Third in a series on New Zealand’s North Island
Text and pictures © Allan Seiden, 2012
When European settlers cleared 80% of North Island’s densely forested landscape in the last decades of the 19thcentury to create pasture for the cows and sheep that soon outnumbered the island’s human population. Today it’s even more uneven equation, with New Zealand counting 4.5 million people, 5.26 million cows, and a staggering 38.5 million sheep, most of which roam North Island’s millions of acres of pasture. The loss of the encompassing forest to
the broad horizons of grasslands makes North Island spectacularly scenic, particularly when sunny skies prevail, frequent rains explaining the startling greens that emerge from the landscape as these two special places impressively reveal.
The Coromandel Peninsula
The Coromandel peninsula points a 60-mile-long, north-facing finger into the Pacific, in the process creating the southern half of Hauraki Bay, whose waters reach all the way to Auckland. The peninsula, about 15-miles wide at its widest, is diverse land of plenty, with beautiful mountainous landscapes along both the eas and west coasts as wells a forested interior that lies in between. Facing the open ocean has created magnificent white sand beaches along the east coast, with a wide plain separating the coast from the mountains. Quieter, sheltered waters lap against pocket beaches along the largely rock-lined west coast, with steep hillsides rising nearby.
The drive is the thing when it comes to the west coast, with an afternoon departure from the rustic town of Thames (about 90 minutes east of Auckland), with the coastline washed in the rich colors of the afternoon sun. About 40 scenic miles from Thames the road makes its way upcountry opening to a panorama of coastal islands and distant mountains, cows grazing in
miniaturized contentment on the lush, spring-green landscape leading to historic Coromandel Town.
While a passenger ferry links Coromandel Town to Auckland, across the broad
waters of the Hauraki Gulf, Coromandel retains the feel of a place apart, attracting
a diverse array of individualists, protective as a community of the peninsula’s beauty and a lifestyle that is treasured.
I was staying with one such Coromandeler, ex-Aucklander Robin Munch, who operates Jacaranda Lodge, where a comfortable overnight was followed by a breakfast, with everything from breads to granola, preserves to freshly squeezed orange juice (from backyard trees) deliciously homemade by Munch, a good resource if you’ve come to Coromandel to explore a bit.
Next door to Jacaranda is a flower farm owned by Jacko, a Dutch transplant with a wry sense of humor. His primary market is the United States, and his business has been affected by recessionary times. His orchids thrive in Coromandel’s mild climate.
So do mussels,
farmed in coastal waters and shipped to Auckland and beyond, the fleet
picturesquely at anchor. Then there’s the hand-built Driving Creek Railway, a very narrow gauge railway that takes visitors on a hillside ascent through native forest, with a pottery gallery featuring the work of artists who call Coromandel home. Or the quirky Water Works, a place that gives creative recycling a whole new meaning.
For many, fulfilling fantasies, after all is what Coromandel is all about. The paved road continues past town a short ways, with a navigable dirt road making it possible to explore the peninsula’s very scenic north coast.
It’s less than an hour across the mountains behind Coromandel Town to the first of the white-sand beaches that makes the east coast a popular Kiwi summer getaway. I was there in mid-spring, so things were pleasantly quiet, the water beautiful to look at, but very cold be Hawaii standards.The feel was Windward Oahu, with broad valleys, coastal plains, and wide bays like Tairua (T replaces the Hawaiian K and the Hawaiian R is an L in the Maori alphabet), which translates as Kailua in Hawaiian. At Hot Water Beach, if you time a visit two hours on either side of low tide and you can
relax in thermally heated waters that rise from the sand, further evidence of North Island’s links to Earth’s molten interior. Several beachside communities provide holiday homes and overnight rentals for visitors.
Three-five days, with wildlands to explore, forests to visit, beaches to swim, mussels to eat, and time to relax, Coromandel-style.
From the moment I read a mention in my Lonely Planet Guide, I was drawn to Castlepoint, a conveniently out-of-the-way spot on the southeast coast of North Island, less than an hour from Masterton and about three hours from Wellington. The description of the setting set in motion iconic images of lighthouse, cliffs and sea that proved a premonition, with a graceful lighthouse atop an outcropping of coral-rock, with long coastline views of captivating beauty. The Castle in Castlepoint is a 500-foot granite sentinel, it’s lower saddle easily climbed from a beachside trail, with awesome panoramas the reward.
I’d arrived late in the afternoon, dropping off my luggage at my hotel and racing off to the lighthouse under overcast skies. As is so often the case on North Island, the weather changed quickly and dramatically within minutes of my arrival. Sinking below the clouds, a warming sun transformed what had been a pastel seascape into the vibrantly colorful scene I’d imagined when I first read about Castlepoint.
I wandered back to the hotel at about 9pm, as dusk was surrendering to night and an hour after what I’d been told would be a last call for dinner and was welcomed with a delicious fish-and-chips dinner and friendly talk with two couples, one pair from Castlepoint, the other couple visiting from Auckland.
I’d found the lyrically named Whakataki Hotel (say Phakataki: wh in Maori is pronounced as pha) the perfect base. Cosy, friendly, historic (it was built in 1896 and has been hosting visitors ever since), and priced at a very reasonable $32US. I’d found it online and found it was one of many old, small-town hotels throughout North Island that are not only inexpensive, but also add a sense of place to a visit.
I awoke at dawn, drawing the curtain to find dawn’s first colors escaping the darkness of night. Camera batteries charged, I was up and out for a sunrise version
of yesterday’s sunset finale, with Castlepoint’s iconic lighthouse a stark black silhouette against the white sunrise sky and the coastline bathed in morning light.
By 8 I was back at the hotel eating a delicious Kiwi breakfast: An 8 oz. Orange juice, a platter of sausage, bacon, eggs, and pancake, with buttered toast and coffee.
Well fed and sent on my way with a friendly smile, I was heading southwest to Wellington, with a midday stop in the vineyard town of Martinborough, heart of Wairaparapa district’s wine country, famed for its sauvignon blanc and other whites, with Ata Rangi Vineyard receiving high praised for its reds as well.
Blue skies prevailed, far different than yesterday morning when I’d departed volcanic Mt. Ruapehu in a dense mixture of fog and rain. Heading east for Castlepoint, as I drove beyond the storm’s reach a great rainbow arched over a landscape of rolling pastures and distant, sunlit hills, their promise revealed as I made my way south, past cows and sheep enjoying their version of paradise.
Martinborough is the hub for the boutique vineyards (most welcome visitors, with a map of vineyard locations available
in Martinborough) that have gained positive recognition for
New Zealand wines. It’s a pleasant place, with a nice small-town feel, perfect for my lunch break before heading to Wellington as gathering clouds gently released their rain.
Time Frame : Two days, with hikes, sea trips
and the hilly interior to explore. You’ll want to be here at sunset.
Tourism New Zealand: www.newzealand.com
Next: North Island, part 4:
Rotorua, The Bay of Islands & Northland