17 Cool and Quirky Things to Do in the Coromandel

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Jutting out the side of the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, the Coromandel peninsula is full of historical charm, bush-covered mountains, and spectacular beaches. It’s definitely one of New Zealand’s worst-kept secrets: the area is far too beautiful not to share!

The centre of the 85km long peninsula is dominated by a large mountain range and forest park. The terrain is too rugged for habitation, so remains largely untouched these days. Most people live in small towns along the coast.

Historically the area was a hub of gold mining and kauri forestry, and although these industries ceased operation long ago, they’ve left their mark on both the landscape and tourism.

New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori, name this place Te-Tara-o-te-Ika-a-Māui, the spine of Māui’s fish. This refers to the origin legend where the demi-god Māui rowed here in his waka (boat) and caught a fish. His fish became the North Island of New Zealand, and his waka became the South Island.

From Port Jackson to Opito Bay, Thames to the Karanagaheke Gorge, this beautiful area is full of breathtaking (in every sense) walking tracks through often-rugged terrain. History buffs will love the relics of a bygone age, and nature lovers are in for an absolute treat.

Throw in well-known attractions like Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach, and it’s no surprise that the Coromandel is a must-visit spot for New Zealand locals and visitors alike. Despite never living in the North Island, I’ve visited the Coromandel several times over the years: apparently it has a hold on me as well!

Getting to the Coromandel

Being a peninsula and all, your options for getting to the Coromandel are limited. Whether you’re coming from the north or south, follow State Highway 2 then turn onto SH 25. Coming from Hamilton to the west, take SH 26, then again, SH 25.

State Highway 25 takes you up one side of the peninsula and down the other, while SH 25A cuts across the bottom. With only a couple of other winding, unsealed options in terms of east-west travel, it makes sense to plan activities on one side of the peninsula and then the other, rather than repeatedly crossing backward and forward.

If you’re coming from Auckland, there’s also a ferry that takes around two hours to get to a wharf on the western side of the peninsula, a 20-minute drive from Coromandel Town. It’s pedestrian-only, although you can take a bike onboard, and at over $100/return per adult, has limited appeal for most.

Visit Tiny Towns

State Highway 25 meanders along between the mountains and the sea, through a myriad of little coastal towns. Many of them came into existence thanks to gold mining and forestry, and with those industries now gone, these tiny centres are often much smaller now than they were a century ago.

These days, you’ll find an eclectic mix of dyed-in-the-wool farmers and alternative lifestylers seeking refuge from big-city life. Each town is different, but they’re all worth exploring!

Head Back in Time in Coromandel Town

Named after a British navel ship that landed here in 1820, Coromandel Town harbour was where some of the earliest European settlers arrived on the peninsula.

Many original storefronts still survive along the wide, treelined main street (Kapanga Road), and if you can swap out the motorised vehicles for horse and carts in your imagination, you’ll get a good impression of what this quaint little town was originally like.

Of particular interest is the School of Mines and Historical Museum on Rings Road. Set in an old church, you can journey through the impact of the gold mining in this area, and visit the prisoner in the jailhouse. Don’t worry, it’s just a dummy!

At the bottom of town, Kauri Block Track is a great option for an easy 60 to 90-minute (return) walk. Unsurprisingly given the track name and the area, ancient kauri trees line the trail as you wander. Be sure to take the upward trail at the fork for a brief detour to the highest part of the track with the best views, on the site of an old Māori pā (village).

The physical buildings were wooden and have long since rotted away, but if you look closely, subtle changes in the landscape under the matted gorse and toi toi (heather) reveal where it once stood. Don’t worry if you can’t find it, though: the panoramic views are worth the effort by themselves!

Be World Famous in New Zealand

Person standing beside large sculpture of an L&P bottle in Paeroa

If you’ve spent more than three seconds in a dairy (convenience store) in New Zealand, you’ll likely have come across L&P. This iconic drink is one of the country’s most popular carbonated beverages, and even comes with its own advertising slogan: “World Famous in New Zealand”.

The initials stand for Lemon and Paeroa, and while lemons aren’t hard to find, to track down Paeroa, you’ll need to head to where SH 2 and SH 26 collide. You’ll know when you’ve found the right place: the enormous L&P bottle on the side of the road kind of gives it away.

Once you’ve got all the photos you need, the main street has an abundance of antique stores, retro boutiques, and funky second-hand shops to explore. Once you’re done with shopping, head to one of the many local cafes to replenish your energy.

After finishing up in Paeroa, it’s worth taking a ten minute drive out of town to Bullswool Farm. Part museum, part nature reserve, and part farm experience, there’s plenty on offer.

Wander through the heritage museum to learn about New Zealand farming and local history, take a half-hour stroll through through the bush to see and hear native birds in the natural reserve, then head to the farm to hang out with some furred and feathered friends.

Catch Goldrush Fever in Waihi

If Paeroa is the gateway to Karangaheke Gorge (which lies just south of town), Waihi is the palace on the other side. Full of historic architecture, tree-lined streets complete with wrought-iron street lamps, and surrounded by rolling hills and native bush, it’s little wonder this place won the title of New Zealand’s most beautiful town.

Having sprouted around a massive gold mine that still operates near the centre of town, one of the top places to go here is, of course, the Gold Discovery Centre. It offers interactive tours of the mine, and gives a golden opportunity (pun fully intended) to experience what life was like for early miners.

