When the time is right, Te Puia provides a unique experience, writes Elisabeth Easther New Zealand.
If you know the Coromandel Coast at all, you're never surprised when you see it sitting at the top of various lists of holiday hotspots. And one of the hottest spots along that peninsula paradise has to be Hot Water Beach, its charms even earning it a place on Lonely Planet's Ultimate Sights Guide, 2013.
Also going by the name of Te Puia (which, unsurprisingly means "hot springs") it's just two and a half hours drive from Auckland, or 160km from Hamilton, it all depends where you're coming from. And fingers crossed you timed it lucky with the traffic — because if you didn't, the last thing you'll want to do is submerge yourself in hot water. But, if you're feeling chilled with the day so far, two hours either side of low tide, captivating Hot Water Beach fills up with diggers eager to take to the waters.
Near the middle of the beach, where the rocks are, just follow the crowds and you'll find people excavating their own private spa pools. Whether you dig with your hands, your own spade or an implement hired from a local business, pretty soon you'll be wallowing in water that's heated by networks of underground fissures. With temperatures ranging from low key to boiling — sometimes shooting as high as 64C — do take care not to overcook.
This thermal sandpit between Tairua and Whitianga is a star attraction with stunning views out to Mercury Bay. Pleasant year round, it's a visual treat at the start of summer when the pohutukawa flower or perhaps you'd rather wallow on a cool winter's day when it's truly invigorating to steam in nature. And with timings defined by tide, if low tide falls in the evening, and the sky is clear and the moon is rising, stars twinkling, be warned that romance could easily come calling.
But you can't spend all day (or night) wallowing in sizzling sea water, else you'd turn into a prune or grow gills, so you'll be relieved to know there are lots of other things to do nearby.
For fans of things with feathers, bird watching here has a lot to keep twitchers entertained. Keep your pocket bird guide handy and see if you can spot the matuku (white faced heron), the kotare (kingfisher), the tara (white fronted tern) and the pihoihoi (pipit).
Neighbouring Cathedral Cove is another national treasure, with snorkelling and kayaking especially popular. Travel independently, park among the tour buses, and stroll down to this famous beach. Perhaps detour to Gemstone Beach — just follow the signs — because there you'll find a snorkel trail that consists of four bobbing buoys complete with interpretation panels. With up to 7m of visibility on a calm day, you could see everything from eagle rays to snapper down there. You'll need to be a relatively confident swimmer, even with the buoys to hang on to and if there's more than half a metre of swell, stay ashore. If you've not come prepared for snorkelling, board one of the boat tours and take a scenic cruise, bearing in mind that the sea is calmer and clearer in the morning. Or if you're feeling energetic, the kayaking around here is world class, so if the thought of a paddle floats your boat, Cathedral Cove Kayak Tours offer everything from short paddles to full-day adventures.
But don't forget to feed the machine, and happily there are two excellent eating establishments open year round. From their spot overlooking the beach, Hotties Beachfront Eatery does everything from fine dining with views to takeaways destined to be scoffed on the beach. Run by the people who created Tribeca in Parnell, Hotties now has a liquor licence, and there are few more convivial places for a sundowner. Plus they provide surf lessons and gear hire, so hanging 10 is also an option. Hot Waves Cafe is the other tasty choice, also licensed and with its cool green garden, al fresco action is sublime. Great for frolicking kids and, with extensive grounds, there are native birds aplenty and a grand little art gallery too.
Then, once you're replete, it's probably time for another hot soak as you consider the adventures you'll go on tomorrow.