Let me set the scene for my Coromandel Peninsula road trip.
It’s March 2020 in New Zealand.
The rest of the world is already very much in the grip of the pandemic and the lockdowns that come with it. New Zealand, so far removed from everywhere else, still has a bit of a breathing period. Case numbers are comparatively low. Lockdown is not yet mentioned. Travelling in the country is still allowed, though there’s a certain bitter taste to it when you think about how the rest of the world has already lost this privilege.
Though life here is somewhat normal, we’re not ignorant of what’s going on. The Auckland hostel, where I spent the previous couple of weeks, is filled with travellers not sure how and when they’ll get back home. Flights to Europe are being cancelled left and right. People are desperate as they are now stuck.
I hadn’t planned to leave yet, but I can’t help feel the desperation in the air. The uncertainty. The not-knowing-what’s-going-to-happen.
The silver lining
Somewhere in the middle of it, though, I make friends in the hostel. Two fellow Germans, waiting for their flights home in a week’s time. Not cancelled so far, but far from certain either. Together, we decide to get out into the country one more time while we still can. Take one last trip before they go home and I face an uncertain future in New Zealand.
We booked a car for five days, with a vague plan to visit the Coromandel Peninsula for our last days of sun, beaches and, hopefully, not-worrying about what is going on in the world.
Needless to say, the memories connected with this Coromandel road trip are quite unlike those of any other trip I’ve ever been on.
Spontaneous first stop: Hamilton
It’s not far to go from Auckland to Coromandel. Less than two hours drive if you go directly. However, we had plenty of time so we went for the scenic route. Meaning, instead of following the coast we headed south, inland, for a while.
We hadn’t planned to drive through Hamilton. We hadn’t really planned much at all. But that’s where we ended up. Suddenly, before we even realized we had already come this far, we had reached the city. Of course, now that we were here, we wanted to explore.
The only thing we had heard of about this city, attraction-wise, were the Hamilton Gardens. So that’s where we went. And boy, was it worth it.
Hamilton Gardens present a vast variety of different garden designs that can take you hours to explore. From old English to traditional Maori, from Chinese gardens to a quirky Surrealist Garden – Hamilton Gardens has it all. Each garden tells a different story or educates you on a different kind of plants and design.
It’s not only very instagrammable but also equally great for finding some quiet corners and walk peacefully among the beautiful flora.
Sunrise at Mount Maunganui
Our first night, we spent at Tauranga. Not quite on the Coromandel Peninsula yet, but a bit further east on the coast.
Driving there from Hamilton took us past Hobbiton as well as Rotorua, another popular tourist stop. Had I known then this would indeed be my last trip in New Zealand, as I soon after changed my mind about going home, I might have made more of a case for stopping there. As it was, we drove right past. Those places will have to wait for whenever I’m able to visit NZ again.
We arrived at our hostel and were in for a bit of a shock. It was tiny, cramped way too full, and not too clean. Plus, the people didn’t exactly inspire trust. To make matters worse, I was eaten alive by mosquitos that night. At least, I’m hoping they were mosquitos and not some kind of bug. In short, it was one of the worst nights I’ve ever spent at a hostel. And I’ve been at some crappy ones over the years.
The one good thing was that we had a super early start because we were planning to watch the sunrise. I’m not an early riser at all, but that morning, I was more than happy to get out.
The place we had chosen for our sunrise watch was Mount Maunganui, a few minutes drive from Tauranga. At the very end of the beach of this little seaside town is an extinct volcano, Mt. Mauao or affectionately “The Mount”. Several paths lead up to the summit. Some are steeper than others, but overall it’s a very doable hike. It takes around 30 to 40 minutes, though length can vary depending on which path you choose.
We made it up just in time to see the sun coming up over the ocean. Who cares about crappy hostels anymore at this sight?
Reaching the Coromandel Peninsula
Back from our sunrise excursion, it was time to head to the actual destination of our road trip: The Coromandel Peninsula in Northern New Zealand. Coromandel is mostly just about nature: the beautiful beaches, the hiking trails, the stunning lookout points. It’s up to you whether you want to enjoy this more actively, with hiking, surfing or cycling, or just chill on the beach. There really is something for everyone.
First beach stop on Coromandel: Waihi Beach
We had booked a room for the night in a town called Whangamata, on the east coast of Coromandel. But before going there, we had a very clear goal for the day: stop at the first nice beach we can find!
This happened to be Waihi Beach. We came past it shortly after reaching the Coromandel Peninsula. It was the perfect place for a couple of hours chilling in the sun, before having lunch in the tiny town.
Falling in love with Whangamata
Driving on, we arrived in Whangamata in the afternoon and at our hostel, the SurfnStay New Zealand. Our experience here was the complete opposite of the day before. This one was small too, but that’s where the similarities ended. It was clean, super cute and cosy, and the staff was just incredibly nice. We immediately felt at home. So much so that we decided on the spot to stay a second night.
This also gave us the chance to have a full day just hanging on the beach and doing nothing much at all. Well, at least, that was our plan. The day got a damper when one of my travel companions lost her phone in the ocean…
Nevertheless, I absolutely loved Whangamata. Our accommodation was only about two minutes walk from the beautiful beach. On our second morning in town, I watched another incredible sunrise there. (What’s happening to me? Am I turning into an early riser?)
The rest of the time was filled with relaxing on the beach. Drinking excellent coffee at the cafe around the corner, which our hostel owners had recommended. Joining quiz night with the staff and the few fellow guests.
