Road Trip in New Zealand: Driving around the Coromandel Peninsula

Last time I was in New Zealand, I was 18 years old. It was my first proper trip away without my parents, and it involved two weeks on the South Island doing all those classic gap year things: my friend Kirsten and I took the Kiwi Experience bus around the whole island, swimming with dolphins, doing the A J Hackett bungy jump trilogy, and diving out of a plane. This time, on the North Island, has been a little different: Annie and I opted for a road trip in a rented convertible; o we’ve been quite a bit more independent and quite a bit more comfortable this time round, staying in private accommodation rather than the hostels of 13 years ago…

Having started off in Auckland, we headed out of the city in our snazzy little car. Our first stop was not far at all: Auckland Botanic Gardens. We were pointed in the direction of the African plants and the rose garden, which were particularly good this time of year. It’s odd to have arrived in rose season, having already left summer behind and entered winter when I left the UK just last week.

Yellow flowers at Auckland Botanic Gardens

Annie at the Botanic Gardens, fortuitously coordinated with the African plants display.

We stayed two nights in Thames, a small gold mining town at the bottom left corner of the Coromandel – about an hour and a half drive from Auckland. Our accommodation was in the Old Police Station, in the cellblock to be exact.

The Old Police Station, Thames

Built in 1909, the police station was sold and became a private home in 1991. The current owners bought it in 2010.

We started the next day by driving up the western side of the peninsula, a coastal road with great views out into the ocean. This side has fishing rather than the sandy beaches and turquoise waters that you’ll see on the east side. We enjoyed our little drive up the coast with the top down and the wind through our hair.

Anna in BMW Z4 on the Coromandel coast

I don’t care what Jeremy Clarkson says, I loved our little BMW Z4. Notice in particular the strategically placed rubbish bin in front of the car. I’m expecting a travel photography award for this one…

In Coromandel Town, we stopped off for a coffee and a bagel (lots of bagels on this trip) at the Chai Tea House. We could have relaxed there for a while but we received a recommendation from the information centre to take road 309 across to the other side of the peninsula. Road 309 is a gravel road through the forest, along which there are various activities. You can hike to the Kauri Grove, where you can see some of these huge trees – they can grow to be more than 50 metres tall. If you have kids with you, then the Waterworks looks like a good stop, an interactive theme park constructed with recycled materials; or why not visit Stu’s wild pigs (we did see one pig run across the road – behind us, luckily, not in front of the car).

Waiau Waterfall, Coromandel

Our chosen stop on road 309 was at the Waiau Waterfall, where you can follow various trails or, as we did, simply walk to the waterfall, just down from where you park the car.

Since it was still early afternoon, we decided to take a little detour down to Cathedral Cove. This is on area of a marine reserve that can only be reached on foot or by boat or kayak, so we parked our car at the top of the cliff and walked down to the cove.

Cathedral Cove

The naturally formed arched cavern of Cathedral Cove separates two sandy beaches. Bring your swimsuit if the weather is good as it’s a lovely little spot, even just to sunbathe if you don’t fancy a refreshing dip.

Cathedral Cove, Prince Caspian setting

You may recognise this other angle from the second Narnia film, where the Pevensie children return to the magical land to help Prince Caspian, having been transported from the London underground tunnel. Lucky them! The ruins of Cair Paravel sat up above, overlooking the beach.

Cathedral Cove

The east coast is where you’ll find all the beautiful beaches, including Hot Water Beach where you can dig for hot springs during low tide. There is also The Lost Spring day spa in Whitianga where you can relax in geo-thermal pools and get various treatments.

After two nights in the cellblock, we left Thames and the Coromandel to continue our road trip. As we headed further down into the North Island, we stopped off at the town of Paeroa. Paeroa is the birthplace of Lemon and Paeroa, L&P, a soft drink a bit like lemonade. Its slogan? World famous in New Zealand. Elsewhere in the world, it’s sold only in specialist New Zealand shops. I finally tried some L&P on my Air New Zealand flight yesterday – it’s nice, a little sweet; but I tend to drink either water or wine…

Giant bottle of Paeroa

There are several giant bottles around town for posing, though we almost drove out of town without seeing any of them. Here Annie has again managed to match her outfit to the photo backdrop…

The next stop on our trip? A journey into Middle Earth…

 

The practical bits:

Auckland Botanic Gardens: The Gardens are open all year round and entry is free.

Old Police Station, Thames: You can stay in the main house or in the cells where you have two rooms and a kitchenette. Breakfast is included and there is space to park your car out in front; wifi signal was weak and unreliable but it’s a fun place to stay and a good place to base yourself when exploring the area. Having seen both sides, though, I would recommend staying on the east coast, although I can imagine it gets busy during peak summer season with both locals and tourists flocking to the beaches.

Cathedral Cove: You can hop on the glass-bottom boat or get in a kayak at Hahei Beach, or walk down from the car park as we did; it takes 30-45 minutes one way. Note that there are toilet huts up by the car park, but no shops or cafés; the car park was also completely full when we arrived, we were lucky to get a spot – though people are leaving all the time so with a bit of patience you should be fine.

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