Go back 150 odd years and Thames was booming, growing rich off gold. Grahamstown, at the north end of the main drag, Pollen Street, was one of the original towns, which ultimately merged to form Thames.
These days, Grahamtown’s got an eclectic mix of shops in its historic buildings, from organics to instruments, op-shops to antiques. Brew pub Boilerhouse Brewery has just opened and you can see artists at work at Studio 121 on Martha Street. The Depot – a funked-up former bus depot – is home to several businesses, including a cafe, a deli, and the aromatic Savour and Spice.
2. Mussel Inn on Coromandel
Mussels are an important part of the Coromandel economy. Local mussel farms grow a good chunk of New Zealand’s total produce, creating hundreds of jobs and earning millions of dollars.
Best of all, you can eat them. My pick’s The Coromandel Mussel Kitchen. We make pilgrimages there a couple of times each summer. We’ve happily fitted seven (possibly rowdy) families around outdoor tables to feast on pots of steamed mussels and plates of grilled ones. There are loads of non-mussel options too. Wash it all down with their in-house brewed beers. Paddocks either side of the restaurant mean space for the kids to have a run around before you get back in the car. Or to park your helicopter as required.
3. Whangamata estuary
One of New Zealand’s favourite beaches, Whangamata’s got surf, sand, and shopping; hiking, biking, and Beach Hopping.
My favourite place is the estuary. The estuary’s where the Otahu River meets the sea at the southern end of the surf beach. My grandmother bought a bach there when I was little. (Thanks Grandma!) So, my children build and destroy sandcastles where I did four decades ago.
At high tide, the water’s only knee-deep a long way out. Perfect for a gentle wade while admiring the pōhutukawa on the opposite bank. At low tide, there’s plenty of space for stomping in boggy sand and chasing seagulls. The current can be fierce, but close to shore it’s the perfect spot to paddle on the boogie board, throw sand at your siblings and forget you ever have to go back to work.
4. Karangahake Gorge
Yes, the road’s narrow with lots of corners. It’s slow in holiday traffic. But Karangahake Gorge is more just the winding bit between Paeroa and Waihi. Look around! (Unless you are driving. Then definitely look only at the road.) There are steep stone cliffs, a rambling river, historic mining sites and swing bridges.
To eat, the Falls Retreat menu makes any occasion special and the wood-fired pizzas are delicious. Tables are in a charming cottage and under the trees. Apologies to my current husband, but if I ever get married again, I want to do it here.
5. Kauaeranga Valley
In the meltingly hot days of summer, Kauaeranga Valley, in the hills to the east of Thames, is a great place to chill out.
The valley was once extensively logged for kauri, but it’s being replanted with natives, which you’ll see even on short walks to the model dam or Hoffmans Pool. The Visitors’ Centre is a good first stop for information about the area and the walks, and there are loos and drinking water.
You’ve definitely earned an ice cream after all that fresh air! You’ll find one next to the visitors’ centre at the Kauaeranga Valley Cafe little sister of the always popular Waiomu Beach Cafe on the Thames Coast.