There are few places left in New Zealand that we haven’t been. It’s not a big country. I’ve never see the east cape – not properly. And about 10 years ago we attempted to drive to the Coromandel peninsula, but car problems on Good Friday meant we had to turn back about half way there. So last Christmas it was time we tried again.
It was worth the wait. I now understand why it is one of New Zealand’s most popular summer destinations. The population of one small town, Whangamata, swells from 5,000 to 50,000 at New Year. Other smaller communities are similarly swamped by city dwellers drawn to the Coromandel’s delights for a summer holiday. But New Zealanders are fortunate. We live in a country with wide open spaces, and unless you would do something stupid like us, and try to shop at the Whangamata supermarket on the only rainy day a few days before New Year, the Coromandel still feels remote, the beaches still seem relatively empty and serene, largely untouched.
We stayed at a small beach settlement called Onemana, the houses nestled in the hills around a bay with a good surf beach, sand dunes, and a large expanse of grass in front of the beach. It was a quiet beach with no boat ramp, and there was a good cafe where my caffeine addiction could be treated.
Holidaying in the Coromandel tends to combine periods of energetic activity – bushwalks, swimming or surfing, and in our case, sightseeing – with periods of extreme languor, stretched out on the surface of your choice (sand, grass or the couch at the bach), with a cold drink nearby, some music on the ipod speakers, and a good book. Of course, inevitably the book ends up falling aside, heavy eyelids fall, and gentle snores ensue. The sound of summer!
Being new to the peninsula, every second day or so we decided to go out and explore. I had read about the drive up the west coast from Thames to Coromandel town, which is supposed to be beautiful when the pohutukawa are in flower. Pohutukawa are commonly called New Zealand’s Christmas tree. Tourism photographs commonly feature scenes like this.
We even have Christmas cards with photographs and drawings of the pohutukawa in flower, a popular choice instead of the more traditional, snowy scenes from the northern hemisphere. I grew up in the South Island, where they are exotic plants, and truly believed that in the north, they flower every Christmas. In Wellington the pohutukawa flower in early or mid January, and I look forward to the appearance of the crimson of flowers – one of the few spots of colour in the generally dark green landscape. So I was enthusiastic about the drive. But I discovered the great myth about our so-called Christmas tree. They bloom much earlier than Christmas in their natural habitat. I felt cheated! The way to Coromandel town was lined with the trees, but the red border on the roads mocked me for being a few weeks too late. Still, the occasional tree was still flowering, gloriously celebratorily (is that a word?) red, making it easy to imagine how stunning that drive must have been in early December.
The roads wind up and down hills and around bay after cove after bay, each view as appealing as the rest, calling out to you, inviting you to stop, set up camp, picnic, or simply sit under the shade of a pohutukawa with a newspaper or ice-cream. The roads on Boxing Day were full of people heading off for their camping sites, towing their boats or trailers stocked full of tents, camp-beds, barbecues and chilly bins. Everyone was patient though, the atmosphere was one of happiness; relaxed anticipation of lazy summer days stretching out ahead.
Coromandel town is surrounded by lush green bush, lined with a few cafes, shops, and art galleries. The road north takes you into even more remote areas, leaving civilised luxuries like paved roads and stop signs behind, but it was highly recommended, so we decided to head for Port Jackson, at the northern tip of the peninsula.
We ended up driving about 50 kms on winding, narrow, hilly, gravel roads. But the views were stunning, and it was a lovely drive. All I wanted to do was stop by the side of the road, sit under a pohutukawa tree and read the paper, maybe paddle in the sea. My driver however had other ideas, but we did get to wander along the beach once we got to Port Jackson, and stopped at a few gorgeous spots with names as attractive as their scenery.
The views on the way home were … well, see for yourself.
After that 9 hour effort, we took it easy. In Opoutere we walked through beautiful bush along an estuary, then emerged out onto the long, white sand beach, along with the locals fishing, tourists building sand castles, rare dotterels and families of oystercatchers.
We then visited a local artist’s gallery on the hill behind, and purchased a painting as a momento of our trip. At Whitianga we admired the inlets, bays and islands, a marine playground for those with boats. At Hahei we were enchanted by the tiny community, the tree-lined streets and the grassy footpaths. At Hot Water Beach we ate ham sandwiches under a pohutukawa, and watched the throngs of visitors trying to dig holes in the beach which would then fill with hot spring water, giving you your very own natural spa. They were however thwarted by the high tide, though that did not stop the tourists coming, making it the only beach in the region that seemed crowded.
Each beach community we visited had its own character – more upmarket and suburban Pauanui, Tairua on the hill with spectacular views, Whangamata with its reputation as a party town on New Year’s Eve, and Whiritoa, quieter and charming, Cook’s Beach full of families and campers.
Onemana we decided was near perfection. Pretty, quiet, relaxed, easy. A perfect kiwi holiday spot.
So shhhhh, don’t tell anyone else about it.