Petrina Darrah explores the Coromandel by campervan, from Opoutere to Ōpito
Born and raised in the Coromandel, with the Pinnacles my maunga and Tairua River my awa, I thought I knew the peninsula well. But it wasn't until I bought a campervan that I realised how much I had been missing.
Taking to the Coromandel's notoriously winding roads in a campervan gave me a whole new license to explore. From behind the wheel, gravel roads promised hidden walks and views rather than just teeth-chattering tests of endurance. East and west coasts meant chasing sunrises and sunsets. And with a mix of paid, DoC, and freedom campsites, I never had to worry about lingering too long in one spot; there's always another place to park right around the corner.
Despite having only one main road circumnavigating the peninsula, there is an endless bounty of remote beaches and one-road towns to discover in the Coromandel. Here are a few discoveries that made me proud to be a local.
Set a few kilometres off State Highway 25, and filtered from the road by a tall stand of pines, Opoutere Beach is resolutely remote. It's highly likely that you'll find yourself sharing the long stretch of white sand with only oystercatchers and endangered dotterels, which breed on the Wharekawa sand spit at the north of the beach. As you walk around the estuary, you might also hear the screech of kākā and spot the parrots overhead.
Stay at Opoutere Coastal Camping for a pretty spot caught between a stream and pine forest. Or, head to the beach carpark, which also doubles as a freedom campsite for self-contained vehicles.
If the essence of the Coromandel could be distilled into one spot, it would look a lot like Lukes Kitchen in Kūaotunu. A truly local hub, Lukes is a homey cafe, an art gallery, a shop full of Coromandel-made goods, and wood-fired pizza restaurant all in one. Between the beach views, laid-back vibe and frequent live music, this is one of the best stops along SH25 for a meal and coffee.
For dessert, pop around to the Kūaotunu store to nab one of their monstrous icecreams known as the "Kūaotunu Killer".
It's worth making the detour over the true-to-Coromandel-type hill (steep, twisty, and gravel in patches) from Kūaotunu to get a glimpse of secluded Ōpito Bay. The long scythe of honey-coloured sand is backed by golden hills and contrasts delightfully with the bright blue water.
From the southern end of the beach, climb the steps to reach the top of an old Māori pa - defensive ditches are still visible - and enjoy views back across the bay.
There is no camping near Ōpito Bay or its equally beautiful neighbour, Otama Bay, but you can find a campground in Kūaotunu.
North of Coromandel Town is where things start to get more off the beaten track; or off the sealed road, to be precise. Head to Waikawau Bay to discover the largest DoC campsite in New Zealand, and another sheltered bay good for surfing and swimming.
Just over the hill at the south end of Waikawau Bay is Little Bay, a place locals have done a great job of keeping secret.
For a scenic loop, head to Waikawau via Colville, then back down to Coromandel Town through Kennedy Bay. Stop at the Tokatea Hill Lookout for views out across both sides of the peninsula.
If you don't mind manoeuvring a campervan or motorhome along gravel roads with sheer drop-offs (if you're renting, check your rental agreement first!), DoC campsites at Port Jackson and Fletcher Bay will take you properly off the grid.
Make one last pit stop in Colville before following pōhutukawa-fringed roads as they taper down to narrow gravel ribbons bordered by wind-stunted harakeke.
You'll be rewarded for making the journey with a sense of isolation and true adventure. Port Jackson Campsite is set on the very tip of the peninsula, with a vast beach and views of Great Barrier Island. Neighbouring Fletcher Bay Campground is the starting point for the Coromandel Coastal Track, a highlight of the peninsula that has marvellous views of the craggy coastline, as well as dense bush with the occasional kākā wheeling above the canopy.
Driving the west coast of the Coromandel is a completely different experience to the east. In many places, the road has pōhutukawa trees on one side and the water on the other, a narrow strip of tarmac wedged in the middle. The rocky shores are perfect for fishing and, come evening, camping on this coast provides you with the chance to watch golden sunsets across the water.
A foray along the Tapu Valley road will take you to the mighty Square Kauri, which is well worth the detour. Weather permitting, the river carving through the bottom of the valley is also great for swimming. For a campsite more secluded from the main road, Tapu Creek Campervan Park is a peaceful little gem.