The Coromandel means beaches to many people but there’s a lot more to do than just jump in the surf. While we absolutely recommend you hit the water, there’s plenty to do here whether you’ve got a spare hour or two, or you fancy putting your feet up for a bit.
1. Camping at Waikawau Bay
Forty-odd kilometres north of Coromandel Town, a dusty gravel road leads to DOC’s Waikawau Bay campsite. It’s their biggest campground, with a capacity of over 1,000 in the height of summer. Despite these numbers, it still feels spacious because it’s spread out with seven separate areas for camping and lots of trees for shade. Most importantly, there’s the uninterrupted golden sand beach that arches around the bay. It’s back to basics camping here. Bring everything in and take it back out again. There’s a wee shop with salt-ice and ice-blocks, but you’ll need to stock up on groceries and essentials before you get there. There’s also terrible cell-phone reception – a key part of a chilled-out holiday under the canvas.
2. Fish & chips at The Wharf
There’s not much that can improve a piping hot package of fresh fish & chips. However, The Wharf in Thames has, as they say on MasterChef, elevated this Kiwi favourite to a whole new level. You order your f&c’s as per usual at Thames Wholesale Fisheries. Then find a table at their cafe-in-a-container at The Wharf immediately next door. One of the staff will deliver your hot food to your table where you can enjoy it the proper way – straight out of the paper – with a cold glass of whatever you fancy and a view of the water. The café also has platters, cabinet food and coffee. Plus, in the fish shop, there’s always an excellent range of locally caught fresh and smoked-on-site kaimoana to take home. They sell bait and salt ice, too.
3. Zipline at Driving Creek
Why walk or take the train when you can fly? This will very soon be an option at Driving Creek Railway in Coromandel Town when their new zipline opens. Ziplining was originally developed as a way to get people and stuff from A to B in mountainous terrain or across rivers. Now, it’s a way for tourists to get a thrilling, sky-high view of their surroundings. Zipliners are harnessed in and hooked onto a very strong wire, which is strung between two points. Similar to a flying fox, the force of gravity zooms you through the air as the world whizzes by. All you have to do is step off the ledge…. If that’s not your cup of tea, Driving Creek Railway is worth the trip to ride the charming mountain railway, where you can wander through the wildlife sanctuary and sculpture garden and check out the pottery and craft shop.
4. Waihī Beach
Carsick kids and Coromandel roads aren’t a great combo. In our family, that meant not visiting quite a few scenic spots when our children were little. However, there are notable beaches that don’t require traveling with a bucket in the back seat. Waihī Beach is my pick. It’s within easy striking distance from both Tauranga and Hamilton and a couple of hours from Auckland. The beach is 10km of golden sand, with surf just calling the kids and their boogie boards. At the northern end of the beach, you can follow the track for a scenic walk to Ōrakawa Bay. There are also changing rooms, toilets, outside cold showers and a dairy selling ice-cream after ice-cream. When it’s time to get out of the sun, there are also excellent retail therapy opportunities and dining options in the village.
5. Grahamstown shopping
Grahamstown, the north end of Thames’ main street, is becoming increasingly cooler. There are good cafés and food stores, funky op-shops, a busy Saturday market and now it’s home to several new Kiwi design stores. Arohart sells authentic Māori art, such as prints, weaving, carved pounamu, and even Dr Seuss translated into Te Reo. Arohart also holds very popular, free Māori language and weaving classes. Huia is all about celebrating the best of Aotearoa design. Stock includes desirable-yet-functional things for your home and gorgeous-often-colourful things to wear. Locally designed and printed, YaFreak’s streetwear is tongue-in-cheek and in ya face. Their “New York London Paris Thames Tokyo” design is being rocked all around town and will appear under local ex-pats’ Christmas trees around the world this summer.
6. Waiomu kauri grove
A quick detour off SH25 between Thames and Coromandel Town will get you out of the car and into the bush to check out the lovely ancient kauri grove in the hills above Waiomu. It’s about a two-hour return walk, with a mostly easy ascent. New wooden bridges span the stream and sunlight filters through the trees. Other walkers can be few and far between, and you may well get the bench at the top of the walk all to yourselves to sit beside the giant kauri and listen to the forest. A note that the stairs at the very end of the Waiomu Kauri Grove walk may test some knees. Kids, of course, will be able to run up without a care. Past the kauri grove, this walk joins up with other tracks through the Coromandel Ranges.
