Camping & Cruising Around Coromandel

Since I first knew I’d be traveling to New Zealand, I planned on going to Coromandel. A peninsula directly east of Auckland, it’s filled with gorgeous coastlines and interesting hikes, all of which I took advantage of in the span of four days.

Leaving Kaiaua on Sunday, I drove along the Firth of Thames to Coromandel Forest Park, home to the famous Pinnacles — a popular trek with wonderful views from the summit. 5 hour round trip? I’m sold. I arrived at the trailhead and started my hike, encountering a few fun bridges at the outset.

From there, the climb matured into a lot of stairs. These weren’t as Temple Run-esque as some of my other hikes — at times I felt more like I was rock climbing than hiking. If you’re in good shape, you should be fine with the climb; if you’re not in good shape, maybe it won’t be the absolute worst thing you’ve ever had to do. Just make sure to bring proper trail running or hiking shoes.

As this was a solo hike, I listened to podcasts along the way. Some favorites are 99% Invisible and Ologies, both informative podcasts that helped me focus on not losing footing or cardiovascular willpower.

A couple hours in, the hike opened up to a valley of flowers, where I could see the Pinnacles summit. I also spotted a lot of temple run stairs… cheers!

At long last, I reached the summit. Not a bad view, and definitely worth the trek there. Now for a 2.5 hour climb back down… where my legs began to complain. Alas, all for the sake of tourism!

When I got back to the car park (what they call parking lots here), I headed back to civilization to find some grub and a place to sleep for the night. It was about an hour’s drive to Thames, a little town that definitely has history but also has a fantastic kebab shop (Kebab Express) whose lamb platter I immediately took advantage of.

Successfully refueled and incredibly dusty, I used CamperMate to find a campground that would let me sleep in my Mazda for the night. Tapu Creek Campground cost $10 to camp, offering an oasis just 5 minutes away from the busy beach and instead backing up to a gentle creek. After a big adventure, this was a tiny slice of paradise.

I sat on a rock beside the creek to read, and I ended up meeting Ari, a photographer from Boston/Chicago who’s traveling in NZ for a few weeks before heading through Asia. Then, for the rest of the year, he was planning to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. Although he stressed that he reeeeeally hates the book Wild.

While Ari cooked himself dinner in the campground kitchen, I drove into Tapu town to see if I could find some wine. Everything in small town NZ seems to close before 6pm, so it’s always a stretch — but I was in luck as the liquor store was still open. On the way back to the creek, I saw the most gorgeous sunset and was forced to photograph it, and not stop photographing it.

Back at the camp, Ari and I finished the wine, laughed at a comically gigantic tent some people were trying to set up at 10pm, and looked up at the stars from the creek bed. The stars never stop being incredible.

The next morning, I headed out to Coromandel Town, just north up the coast from Tapu. The vibe of Coro Town is pleasant — one Main Street with restaurants and lodges, along with a bit of shopping. I grabbed an early bite to eat at the Coromandel Cafe and caught up on blogging for a couple hours. After the cafe, I explored the Coromandel Art Group Exhibition, a collection of work for sale from local artists.

I was then drawn to Wharf Rd, a cafe with good Google reviews that somehow drew me in. I stopped by to journal and get another bite to eat (I know, I know, but a girl’s gotta live). This time it was a reeeeeeaaaaaalllllly fantastic kraut, feta, kale and egg salad. Worth the second meal. Then I checked into my hostel, Anchor Lodge, down the street.

At the hostel I met Kai, a German dude who’s traveling in NZ for ten weeks. He was planning on renting a free bike from the hostel and riding by the coast, so I joined him since I had no plans. We attempted to ride for a bit until the hills got VERY hilly and our bodies got VERY tired, at which point we abandoned our bikes and simply walked along the coastal neighborhoods. I found out Kai is a software developer for telecom companies, and we talked a little about our industry as we looked out over the mussel farms in the distance.

We found our way to Wyuna Beach, a secluded shore at the end of the hilly road. The tide was at its lowest, and we stared at the seagulls and a few people trying to pull a boat over the sand bar.

As we walked farther along the beach, I heard someone call my name — it was Emma, my friend from the Fat Cat in Auckland! Amazed at the chances of seeing each other here, we hugged. We met her new friend Graham, who’s watching his brother in law’s beach house for a few days. We joined them for a few drinks, wherein Emma produced a bubble wand and as four grown adults, we decided we must play with the bubbles. A random beach child even joined us for the game.

We also encountered a strange, unidentified bird that looked like a pterodactyl. Graham attempted to commune with it, but the bird bit him, to no one’s surprise.

After all that excitement, we were hungry once more… but first we had to pick up our abandoned bikes. Emma rearranged the back of her campervan to fit the bikes and we drove them back into town, as I volunteered to be the one in the back to hold the bikes steady. It felt like an intense BBC documentary.

We arrived at Laan Ya Mo, a Thai restaurant on the main strip that’s basically staffed by one woman who’s a hero. We ordered some spring rolls and samosas as a starter, and I opted for a red chicken curry. Did not disappoint. I also tried Phoenix, an all-natural alternative to Coca Cola. Not bad. Thank you, Laan Ya Mo!

Back at the ranch (Graham’s temporary beach house), we walked down to the water and discovered bioluminescent plankton, which sometimes show up in certain parts of NZ to make the water glow blue once friction or pressure is created. Emma explained the science behind it while we all splashed around in the water, once again, like children. The side-by-side of unbelievable stars in the sky and luminescence in the water felt like we were in another dimension.

The next morning, I was up early and ready to embark on yet another trek. This time I’d set my sights on the Coromandel Coastal Walkway, a 7-hour roundtrip hike along the northernmost coast of Coro. An hour north of Coro Town, I stopped at Hereford ‘n’ a Pickle, a farm-to-table restaurant in Colville that serves a heavenly burger (even at breakfast time, I cannot resist). They also sell a ton of homemade goods.

