Just past the end of the Auckland Southern Motorway we start to relax. There is something enticing about this stretch of road, how it opens up with rural views. The Waikato beckons. And beyond, our road trip route stretching all the way to Ohakune.
In Cambridge we stop for lunch to meet the others, congregating for seriously good Italian food in what used to be the Post Office. I remember coming here as a child, taking coins to bank in my squirrel account.
The town is busy, chock full of people wandering, people at café tables on the footpath. We bump into someone we know, sitting at one of the outdoor tables and he tells us he’s just seen three beautiful BMWs drive by. Well, we say, have we got a story for you!
This is a media trip. We’re with a handful of journalists and hosts, experiencing the BMW 3 Series Touring. There are three shiny wagons on the trip, and each day we drive a different one. They’re all amazing; everything you’d expect, plus some.
I’m not sure what was more fun: driving or playing with the gadgets – checking the news and weather, updating directions and points of interest, deciding on various atmosphere options for the cabin, contemplating drive modes and having the voice-activated artificial intelligence wizardry change the temperature.
Before lunch, the entourage has made its first stop at Zealong Tea Estate on the outskirts of Cambridge, a stunning green-filled park with hedges and gardens and rows of low tea plants; a café for tea tasting, an impressive story to tell about organic growing, innovative business and export successes. We sip nips of lemon and ginger, rose and chamomile, smooth award-winning black oolong.
We have a long way to go; no stopping at Tīrau’s outlet shops and, at Rotorua, it’s just a quick leg stretch. The lake is glossy, rippled with the colour of the sky – a metallic grey – with a touch of mineral sparkle like the paint on the 320d.
The forest territory around Rotorua and Taupō is dark and moody, great swathes of land empty and broken. Puffs of steam frill the roadside; we’re in geothermal land. Under dramatic skies we go, skirting Taupō itself to follow the lake’s eastern shoreline. We pass classic little baches with pastel paint jobs and decks just big enough for two chairs.
At Tūrangi we turn west and then up over the road to National Park, to the bottom of the mountain, driving past forests thick and mysterious as the light of the day fades away. Mist falls
in slow motion.
Past National Park we turn toward Ohakune and head to a boutique hotel with tussocky gardens and snug suites with dancing gas-fire flames adding a romantic touch. It’s magical here; I would like to explore, to take long walks across the glorious, wide-open landscape.
We know the mountain is right there in the dark but the big attraction, the wow factor, is the stars. Zillions of them, extra sparkly in the cold.
I whip open the curtains in the morning and ta-dah! No mountain. The rain has arrived. There is just a bit of flank showing, either coy or shy. We drive south, then east, circling, then up the Desert Road in the rain with the view pretty much cancelled.
In Taupō we stop for lunch in the busy centre of town and then make our way to Ōrakei Kōrako for a short boat ride across a calm expanse of river – a pool in the Waikato River – to walk boardwalks built over popping, plopping mud, dancing geysers, streaks of pearly pink and bright green and plumes of pongy steam. It’s surreal and extraordinary and well worth the stop.
Then on, across the Hauraki Plains, past Thames and up the narrow coastal road to Coromandel and nearby Wyuna Bay to a big, beautiful rented holiday house for the night.
In the morning, the sun is out, the sky is blue and the sea is shining and still. From the house we look down into various little bays either side of its perch on a peninsula. A hill of mānuka and other low trees, full of flitting fantails, slopes down to the water.
After a morning snooping around Wyuna Bay and Coromandel township, the entourage drives over the 309 – a bush-fringed road with classic Coromandel scenery: a tumbling stream running down the valley, great walls of green below mysterious rocky peaks.
At Whitianga we go directly to The Lost Spring where, amid tropical landscaping and rock gardens, a unique hot water world has been created. We lounge about, wallowing in the warm water, poring over the tempting cocktail menu and enjoying a platter poolside.
One more leg: back to Auckland, over the hill to the Hauraki Plains and on, to the Southern Motorway to town.
At Mount Wellington we swap the BMW for our own car, sighing extravagantly.
Reported by Kathryn Webster for our AA Directions Autumn 2021 issue
A word of thanks
To launch the BMW 3 Series Touring in New Zealand, BMW commissioned a survey of preferred driving routes. We drove three of them: Coromandel Peninsula, Desert Road and the Thermal Explorer Highway. We took turns in a 330d 4-cylinder, a 320d 6-cylinder (both diesel) and a M340i xDrive turbo 6-cylinder with a petrol engine. They were all smooth, solid and delightful to drive.
Do something new New Zealand and discover our Kiwi Gems at AA Traveller