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After hanging around Auckland for a week, we decided to get out of the city for a bit. We chose the Coromandel Peninsula as our first outing. It’s a short distance just Southeast of Auckland, and it packs a lot into a small footprint.
Below are the highlights from our trip.
Thames Goldmine Experience
Similar to Australia, New Zealand experienced a massive gold rush in the late 1800’s. On the North Island, and the Coromandel peninsula especially, gold was mined through the process of crushing quartz into a powder and separating the precious metals out. They were then smelted into blocks. Sounds simple. We learned that it most certainly is not. It’s an incredibly wasteful way to mine. At the height of the industry in Thames, roughly 40% of the gold (and silver) were lost in the silt. The process also takes quite a bit of hazardous chemicals, and back in the day they were simply allowed to runoff into the river. Luckily, that no longer happens.
There are still a handful of mines along the peninsula, however, the Thames mine has been decommissioned for quite some time. Now it is run solely as a museum by volunteers. Donations and ticket sales are slowly bringing it back up to the condition of its “glory” days so that interested tourists can see how it really worked.
The best part by far was being able to go into the mine. We could have spent days wandering throughout the miles and miles of tunnels. Unfortunately, most of the tunnels are barricaded with signs saying “Authorized Personnel Only.”
Hot Water Beach
Our next stop was Whenuakite. We stayed at a nice little holiday park with an attached brew pub serving up beers made on site. It was a nice spot to spend the night, and a great jumping off point for visiting Hot Water Beach, one of the peninsula’s most visited sites.
Volcanic activity millions of years ago left a reservoir of hot rock and water beneath the sand. Today anyone can grab a spade – which, of course, you can rent at several places along the beach for $5 – and dig a hole. Seriously hot water bubbles up from below, filling the hole. And there you have it, your own little hot tub right by the ocean.
The area is only available during low tide. Running a bit late, we arrived probably half an hour after the peak of low tide. We were able to commandeer some abandoned spas and quickly began reinforcing the walls in an attempt to keep out the cold ocean water that was rising rapidly.
Alternating between hot and cold, and hot and cold, we enjoyed the experience despite the inevitable. We jumped from pool to pool, trying to get further away from the creeping tide, eventually giving up with swimsuits full of black sand.
Mercury Bay Estate
What better way wind down from a day at the beach then a glass of wine? On our way to our next holiday park, we found a precious little winery, Mercury Bay. We each had a tasting flight and enjoyed the beautiful scenery and four-legged company while drinking our wine and chowing down on wood-fired pizzas.
Staying in Cook’s Beach, we were surprised that driving to Whitianga, a little beach town just across the bay, would take 45 minutes. We opted instead to take the two-minute ferry. We spent the day wandering through the town, popping in shops and enjoying the chilled out vibe. After sharing a rather large pitcher of sangria at a tapas bar, we headed to our highlight of the day.
We chose to take a boat tour with Ocean Leopard’s and we had a fantastic time. Our tour had just six people, so we felt very spoiled. We were able to see all the sites along the beautiful coast, including Cathedral Cove and Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve. We also spotted a little Blue Penguin in the water as we zoomed past. J and I were the only two to brave the cold and hop in with all the Snapper in the reserve. I am conflicted with the amount that the fish obviously get fed, as we could see the food floating around us and amongst the fish.
The 309 Road
Our route around the peninsula was a bit haphazard, crisscrossing a couple of times. One of which was to drive the 309 road, a mostly dirt/gravel single lane road that is 99% turns. Hands down the curviest road I’ve ever driven. It has a few different attractions, the main one being a small grove of old-growth kauri. Kauri are indigenous trees to New Zealand that are endangered. Hundreds of years ago they covered the North Island, massive trees, thousands of years old. Unfortunately, as things go, they were harvested for building purposes, or simply burned down to make room for other enterprises.
Very few old growth trees remain. The oldest in the grove we visited are around 600 years. They are a spectacular sight, rising from the undergrowth of the bush and standing majestically above everything else. I can only imagine how awestruck those first European explorers must have been to see such a sight!
Also along the road is a nice little waterfall and swimming hole, as well as some less natural wonders. One such sight is the eccentric amusement park, the Waterworks. We stopped here to take a look, but did not end up spending the $25pp fee to get in. There is also a man who has an inordinate amount of pigs just running around the road with poorly handwritten signs claiming “You can pet the pigs!” There were some hippie backpackers stopped and chatting with him, but we decided to pass.
We spent a couple of days in Coromandel Town, a cute little spot on the Northwestern side of the peninsula. It is basically the last stop on the way to the tip of the peninsula. It has some interesting sights within it, as well. The main draw is the Driving Creek Railway, a hand-laid railway climbing to the peak of a beautiful lookout.
The little railway was the vision of a potter, who purchased the property and began the rail construction for the purpose of collecting the rich clay available in the mountains. As the rail grew, he had more and more visitors to his property asking to take a ride. Driving Creek acts as an artists haven as well as a tourist attraction, bringing visitors up to a gorgeous panorama of the Coromandel.
As we were to find out, the most northern point of the peninsula reachable by car is Fletcher’s Bay. It was not easy to get to, but it was definitely worth it. It is a beautiful, quiet bay. And like many things in New Zealand, you feel like you’re the only one. There is a 3.5 hour trek from Fletcher Bay to Stony Bay that I had intended to walk. J would meet me at Stony Bay and we would continue on our way. This plan was dashed when we realized the only way for him to get to Stony Bay would be to backtrack all the way to Coromandel Town and take a right where we had gone left 3 hours earlier.
At the prospect of having to drive so much alone, it taking quite a bit longer for him to drive all that way, and the rain that had been falling sporadically all day, I opted to skip the tramp and we headed back to Coromandel Town together, after drinking in the view for a while.
Orere point was our final stop before heading all the way back to Auckland. We were able to go for a dip in the local swimming hole before the skies opened up. It didn’t stop raining on us till after Splore, more on that to come.
Watch the video below for more from the Coromandel Peninsula!