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; 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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…
The next stop on our trip? A journey into Middle Earth…
The practical bit:
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.