The best parts of the Coromandel are the hardest to find, writes Melissa Nightingale
"I feel like we're celebrities," says my husband, sprawled across the bed.
We'd just spent four months living apart, seeing each other fleetingly on weekends. His training for a new job meant time together was always tainted with the knowledge that come Sunday night he'd be gone again.
By the time his training came to an end, I was more than ready for a chance to reconnect. What better place than a part of the country neither of us had been to before?
The allure of the Coromandel is hardly a secret. The naturally formed archway of Cathedral Cove is a tourist favourite all year round, as is Hot Water Beach, with its either lukewarm or boiling hot pockets of pools.
But my favourite spot is a little more challenging to get to.
You can only reach Orua sea cave by boat and it's only possible to go inside if the weather co-operates.
The cave, 15m high, deep and wide, is the second largest sea cave in New Zealand and the third largest in the Southern Hemisphere.
I'm filled with wonder as Glass Bottom Boat skipper Shona Whittaker slowly steers the boat inside.
My husband, Sam, ever the logical mind, is already thinking about utility.
"Man, if I was a pirate, this would be the place to stash my treasure," he says.
I'm inclined to disagree. The steep walls of the cave are barren and jagged, stained white in high-up places from the salt where the waves batter. There is no dry ground, only water of the deepest blue. Any pirate treasure here would be washed out to sea, never to be seen again.
It's peaceful, sitting in the middle of this cavern as the sea swells noisily up against the sides and rushes back down again and the cool afternoon light pours in. Put a shell to your ear and it's an amplified version of the sound.
No birds can nest here because it's full of salt spray most of the time, Whittaker says.
It's a different story for the marine life. We see a flurry of leatherjackets and trigger fish, drawn in by the sound of the boat's motor. We're not inside the Te Whanganui-A-Hei marine reserve but the fish here are flourishing thanks to the cave's natural, protective environment. It's too hard for fishers to drop anchor in the cave with its sandy bottom, and the heavy swells in rougher weather mean entry into the cave at the wrong time is dangerous.
As we leave the cave, Whittaker points to a series of vertical lines running up the rock.
"That's a plate boundary – this is a fault line," she explains. "This is why we have Hot Water Beach."
Another spot we visit, called Cave Bay due to the numerous sea caves dotted through the rock, sits in a volcanic crater and marks the start of the vastest stretch of open water in the ocean. From there, it's a straight shot to Chile, 19,312kms away.
"It's mental out here when we get big storms. We've got deep water and lots of it," Whittaker says.
Not the ideal place for a picnic in that case. We make our way to shallower waters and drop anchor just outside Hahei for a picnic and platter afternoon tea.
Sam and I sit together in the fading sun and take a moment to breathe. These quality moments together – with good food, beautiful views, and a cold beer – are few and far between when you've had several months of rushed visits and too many goodbyes.
I finally have him to myself out in the middle of the ocean, and I wouldn't change a thing. As I'm thinking this, Sam says: "I wish our friends could have come with us."
Despite his apparent desire to squeeze more people into our quiet couple's getaway, we do manage to fit in a little romance, with private dinners and rainy beach visits.
It's easy to see how he feels like a celebrity after two nights of wining, dining and luxury accommodation.
"We should come back here," I say as we head home from our whirlwind escape.
"Yeah," says Sam. "But with more people."
Always the romantic.
Highlights of the Coromandel
• A tour of Mercury Bay with Glass Bottom Boat, taking in the sea caves, blowholes, stunning rock formations, and the marine reserve.
• Dinner at fine dining restaurant in Whitianga, Poivre & Sel, owned by French couple Samuel and Severine Goslin - easily the fanciest food we've ever eaten.
• A stay at Whitianga's Sovereign Pier on the Waterways, in a luxury apartment overlooking a private marina.
• A visit to the Pour House in Hahei, for a taste of their family-made beers and pizzas.
• Another night at a secluded chalet in Puka Park resort in Pauanui, and dinner at the resort's Miha Restaurant.