By MARIOS GAVALAS
For the residents of the Coromandel Peninsula, the Kopu Bridge is an icon.The 470m single-lane bridge spans the Waihou River just south of Thames.
The traffic flow is controlled by the peninsula's only set of traffic lights. During busy holiday periods, the tailbacks can be reminiscent of the Auckland motorways. Locals say the bridge introduces you to Coromandel Time.
On the Coromandel side of the bridge the pace of life is more sedate. There is more time to relax and indulge in the sumptuous surroundings.
Separating the Hauraki Gulf from the Pacific Ocean, the Coromandel Peninsula is a chain of extinct volcanoes clad in semi-tropical forest. A necklace of pristine beaches adorns the coastline.
From the Kopu Bridge it is possible to complete a partial loop of the peninsula, taking in many of the attractions. The peninsula's road network follows both coastlines with links across the ranges. Most of the roads are tarsealed, but those that are not provide a sense of adventure and a touch of the real Coromandel.
Crossing the Kopu Bridge, it is easy to reflect on how the area must have looked to Captain Cook. His observations of the kahikatea tree prompted the British Admiralty to return and exploit the timber for use as masts for the expanding Navy.
The nearby town of Thames rose to prominence when bonanza reefs of gold were discovered in the adjoining hills. By the late 1870s, the lure of gold had attracted 18,000 people, which at the time made it New Zealand's largest town.
For a more in-depth experience of the goldmining history, visit the Gold Stamper Battery just north of the town centre. The guided tours take you underground into the old mine tunnels.
Mannequins and auditory accompaniments recreate the atmosphere of the working conditions the miners faced. Back above ground, a working stamper battery demonstrates how the ore was processed to extract the valuable bullion.
The deafening sound of the pounding stamps and collection of black and white photos on display transport you back to a time when the town resembled a frontier settlement.
Continuing north, the road clings to the coastline, twisting and turning between rocky inlets and collections of humble baches. The often-calm waters of the Hauraki Gulf lap at the promontories, where the silhouettes of fishermen blend into the landscape as though they are part of it.
As the road climbs inland, it looks towards the sprinkling of islands of the north-west coast, interspersed with oyster beds, mussel farms and mangrove forests.
Home-made postboxes, craft workshops and a sign to Nowhere in Particular line the roadside to Coromandel Town.
The town itself has a collection of craft shops to browse. The eateries are a great place to unwind and observe the relaxed village atmosphere. Try The Pepper Tree, which has a tempting lunchtime menu and al fresco dining.
Just north of the town is Driving Creek Railway. Barry Brickell, a local potter, constructed this narrow gauge mountain railway to transport the clay at the top of his land to the kilns and brick-making furnaces at the bottom.
The ride through regenerating forest uses many ingenious ways to climb the steep gradient. These include bridges, loops and zigzags. A light-hearted commentary accompanies the journey to the lookout at the summit.
The most interesting inland road which links the west and east coasts is the 309 Road, 4km south of Coromandel Town. The name dates back to when the road was first constructed. It took 5hr 9 min to complete the 50km journey by horse and carriage through dense forest between Whitianga and Coromandel Town.
A 10-minute walk from the road to the 309 Kauri Grove allows the impenetrable forest to be viewed more fully. The gracefully spreading crowns of the kauri tower over entanglements of supplejack vines, tree fern trunks decorated with mosses and shaded streams chuckling to the river.
Arriving on the east coast, the first port of call is the booming town of Whitianga. Stretching along 3km of sandy beach, the town offers a wide choice of accommodation and restaurants.
Mercury Bay Beachfront Resort is a comfortable motel right on the beach, with most units having commanding views of the bay. Buffalo Beach is on the front doorstep and provides safe swimming with gentle surf.
The narrow neck of water at the mouth of Whitianga Estuary is crossed by a small passenger ferry, which shuttles between the town and ferry landing.
For a more extensive exploration of this side of the estuary, continue south from Whitianga for about half an hour and turn left into the Hot Water Beach road.
At Hot Water Beach, by a peculiar freak of nature, a hot spring has emerged right on the beach. Choose your spot carefully and you can dig your own private spa pool two hours either side of low tide.
Be careful where you dig, as the water just below the surface can be scorching hot.
From nearby Hahei, Cathedral Cove Sea Kayaking runs guided trips to explore the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve and colourful coastline. Unusual rock formations, including the rock arch at Cathedral Cove, extensive sea caves and cappuccinos on the beach are a few of the highlights.
The return drive down the coast through Tairua, and over the ranges via the Kopu-Hikuai road, is enhanced by dramatic volcanic scenery, towering bluffs and sheer cliffs.
At the Kopu Bridge, you are faced with a decision: to cross the bridge and leave Coromandel Time, or perform another loop of the peninsula.
It is not difficult to decide.
For tourist information:
By MARIOS GAVALAS