Ask any resident of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, what their number one domestic summer holiday destinations are, and the Coromandel Peninsula or one of its many beach towns will almost undoubtedly be near the top of the list.
This beloved and idyllic peninsula is conveniently located just a few hours’ drive from the city, and is the site of many fond childhood memories - and adult memories too, come to that. Replete with sandy beaches, wooded mountains and casual communities, it has an atmosphere that will have you feeling relaxed no matter how hard you try to resist it.
If you’re planning a getaway in New Zealand
and would rather get a taste of a real Kiwi summer than race around the main sights, we can highly recommend picking up a car rental from Auckland Airport
and embarking on a Coromandel road trip. Here’s a suggested itinerary which you can bend to your will for the ultimate beach holiday. Each day has minimal driving time, because there are better ways you can spend your hours - namely, on the sand.
Day 1: Auckland to Thames: 115 kilometres, 2 hours driving time
Once you’ve had your fill of the city life, point your vehicle south on State Highway 1 then east on State Highway 2 and 25, following the signs for Thames. It’s tradition to take a tiny detour and stop at Pokeno for a huge icecream cone - but don’t worry, that’s only five minutes out of the way.
You’ll get a taste of rural New Zealand on this drive, as the road passes through flat farmland and skirts the bottom of the Firth of Thames. You’ll pass over the Kopu bridge just before reaching the township - recently widened, this used to be a single-lane bridge which caused endless bottlenecks on Friday and Sunday evenings when heading east and west respectively.
Thames is not the high point of what the Coromandel has to offer, but it’s a nice enough town - and a good place to catch a break and get your bearings before you begin the rest of your journey. You won’t find any beaches worth writing home about here, as it’s on the wrong coast for that. However, if you like scenery of the inland kind, the nearby Kauaeranga Valley is the perfect place to go hiking and appreciate the Peninsula’s mountainous interior. It’s a 40-minute drive to the road end where most tracks start, and you can stop at the Visitors Centre along the way for info.
The hike up to the “Pinnacles” is a particularly good one. It’s possible to get up there and back (three hours each way) within a day if you’re quick, but if you have the time you can stay up there for the night - there’s a basic but very well-equipped 80-bed hut which you can book at $15 per person, per night.
Thames is also home to one of the bigger supermarkets you’ll find in the Coromandel, so look out for the bright yellow Pak n Save and stock up on your essentials. There are plenty of hotels and motels around town, and Dickson Holiday Park is just a few minutes to the north on State Highway 25.
Day 2:Thames to Port Jackson: 109 kilometres, 2.5 hours driving time
The western coast of the Coromandel is considered the more boring side of the peninsula, but there are some very nice spots along this quiet and peaceful stretch. When the tide is out, the tidal flats are exposed, but when it is in there are some calm, swimmable beaches along here - great for families. It is also a stunning coastal drive from Thames to Kereta as the road hugs the coastline closely. Enjoy the vistas of the Firth of Thames that you will get between mature pohutukawa trees.
Coromandel Town is to be found along this part of the coast, a regional centre - be sure to stop by the Visitor’s Centre to gather a bit of local knowledge. Many artists and alternative types make the Coromandel their home, and here you can visit some galleries or buy handcrafted souvenirs, as well as tasting some healthful creations in the quirky cafes.
From Coromandel, Colville Road will take you up over hills and along the coast to Port Jackson near the very tip of the peninsula. This is a scenic drive but windy in places, so take it slow and appreciate the views!
Port Jackson is not what you’d call a town, consisting of a few houses and a campsite, but it’s a lovely and relatively unspoilt place to spend a night. Book a spot in the reasonably basic campsite and pitch a tent, or plan well in advance and reserve a “bach” for a night or two - this is a holiday home, kiwi-style. These are often quite cost-effective and easy to arrange on bookabach.co.nz
- but be warned that accomodation can sell out quickly in the Coromandel during the summer!
If you can stay in the Port Jackson area a day or two, there are some great walks you can do. The Coromandel Coastal Walkway
begins in nearby Fletcher Bay and is a seven hour return hike with a relatively easy grade offering some fantastic views.
Day 3: Port Jackson to Kuaotunu: 82 kilometres, 2.5 hours driving time
Be prepared for some mountainous roads today as you head back down the coast to Coromandel and then inland over the hills to the eastern coast, where much of the Coromandel magic happens.
We recommend leaving early and making a detour to Whangapoua. From there you can make the 30-minute walk to New Chums Beach, a slice of heaven which has been rated as one of the top stretches of sand in the world. You can sign on for a tour, but it’s better to just join the locals and make the trek along the shoreline then over the saddle. The short hike to get there is worth it as the beach remains spectacularly untouched and allows visitors to forget for a while that civilization exists.
Once you’ve had your fill of New Chums (you may never want to leave), continue on your merry way to Kuaotunu. This charming little town sits at the eastern end of a long, sandy, ocean-facing beach. It has numerous options for accommodation - camping, cottages, baches for hire and bed and breakfast outfits - but again, make sure you book in advance.
If golf is your thing, you could get a round in at The Dunes Matarangi Golf Course, a beautiful, world-class course just ten minutes from Kuaotunu. There is also the occasional good surf break off Kuaotunu Beach, and some nice places to get a casual meal in the township.
Day 4: Kuaotunu to Whitianga vi Opito Bay: 25 kilometres, 1.5 hours driving time
The first part of this journey, from Kuaotunu to the beautiful Opito Bay, includes some gravel road, so check your rental agreement - some companies do not allow you to travel on unsealed roads. If that’s the case, no problem - just get in some extra beach time at Kuaotunu or Matarangi. You could even return to New Chums just to check your eyes weren't’ deceiving you.