I was set to camp in my car at Stony Bay ($15 for the night), which was about an hour away from Colville on all gravel roads. God help us, this Mazda and I were determined to make it to Stony, no matter the cost. Despite the intense focus I had to maintain so I wouldn’t crash, I noticed some pretty cute towns in passing. A dusty but fun drive up.

And finally, I arrived at Stony! It was blessedly unoccupied, with only a few other cars and vans having made the journey.

Around 11am I began my walkway journey, immediately meeting Evelyn at the trailhead. Evelyn’s a behavioral researcher from San Francisco, and she was as confused about the start of the trail as I was. Two heads are better than one: we quickly found the right trail and ended up as trail buds, spending the next 7 hours together. Strap in!

The main Coastal Walkway runs from Stony Bay to Fletcher Bay, and you can camp at either. Walking from Stony, the start of the path is more shade and jungle before it opens up to sunny farmland with better views.

After 3.5 hours or so, we made it to Fletcher Bay. We met Vera along the way, an Austrian doctor who’d been practicing in Australia for the last two years. We bid her adieu at Fletcher and began the return back. I’d say some of the farmland hills get cardio-heavy, but overall it’s a pretty fair hike. Watch your step, as always!

After a long return hike and a wonderful life talk, Evelyn and I said goodbye (she was leaving for San Francisco the next day). I poured myself a bowl of muesli and soy milk and started reading The Beach, which I’d sort of illegally taken from Graham’s brother in law’s house the day before. He said it was all right, though.

The sun began to set and the rain came in, casting an eerie gray fog over Stony Bay. I closed the hatchback of my car and curled up for another Mazda-sponsored sleep.

The next morning, I woke up feeling very rickety and unwashed, in need of a big shower. I headed back to Coromandel Town to pick up Kai from Anchor Lodge — he was hitching a ride with me down the east coast to Whitianga that day. I randomly stopped at the Mahamudra Centre, a meditation retreat center with gardens and a stupa. I walked around the stupa three times because a sign told me to, but then someone came out of the stupa so I left quickly.

After braving the gravel roads once more, I landed in Coro Town and took some time to journal at Weta Cafe, a little coffee house on the main road. Then I snuck into the Anchor Lodge bathrooms to wash my hair and change my clothes before Kai and I got on the road to Whitianga for another day on the Coromandel Peninsula.

New Chums Beach is just northeast of Coro Town, with a short beach walkway that leads to a cove. The sun was perfect and Kai went out for a swim, while I read The Beach in the shade — my stick ‘n’ poke tattoo from the Fat Cat hostel forbids me from swimming for at least a couple weeks.

After an hour or so on New Chums, we trekked back to the car and headed east to Luke’s Kitchen, a highly recommended restaurant on the way to Whitianga/the east coast in general. At Luke’s we ordered fish ‘n’ chips (my first ever in NZ), a veggie pizza and some craft beeeerz. I told Kai to look excited.

Luke’s lives up to the hype, at least as far as beachside Coromandel restaurants go. Stomachs properly full, we made the final drive to Whitianga, a popular stop for travelers wanting to experience Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach. We checked into Turtle Cove Backpackers, which was situated in a strangely industrial part of Whitianga. No time to question, I guess.

As it was already early evening, we set off to visit Cathedral Cove, which is apparently where the opening scene of the Chronicles of Narnia was filmed. The only thing I can remember from that movie is James McAvoy being a goat man, so whatever that’s worth.

Since this is New Zealand, we found a walkway leading to Cathedral Cove, boasting all sorts of nice views. And goats!

Cathedral Cove itself was not a disappointment. Honestly, very worthwhile as far as touristy places go, though I recommend going later in the evening as there are probably fewer tourists. There were only a few other people around, and the purple lighting was prime.

Since I can’t currently swim and the tide was already high again, we chose to skip Hot Water Beach, where you can dig holes and sit in hot water. I think. Our walk back to the car park was focused on observing birds, mostly. I think we earned our tourist points for the day.

I was craving ice cream, but small town NZ did NOT have much to offer as it was getting late. We found a restaurant called Enigma, the only thing open after 10pm. We ordered wine and dessert: baklava and brownie a la mode. Close enough.

Back at the hostel, Kai warned me that he was about to Skype his girlfriend Roxanne and there was going to be some scary sounding German language. Call me forewarned! Despite the scary and indecipherable German, I fell asleep almost immediately.

The next morning, I made myself Weet-Bix (!) and met Tobias, yet another German dude who’s traveling here for five weeks. We watched an episode of Jimmy Fallon featuring Christoph Waltz (lol) and then it was time for Kai and I to continue on our excellent tourist journey to a few last places in Coromandel.

Our first stop was Mt. Paku in Tairua, a small mountain (or large hill) down the coast. The walk up was about 20 minutes, to a pretty sweet view of the coast.

Within the time it took to climb, we created a tourist religion led by a god named Neuchum. A wrathful German god. Be good tourists, or else. We reached the top and figured we’d pay Neuchum tribute by creating Ts with our hands. T for tourist.

And it was back on the road for our last stop of the Coromandel tour, a fantastic burger joint near Waihi Beach. It’s called Surf Shack Eatery, and it’s pretty bomb, though basically in the middle of nowhere. I ordered a beetroot & egg burger OBVIOUSLY, with an Americano and a side of fries. No regrets.

And with that, we officially exited the Coromandel Peninsula, on to grander adventures in the Bay of Plenty/Rotorua area. If you have a few spare days, Coromandel offers some serendipitous adventures, a lot of treks, and a few Germans along the way.

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