there was a set of golf clubs, locals heading home to see family, couples keen to browse the main street as well as overseas tourists clutching Lonely Planet guidebooks.

We'd gone for the pick-and-mix approach, part tour, part wandering at will. Despite briefly wondering why on earth we were heading away from the heaters of home, once we wrapped up in jerseys it was good to be out in mid-winter's bracing air, enjoying bush views and hearty mussel chowders.

Come summer a range of other activities open up, with walks and beaches all readily accessible. Motel owners Brendan and Janelle Ward reckon the town's an at-times overlooked gem. Three years ago they opened a modern motel complex, the Anchor Lodge Resort, which nestles into a bush-clad hill looking seaward. We stayed in toasty, tasteful units and enjoyed the best cooked motel brekkie I'd had in ages.

 

Real estate, especially anything coastal, is on the rise, but the town retains its offbeat appeal. Even its attractions are a bit odd-ball - mixing Kiwi ingenuity and the great outdoors into such charmingly peculiar labours of love as the Driving Creek Railway.

Built by renowned potter Barry Brickell and friends over three decades, the single-gauge track winds up a hill where more than 15,000 kauri seedlings have been planted. The idea is putting something back into mine-scarred hills.

The regenerated native bush which Brickell, soon to turn 70, bought for a few thousand dollars is now priceless protected land. The railway is being extended to the nearly completed Eyefull Tower, modelled on Bean Rock Lighthouse, and which, in summer, will house a cafe.

It's already a fantastic observation deck with sweeping views across the Hauraki Gulf.

From the railway, our tour stopped at the Gold Stamper Battery, where geologist Ashley Franklyn gives a fascinating talk on the history of mining, combining practical demonstrations of how gold was crushed out of rock by the stamper that has been on site from 1898, mixed with anecdotes of a town that swelled to 5000 people and 20 odd pubs (now there's a more sober population of 1800 with two locals).

 

Unashamedly pro-mining, Franklyn knows his stuff, blending statistics about the lode of unmined gold still in the Coromandel with visions of how dredging the gold-rich tailings and reclaiming the town's harbour could transform its future.

Whatever your views on development, the debate is fascinating.

We also take in a trip to Waiau Waterworks, a kind of adventure playground for all ages, set in bush gardens by a swimmable stream. Various ingenious contraptions powered by water intrigue the mechanically minded, the flying foxes allow the the kids to let off steam and adults enjoy the cafe and gallery of garden sculptures.

Add in a trip to the Admiral's Arms where we had a jolly good meal at the family-friendly restaurant (tempura-battered oysters and local snapper), lunch at the Peppertree cafe (the giant mussel spring rolls with sweet chilli sauce are a must-have) and a bit of shopping, including fresh oysters and mussels bought when the coach stopped off at the Coromandel Oyster Company stall on the way back to the wharf, and we had no trouble filling in a weekend and without a car (though you can hire one).

The daylight trip home, past Ponui Island and stopping in at Orapiu on Waiheke's southeast side showed us a whole new side of the gulf, and had us deciding that come summer we'd be up for a return ride. 

Checklist: Coromandel

Transport

Kawau Kat cruises: Ferries depart Auckland Tuesday and Sunday mornings and Friday evenings. Auckland-Coromandel Discovery Cruise return fare (including tour and admission to attractions): adult $115, senior $110, child $60. Return fare (no tour, but including bus trip to town) $75, $70, $40. One-way fares available. Auckland-Orapiu on Waiheke, return fare $60, $55, $35.

Singles fares available, fares from Orapiu to Coromandel also available.

Reservations and inquiries, ph 0800 888-006 or (09) 425-8006.
Email: info@kawaukat.co.nz

Strongman Coachlines: Tailored tours for groups by arrangement. Coromandel Coastal Walkway full-day tour, $85 each. Ph (07) 866-8175

www.coromandeldiscoverytours.co.nz

Email: njstrongman@xtra.co.nz

Accommodation

Motels, backpackers, two pubs, five luxury and other b&bs.

Anchor Lodge Resort: Winter rate studios $95, balcony units $120.

Ph (07) 866-7992. www.anchorlodgecoromandel.co.nz. Email: anchorlodge@xtra.co.nz

Attractions

Walkways, gardens to visit, cafes, beaches, historic sites.

Shopping selection

Weta Design: First-rate New Zealand craft, including photo tiles, jewellery and garden sculpture.

At The Source: Art, including Melissa Garber's hand-fired glass bead necklace of chillies and Gilla's for platters and hand-painted tiles. Tara Homan's jewellery and beads.

Further information

Coromandel town's information office, ph (07) 866 8598. The town has its own website at www.coromandeltown.co.nz

 

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