It’s a windy and rattling trip, but the reward is the long sweep of white sand that is Opito Bay. Here you can surf, swim and even snorkel in the rocky lagoon at the western end of the beach. There are no shops here, just holiday homes and an atmosphere of complete escape. If you are game for a walk, ditch the car where the road ends and travel on foot to the eastern end of the beach and over a hill to the picturesque Crayfish Bay, a secluded cove perfect for more snorkeling and even a spot of fishing off the rocks.
If you want some more time in the lovely Opito Bay you can book a bach and stay overnight, but otherwise backtrack a little to Kuaotunu then take a twisty State Highway 25 the short distance to Whitianga.
This bustling beach town is the epicentre of the Mercury Bay region, with a relaxed pace of life but boasting all the shops and services you might need to restock. There are plenty of places you can stay here, and if you’re hankering for a nice meal out, this is the place to do it as you’ll have many options from which to choose.
Enjoy the friendly waterfront ambience down by the river and watch the cute ferries making the five-minute crossing to Ferry Landing, or take a walk on the long Buffalo Beach and look out to Mercury Bay.
Day 5: Whitianga to Cooks Beach via Cathedral Cove/Hahei: 45 kilometres, 1 hour driving time
Today’s total distance is very short, but you’ll need most of your day for the visit to fabulous Cathedral Cove. Continue out of Whitianga on State Highway 25 and turn off at Whenuakite to follow the signs to Hahei. This lovely beachside community is the starting point for most excursions to Cathedral Cove, a must-see spot on the Coromandel.
You have a choice of how to get there from Hahei. Take a kayaking tour and use arm power to get you around the coast to the cove, or hop on a motorboat and relax as you cruise around the beautiful coves and inlets to your destination. The cheapest option (it’s free) is to turn left at the shops, drive up Grange Road South to the headland carpark and walk there. If the carpark is full, you can park in town and begin the trek from the western end of the beach instead, adding 20 minutes or so to the total walking time.
From the headland carpark, it’s around half an hour’s scenic hiking to the cove - ignore the signs saying 45 minutes, as that’s a very generous estimate. The track will take you through native bush, across farmland and to some great lookout points before winding down through the forest to the wooden stairs which lead to the stunning Cathedral Cove.
If the cove looks somewhat familiar, it’s because it was used as a filming location in the Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. The incredible curve of sand and dramatic rock formations, AKA Cair Paravel, make for an amazing, other-worldly experience - and just like New Chums, it is far from any sign of real civilisation which adds to the charm. Tourists flock here, but there are no stalls or stands, just a wooden “longdrop” toilet and a natural waterfall tumbling onto the beach which is a great place to rinse off the salt water before heading back.
After your Cathedral Cove adventure, head to Cooks Beach on Hahei Road and Purangi Road. This small beach town exudes that relaxed, holiday feel that characterises so much of the Coromandel Peninsula, and is the perfect spot to enjoy fish and chips on the beach. There are many options for accommodation from camping to B&Bs, and a lovely park and beach area at the Purangi River estuary.
There are also plenty of wineries surrounding the town. Although you might be tempted by one of the swanky-looking hillside places, we recommend the small and rustic Purangi Winery which is found by the river on the road out of town. It’s an absolute local institution, and if you’re lucky enough to get a wine tasting with the fast-talking Danny, it could be the highlight of your trip. There’s not actually much wine on offer, but plenty of weird and whacky liqueurs, as well as wood-fired pizzas and some great feijoa cider.
Day 6: Cooks Beach to Whangamata via Hot Water Beach: 70 kilometres, 1.5 hours driving time
Say goodbye to Cook’s Beach and follow the signs to Hot Water Beach. Ideally, you will want to time your visit for low tide as that’s when the action happens.
As well as being a great surf beach, Hot Water Beach has thermal springs which bubble to the surface near the rocky headland. These are exposed at low tide, which means you can dig a natural spa bath with just a spade and a small amount of muscle power. It’ll be easy to spot where to go from the township, as any low tide tends to draw a reasonable crowd. Spades are available for hire at the cafes.
Make your way back to the main road and begin the climb over the hills to Tairua. The views along this stretch of State Highway 25 are wonderful on a clear day, so take your time and stop for photos. Tairua is another golden holiday town complete with fish and chip shop, ice cream cones and children jumping off the bridge into the river. Its sister town, the upmarket resort of Pauanui, looks close by, and as the crow flies, it is - just across the estuary. However if you want to visit by car, it’s 25 minutes away as you’ll have to take the long way around.
It’s less than an hour from Tairua to Whangamata, your final Coromandel beach town. This one is right at the base of the peninsula, boasting a spectacular ocean beach. It’s a decent-sized town but retains that Coro magic, so settle in and enjoy the final afternoon and evening of sun and sand. This is another good surf spot, and there are also two golf courses, mini golf and plenty of places to get a drink or a meal.
Day 7: Whangamata to Auckland: 160 kilometres, 3 hours driving time
It’s an easy afternoon’s drive back to Auckland, leaving you plenty of time to spend on the sand in the morning. Of course, you don’t have to stop here - if your schedule allows it, you can continue on down country to explore the rest of New Zealand. Tauranga
is not far down the coast, and from there it’s a very short journey to Rotorua
, lakeside cities with a lot to offer any visitor.
However if you must bring your trip to a close, the fastest route back to Auckland from Whangamata will take you through Thames and back the way you came - so go ahead and detour to Pokeno again for another giant ice cream cone. You deserve it after a hard week of holidaying Coromandel-style.