Exploring North Island's breathtaking Coromandel Peninsula
The Coromandel Peninsula, a long spit of land that shields the Hauraki Gulf from the stormy Pacific Ocean, is where many New Zealanders come to get away from it all. So, given how laidback and picturesque the rest of the country is, you can imagine what it’s like here. Fringed with powdery beaches flanked by steep rainforest-clad mountains, the North Island peninsula attracts an adventurous, environmentally conscious crowd, its west coast dotted with small towns that swell during high season and can be almost deserted the rest of the year. On a fine day you can see as far as the capital, Auckland, which is around a three hour drive or a two-hour scenic ferry journey, while the pleasant harbour city of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty is 2.5 hours southeast by car.
Much of the peninsula’s interior is made up of the Coromandel Forest Park, and there is a superb range of eco attractions to be found among its gorges, woodlands and towering peaks. Most visitors choose to base themselves in town and dip inland, and there is a variety of fantastic holiday accommodations available, from chalets tucked into the bush to luxury hotels offering majestic views of islands off the coast. If you’re planning to explore the Coromandel Peninsula, here’s everything you need to know.
Where to stay in the Coromandel Peninsula
Once the largest urban centre in the country, Thames stopped growing after the 19th century gold rush, but remains the main hub of the peninsula. You’ll find a wide range of cultural attractions, accommodations, restaurants and bars here, as well as easy access to the interior.
The ferry from downtown Auckland arrives at Hannaford Wharf, a short distance from Coromandel Town. Renowned for its Victorian architecture, there is a vibrant artistic community here, and many boutique eateries that have given it a reputation as a foodie destination.
An idyllic seaside resort that’s popular with windsurfers and kitesurfers, Pauanui is ideal for those seeking a relaxed New Zealand beach holiday with the opportunity to explore more active pursuits inland.
Mixing sophistication with classic Kiwi surf culture, Whangamata is a mecca for New Zealanders not only for its golden stretches of sand, but shopping, fishing and hiking in the nearby Coromandel Forest Park.
One of the main attractions of Tairua, a charming beach holiday town, is that you can climb to the summit of volcanic Mt. Paku within a couple of hours, for some truly outstanding views of the harbour and the Alderman Islands.
Situated in Mercury Bay, where Captain James Cook landed in 1769, Whitianga has a deep Maori heritage, and is a prominent location for fishing and yachting trips.
The birthplace of New Zealand’s most famous soft drink, Lemon & Paeroa, which combines lemon juice with mineral water from, where else, Paeroa, and is often mixed with bourbon. Paeroa also hosts a fascinating maritime history museum.
Things to see and do in the Coromandel Peninsula
Exploring the interior
This region is endowed with a vast number of scenic trails, making it a paradise for lovers of the Great Outdoors. Popular routes include the Thames Coastal Walkway for its sea views, and the Hauraki Rail Trail which uses an abandoned railway network and is considered one of the finest cycling journeys in the country. The Pinnacles is a popular two-day hiking route that involves an overnight camp, but it’s well worth making the extra effort for the breathtaking panoramas you’ll enjoy throughout.
The Waterfall Track takes you across the Wentworth River, but as it rarely gets more than ankle-deep you shouldn’t have any difficulty negotiating it. Meanwhile the Windows Walk is undoubtedly the best way to see the vast Karangahake Gorge, once a major gold-mining community. Wherever you go, keep your eyes open for the Hairy Moehau, New Zealand’s answer to ‘Bigfoot’, a gorilla-like creature that is said to stalk the Coromandel mountains. Don’t worry, it’s not real. Probably.
Relax in natural hot pools
Like much of New Zealand, the Coromandel Peninsula has been shaped by substantial volcanic activity over the centuries and although not as evident as places such as Rotorua, there are still many traces of it on show. Hot Water Beach is a very popular destination on Mercury Bay, where you can dig in the sand to create your own personal thermal pool. There are several vendors helpfully selling buckets and spades nearby. Come here to soak your muscles but not to swim, as the currents can be treacherous on this beach.
The Miranda Hot Springs is a formal bathing facility ,where you can bathe in several large pools filled with thermally heated mineral-rich water. Here you have to pay to enter, but there’s no digging required.