Staying here felt like being part of a family and this isn’t something that happens to me often. As an introvert, I usually get along with people well enough, but I rarely connect that quickly on a level that really makes me feel like I’m one of the team, like I did here. When they offered us to just sit out COVID right there, spending our days with surfing and yoga on the beach, I must admit I was tempted.
The Coromandel west coast
After a free day in Whangamata, however, it was time to move on. Our plan had originally been to keep driving North along the east coast of Coromandel and visit Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove, two of it’s most popular attractions. After that, we wanted to head over to the west and drive back down there, eventually returning to Auckland.
The lost phone made us change our plans. Turned out, there’s only one town around big enough to have a phone shop, and that was Thames. It’s located on the south-west corner of the Coromandel Peninsula. So we spontaneously changed plans and drove over there first to replace the lost phone.
Then headed up the west coast towards Coromandel Town, where we would spend the night. The next day, we’d return to the east coast and visit all we wanted to see there, with enough time to return to Auckland the same day.
A special drive for me
The west coast drive was absolutely stunning! Additionally, it was a bit of excitement for me because I got to drive our car. In case you don’t get the significance of that, let me tell you that while I do have a license, I have next to none driving experience. At the point I got behind that wheel I had only driven about three or four times in 13 years. So driving now, I was certainly a little nervous. It didn’t help that I had heard some horrible things about NZ drivers and how it’s always the tourists having the horrible accidents…
However, all went well, and if my travel companions feared for their lives they did a good job of hiding it. It probably also helped there were hardly any other cars around.
There wasn’t really much to do on the west coast, other than enjoy the ocean views and stop at each and every lookout point on the way. If you have your own car, you need to make use of being able to stop whenever you want, right?
When we had arrived in Coromandel Town and checked into our accommodation – no hostel but a private room for this last night – we still had plenty of time left. Based on a recommendation from our hostess, we headed to Long Bay for a walk. It led first through woods with Kaui, a special New Zealand tree. Then along the bay and down to the beach. We even found an old swing right by the water. Instagram heaven!
Coromandel Town is also the place where the ferry from Auckland lands. It sounds like a really cool way of travelling there. I actually had considered doing this before the option of the road trip came up. Back when I still thought I’d continue to travel New Zealand for a few months to come. I wanted to take the ferry from Auckland to Coromandel Town and then travel on by bus.
There are public buses connecting the main towns on Coromandel, mainly Coromandel Town, Whitianga and Thames. The disadvantage, of course, is that you’re stuck to those and can’t go to all the small little towns, like Whangamata, which I so fell in love with. So I’m very grateful I got the chance to go by car. It’s the best option to see everything on the peninsula.
Across the Coromandel Peninsula
The day we arrived in Coromandel Town, New Zealand had announced a lockdown starting in two days time. All domestic travel was to cease. As this was our last day anyway, we decided to end our trip as we had planned. But it made us even more grateful we had decided to take it in the first place.
Now, the first order of business was heading back over to the east coast. There were two ways to get there from Coromandel Town. One was along the main road that followed the northern coast. The other was the shorter, because more direct route, cutting right through to the opposite side of the peninsula. Because our hostess also said it was much faster, we chose the latter.
Shorter it may be, but also unpaved for a big part of the way. Our little rental car was most certainly not a four-wheel-drive equipped for these kinds of roads. We made it, but our slow pace probably meant we needed more time than we would have on the longer, better-paved road.
At least we got a stop at a little hidden waterfall out of it.
Finally, however, we made it to Hahei, the gateway to Cathedral Cove. It’s a tiny town but very popular with tourists for precisely this reason, as well as because of its beautiful beach.
The walk from town to the Cove takes a bit under an hour one way. At the Cove itself, you can swim, chill at the beach and take photos of the amazing sight. What makes this place famous if the stone formation that takes the form of an arch spanning over the beach.
However, when we reached the start of the trail, we found that the walk down to the cove was closed. We only got as far as the lookout. There was no explanation as to why, but we suspected it was because of the dooming lockdown. Most places were very empty of people by now and the majority of shops and cafes had already closed. Which also ruined our alternative plan of having a coffee break in Hahei instead.
Hot Water Beach
Next, we tried Hotwater Beach. Cafes were closed here, too, but the shop renting out the shovels and buckets for the beach was open. You use the shovel to dig down to the hot water, which comes from an underground river running right underneath the beach. With the bucket, you get cold water out of the ocean to adjust the water temperature of your self-dug hot tub. The best time to do this is two hours before and after low tide.
As we still had to return to Auckland that day and time had somehow much progressed, despite the fact we didn’t walk to Cathedral Cove, we skipped digging our own pool and satisfied ourselves with a little beach walk.
We did ask some others who were digging whether we could feel the water temperature, just to check it really is hot. Yep, it certainly is.
The Coromandel Peninsula was special
We got home to an Auckland about to go into Lockdown. The next day was the last before everything closed. Then after two weeks of lockdown, I flew home on a repatriation flight.
I will always remember this Coromandel Peninsula road trip as the last few days of „freedom” in New Zealand. Our trip may not have been entirely carefree, as it was shaped by lockdown announcements, cancelled flights, lost phones and the need to make decisions whether or not to leave the country.
But despite all this, I never think of these things when I remember that trip. Instead, I think of the fun we had, the great people we met and the breathtakingly beautiful places we got to see. I think of sunrises and laughter and the camaraderie that got us through it all.
It was an unusual and very intense trip, and I’m pretty sure I’ll never have one quite like it. But because it was surrounded by so much uncertainty, we were even more determined to make the best of the time we had. I couldn’t imagine a better last trip in New Zealand.
Have you been to the Coromandel Peninsula? What was your last trip before the lockdown? Share in the comments!