Community spirit, cool cafes and amazing walks add to the gold mining town's charm, finds Elisabeth Easther.

Where is it?

In the southern Coromandel, 142km from Auckland and 93km from Hamilton.

Origin of name: Maori for "water gushing out" or "bubbling water".

Population: 4700.

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Town slogan: Waihi - New Zealand's Heart of Gold.

Town mascot: The Cornish Pumphouse building, recently moved from its hillside perch to sit atop the main street.

Famous locals: Ross Cooper (All Blacks assistant coach) Shona Laing (singer), Julian Dean, (cyclist, the second Kiwi ever to win a stage in the Tour de France), Graham Purvis (All Black), Val Morgan (1960 Olympian) and Robyn Dillimore (Silver Fern).

Best websites: waihi.org.nz, goldfm.co.nz and golddiscoverycentre.co.nz.

Big business: Town is full of busy enterprises, but the biggest earners would be mining, the passing tourist trade, plus electronics, engineering, farming and horticulture.

Miner key: Waihi was once just a one-pub town until, in 1878, mining kicked off and the area began to thrive. The quest for gold continues in the Martha Mine to this day.

Did the Earth move for you? If you're in Waihi and feel the ground rumble beneath your feet, it's most likely the miners setting off explosives to go deeper into the pit.

Ka pai: Pye Manufacturing has been another of Waihi's "goldmines"; established in 1932, this electronics manufacturing marvel spawned several businesses that flourish today. Once upon a time, most of New Zealand's televisions and stereos were made in Waihi.

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Source of pride: The community spirit. Everyone here gets out and gets involved. Plus it's so flipping scenic.

Town fiestas: Waihi's Warm-Up Party for Beach Hop in March, Gold Fest in October, Echo Walking Fest, in March and April, with over 40 walks, the annual trolley derby, the Santa parade, The Blast Trail Run and Mountainbike, the Xterra Trail Challenge and The Nugget Multisport Festival.

Here for a short time? Marvel at the affordable house prices and wander the pretty main street. Take a look down the mine, just off the main street, it's enormous. The Gold Discovery Centre and the gold mining tours are awesome, and Waihi Arts Centre & Museum is tremendous.

Best place to take kids: The Gold Discovery Centre, chug into the gorge on board the Goldfields Vintage Railway, cycle the Hauraki Rail Trail, visit Gilmour Lake and Coffey's Creek swimming hole.

Best playground: Rocket Park (aka Victoria Park) is one heck of a place to stretch little legs; as well as the fab play equipment, it also has an old school in-ground skate bowl.

Best facilities: Waihi is conveniently filled with spic and span conveniences with the one at Waihi i-Site topping the charts.

Best walks: The Pit Rim Walkway offers amazing views of the open-cast mine, the Windows Walk in majestic Karangahake Gorge rocks. The Hauraki Rail Trail and Gilmour Lake are good for a wander. With a walk for every ability, it's no wonder the Echo Walking Fest is so popular.

Best view: The Gorge is gorgeous, ditto the vista from the top of Union Hill. Look down from the top of Martha Mine or stay at Manawa Ridge, the luxury eco-retreat, where the views up and down the coast - from Mayor Island to the Mount - will thrill you no end. Or, if you like a good hike, venture to the top of Mt Karangahake; on a clear day you can see all the way to Mt Ruapehu.

Best place to pull over: Owharoa Falls in the gorge, not far from Waikino, are stunning. Good for a dip, too. The swing bridge in the gorge is also a doozy.

Best swim: The beaches around here are superb, from Whiritoa to Waihi Beach, and Ohinemuri River has some great swimming spots. Interestingly, the river flows away from the sea, which is uncommon.

Best museum: Waihi Arts Centre & Museum covers the stories of colonial settlers, mining, the wars and more - the centre is always upgrading and updating. Many people are particularly struck by the jars of thumbs; back in the day, you could claim on the loss of a digit so, when times were tight, people would slice off a thumb for a bit of extra cash. The pivotal 1912 Miners Strike exhibits also make for fascinating browsing.

Metal as anything: The newly opened Gold Discovery Centre offers fascinating tours inside the fence. Apparently, the Martha Mine is a little shallower than the Sky Tower and was dug by hand without machinery down to 600m. Back in the day, they sent horses down there; poor things came out for only five days over Christmas.

Nice arts: Lee Johnson Gallery, next to the museum, is full of photographs, paintings and garden art; yet another reason to linger.

Cream of the coffee: You can't go wrong in Waihi, they all do great coffee but, if I have to name names, Ti Tree Cafe (14 Haszard Street), Banana Pepper Cafe, Whisk, Quartz Cafe (52 Seddon Street) and The Waterlily Gardens, which does the best custard squares, are all excellent.

Baked: Waihi Bakery and Banana Pepper both do delicious baked goods with the latter having won awards for their rhubarb and wild berry pie.


Finding treasure at the Gold Discovery Centre. Photo / Supplied
Best food: The food in these parts is outstanding, Roland, the chef at Waitete Restaurant & Cafe trained at Michelin-starred restaurants and it shows. The Banana Pepper and Ti Tree cafes are also super, while the Ohinemuri Winery and Bistro at the Falls are phenomenal.

Still hungry? Fez Kebab, Kava Bar and Cafe and Waihi Pizza are popular plus you can get Thai, Indian, sushi, takeaway roast dinners and Chinese takeaways, too.

Cool: At Waitete Restaurant & Cafe, sample the homemade Thomas' Icecream.

Wet your whistle: The historic Stirling tavern is swell, as is the Rob Roy Hotel on Seddon Street, with its wraparound veranda overlooking the main roundabout that's estimated to have about 2.8 million vehicles travelling around it each year.

Dry this: In 1909, you'd have been hard pressed to get a drink here though, as Waihi went dry to protest the high price of grog. So the miners would take the train to Thames to get hammered.

Best mountain biking: The Hauraki Rail Trail is an absolute must-do, an easy Grade 1 most of the way, if you've got a pulse you can probably tackle it and the gorge section is wicked. If you're after more of a challenge and some hills, the Black Hill MTB trails are also fabulous.

Perfect day: Visit the Gold Discovery Centre, take the gold mining tour, then cycle through the gorge and return on the train, allowing time for eating and drinking along the way.

Wildlife: Geckos and native birds flourish here.

Safety warning: If you're exploring the tunnels in the gorge, take a torch, please.

Locals say: We're a small town with a heart of gold.

Visitors say: Waihi? Wowee.

Thanks to Go Waihi and a couple of locals, who were veritable mines of information.