Discover the culture and heritage of the Coromandel Peninsula
Situated at the foot of the peninsula, the town of Waihi has an interesting Gold Discovery Centre, where you can take a trip deep into an old but still-working gold mine, learn the story behind the 19th century Coromandel Gold Rush, and also try some authentic equipment, including drills and a plunger that creates a (simulated!) explosion.
There are over 400 butterflies fluttering by in the Thames Butterfly and Orchid Garden, as well as many species of exotic flowering plants including beautiful, fragrant orchids. Even in a region as beautiful as the Coromandel Peninsula, this is a gem.
If you’re of the opinion that the best way to find the soul of a destination is through its food, then you’ll find plenty to tempt your palate here. The Coromandel Peninsula is fab for foodies, known for its oysters, cheeses and wine, and also macadamia nuts. Regular markets are held in the area’s towns, vineyards offer cellar-door tastings, and there are food-themed festivals throughout the year too, with the Seafood Festival in May a particular highlight.
Hit the beaches
There are so many gorgeous bays and beaches around the Coromandel Peninsula that you could easily visit a different one every day. One of the most well-known is Cathedral Cove, or Te Whanganui-A-Hei to give it its Maori name, which is an immensely popular photography spot on account of a natural arch in the limestone cliff here. In fact, this was used as a location during the filming of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ - that’s right, Peter Jackson doesn’t have a monopoly on Kiwi fantasy films.
New Chum Beach, located between Tairua and Kuaotunu, is considered to be among the most beautiful in the world. It’s very much a “take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints” ethos here - as it should be of course. There is no infrastructure to speak of, just some truly staggering views to lose yourself in. If you really want picturesque isolation, drive to Kennedy Bay, just beyond Coromandel Town, which is slightly out of the way and therefore sees relatively few sunseekers.
Fantastic marine activities above and below the surface
Scuba diving is a big activity in the Coromandel Peninsula. There are several renowned dive sites in the area, and not just one but two marine preserves. The first can be found at Cathedral Cove, while the other is off the northern tip of Tuhua (Mayor Island), and they can both be visited on guided dive tours.
Other popular watersports include kayaking - you can paddle out to see the spectacular Emerald Lagoon that gives Donut Island its name. Snorkelling, glass-bottomed boat tours and of course surfing are big draws here too. There is also the chance to take a boat trip out to see whale and dolphin, with several species of each found in these waters. On clear days you can often see them from the beach.
Other adventures in Coromandel
The Coromandel Peninsula is predominantly somewhere people come to relax amid the beauty of nature - New Zealand adrenaline activities tend to be clustered more around cities such as Rotorua and Queenstown. That being said, if you like to live life on the edge, or just pay the edge a visit once in a while, we’ve got a few recommendations. Driving Creek Railway is the steepest railway in New Zealand, located north of Coromandel Town. The passion project of a local potter, the route takes you past his brickworks and can be combined with a glow-worm tour.
Fun sea kayaking trips are available from several points on the peninsula, and for a little more adventure you can head out to explore more remote stretches of the coastline that most tours miss out. You can duck into sea caves, peek into hidden tunnels, and if you’re very lucky, get up close with marine life such as dolphin.
You can get a unique perspective of the peninsula’s landscape from above, so if you don’t fancy hiking to the top of a mountain, consider a plane or helicopter sightseeing tour. A quicker route down is also possible, as like most places in New Zealand, the Coromandel Peninsula offers skydiving.
Believe it or not, there is at least one extreme sport that didn’t originate in New Zealand. Canyoning is thought to be a French invention, but of course the Kiwis have taken it up with gusto. For the uninitiated, canyoning involves rappelling and abseiling down gushing waterfalls, sliding over rocks and leaping down into deep pools of water, and in the Coromandel Peninsula you have one of the best places to do it: the Sleeping God Canyon in Kauaeranga Valley. Professional guides give you all the instruction and equipment you need before leading you out on an intrepid full-day adventure into the interior which is sure to leave you shaken and stirred. A trip to Hot Water Beach will be very well-deserved after this!