7. Dive or snorkel in Mercury Bay
The sea views across Mercury Bay are stunning. But just what’s going on under all that clear blue sea? A lot, as it turns out, which is why the area’s so enormously popular with divers. Sea creatures and their habitat are protected within the nine square kilometre Te Whanganui A Hei Marine Reserve off Cathedral Cove. Depending on where you go, there are crayfish and black angelfish, coral and starfish. Dive New Zealand has a detailed list outlining where to go and what you can expect to see. The marine reserve is also home to reefs, caves and bays so if you want to stay above the water, there are plenty of options for a good look from a kayak or a glass-bottomed boat tour.
8. Kauaeranga Valley replica dam
Kauaeranga Valley was heavily logged in the 19th and early 20th centuries when kauri were stripped from this pristine area of forest. More than 60 dams were built to get the felled trees out of the dense bush via the Kauaeranga River. You can visit a one-third scale replica of one of these dams to get an idea of how the sought-after kauri were transported in order to supply domestic and international markets. The native forest has regrown and the well-maintained walking track is just a short, shady meander from the Kauaeranga Valley DOC Visitor Centre. It’s worth checking in there before any walk or hike for the latest information about conditions. The road up the valley is narrow in places but it’s now sealed as far as the centre.
9. Falls Retreat
Falls Retreat in the picturesque Waikino Gorge is a primo spot for elegant a la carte dining or wood-fired pizza under the trees. It’s a bit off the beaten track for many people to make regular pilgrimages but you can add a pinch of Falls’ pizzazz into your own cooking by taking part in their onsite classes. Join their masterclass sessions on fermenting, pasta, bread-making, pickling and preserving, or take an all-day, interactive workshop with award-winning chef Brad. There are also gardening courses to inspire, and tours of their vege gardens so you can learn more about how they get their produce from paddock to plate. Bookings are essential.
10. Miranda Shorebird Centre
If you think flying long-haul is hard work, spare a thought for the thousands of shorebirds that flock to the Firth of Thames every year. Some of them arrive after a two-month, 12,000-kilometre journey from their Alaskan and Siberian breeding grounds. They come to the Miranda shellbanks and tidal flats for several months of R&R before returning north. At the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, you can learn about the extraordinary migration that these and many other birds undertake each year. Species such as pied oystercatchers, wrybill, and banded dotterel also come here for a rest. Sometimes there are 10,000 birds here once! The best bird-watching is from January to March.
11. Canyonz abseiling
If walking is through Kauaeranga Valley is just a bit too, well, pedestrian, the crew from Canyonz will help you crank the adrenaline up to 11! Their experienced team takes guided canyoning trips through The Sleeping God Canyon. Their action-packed tours will see you descend over three-hundred metres, abseiling, ziplining, jumping and sliding your way down waterfalls and cliffs, getting you good and wet, surrounded by the incredible forest of the Coromandel Ranges.
12. Hauraki Rail Trail
It’s always a good time to get on your bike on the Hauraki Rail Trail. The 160km mostly Grade 1 track has plenty of flat bits for even the most ginger of cyclists. It’s easily done in bite-sized chunks so you can pedal through paddocks, gaze at the gorges and discover the area’s historic sites. Travel from Thames to Kōpū, then either across the bridge to Miranda, or south through Paeroa, on to Te Aroha or Waihī. There are plans to extend the northern branch further up the west coast of the Firth of Thames and to connect the Te Aroha leg to Matamata. All those cyclists have been a boon for local tourism so there’s a growing number of places to eat, visit and stay along the route, as well as tourism operators who can help you with logistics, such as bike hire or luggage transfers.
13. The secret beaches
Ōtama Beach and Ōpito Bay require a bit of effort to get to. But if you do the mahi, you’ll be rewarded. The twisty turny trip over the Black Jack Road from Kūaotunu takes you to the sorts of beaches the travel posters promise; long stretches of beach just inviting you to leap into the clear blue sea, before you retire with a book or picnic under a pōhutukawa. Depending on when you visit, there may hardly be another soul in sight. Ōtama and Ōpito Bay are pleasantly undeveloped, with just a few permanent residents and some baches. There are a handful of holiday homes to rent if you want to stay a while. There are no shops or facilities aside from public toilets. A visit to Luke’s Kitchen for pizza at the Kūaotunu end of the Black Jack is compulsory.