The Golden Combo ticket costs $65 per adult and includes a 2.5 hour tour, a show, and museum entry. Get up close and personal with the mine and processing plant to see what happens after the gold comes out of the ground. A 3D ”ghost” theatre experience introduces you to some of the original locals, then head to the Waihi Gold Experience museum to check out the interactive exhibits.

Fall in Love With Whitianga

Whitianga is one of those places that people just fall for straight away. I spent a few days here last time I was in the area, and wished I could have stayed much, much longer. Tucked into the flat areas around Mercury Bay and the estuary of two rivers, it’s the perfect place to spend a summer’s day… or week.

Soak up some sun and salt on Buffalo Beach, which has plenty of space to stretch out and backs onto a number of bars and restaurants. At one end sits Whitianga Wharf, where ferries run continuously to take you on the quick trip across the mouth of the estuary to explore the other side. They’re pedestrian-only, and save you a 45 minute drive around the harbour.

A recent addition to the ferry offering is a Waterway Discovery cruise, where for $35 per adult you’ll get an hour and a half tour up and down the estuary to check out everything from historic stone piers to multi-million dollar homes and expensive yachts. These only run around high tide, so check the timetable first.

If you do head over the other side to Ferry Landing, it’s worth taking your walking shoes. After checking out the unusual formations in the rockface, the hour-long Whitianga Rock/Maramaratotara Bay walk begins here.

Head up to the rock and old pa site, then double back and take the track through native bush to a lookout with views across the township and bay. Follow the track down to Maramaratotara Bay, before returning along the road to the wharf.

You can also take shuttles to Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove from here, two of Coromandel’s most popular and spectacular natural attractions (discussed below).

Coffee and Cycling in Thames

Located on the edge of the Hauraki plain at the base of the peninsula, the old gold-mining town of Thames is often either the first or last stop for visitors to the Coromandel. Time your visit for a Saturday if you can: there’s a market every week with locally grown produce, food, art, crafts, and more.

It’s also one of the stops on the Hauraki Rail Trail, a great entry-level cycle trail that extends along the Hauraki Plains from Kaiaua east to Thames, then south through Paeroa to Matamata, with a side trip to Waihi.

Riding the whole trail takes 3-5 days, but if you’d prefer something a little more gentle, you can hire bikes in Thames and/or catch a shuttle to a starting position further along the trail and ride back. It’s a great way of exploring this part of the region, with plenty of places to eat and drink along the way.

If you love steampunk, or just shops with a bit of difference, the Steamy Sisters store on Cochrane Street is well worth a look. Appropriately found in an old ironworks factory, it specialises in steampunk gifts, wares, fashion, and books.

A special shoutout as well to Cafe Melbourne, a coffee and brunch place that lives up to its name. The high-quality food and drink wouldn’t be out of place in that Australian city, and was very welcome after returning to Thames from an overnight walk to the Pinnacles (below)!

Marvel at Cathedral Cove

Named for an impressive archway that spans a beautiful beach, Cathedral Cove is truly spectacular. Inaccessible by car, the beach is a moderate 45-minute walk from the carpark located on Grange Road, near the delightful little town of Hahei.

The minor difficulty of getting there doesn’t do anything to reduce Cathedral Cove’s popularity, at least during the summer months. If you’d prefer fewer people cluttering up the background in your photos, get there at either end of the day (or visit when borders were closed during the pandemic, like I did). The cave is particularly beautiful at sunrise and sunset.

Pack a picnic before you leave: once you’ve got all your Instagram shots, this is a lovely spot to just laze around on the beach and splash around in the ocean for as long as you like before tackling the walk back.

The track is well marked and maintained, and you’ll find a few side trails signposted to other beaches along the way. It’s well worth taking them: Gemstone Bay is a rocky inlet that’s fantastic for snorkeling, and I loved Stingray Bay. There’s a sandy beach, good swimming, plenty of rocks to explore at either end, and not a stingray in sight.

Get Your Heart Pumping at the Pinnacles

View over bushland on the Pinnacles Walk, Coromandel

Not for the faint of heart, but absolutely for the strong of leg, the Pinnacles Walkway is a very worthwhile day or overnight hike in the Kauaeranga Valley. Following an old packhorse trail, you’ll climb to nearly 800m at the rocky summit that gives the track its name.

Expect the hike to take six or seven hours return: you can do it as a day hike if you’re motivated enough, or stay overnight in the 80-bed Department of Conservation hut. Yes, 80 beds. The upside of sharing your bedroom with up to 79 different types of snoring is you get to experience a spectacular sunset, and if it’s clear, enjoy the night sky away from all light pollution.

All along the trail are signs of the early kauri and gold mining industries, including abandoned sections of the old railway line. Waterfalls, a historic dam, and incredible views from the top make the walk a catch-all experience.

Be careful when setting your GPS: the track is accessed from the end of Kauaeranga Valley Road, near Thames. There happens to be another Pinnacles right at the end of the peninsula, a rugged fishing spot that is still pretty cool, but is not this Pinnacles!

It’s a popular trail (hence the huge hut), so be sure to book early if you’re planning to stay overnight.

Hike Through History in the Karangaheke Gorge

Looking out towards the entrance to a mining passage on the Karanagaheke Windows walk

Located on the road between Paeroa and Waihi, the Karangaheke Gorge is steeped in both Māori and gold mining history. It’s a wonderful place to drive though… but do it slowly. There’s plenty to see along the way.

About halfway along, nestled in the deepest section of the gorge, sits a tiny settlement alongside the remains of old gold mining equipment, several walkways, and the rapidly-flowing river. The main carpark is well-signposted, but if it’s full, there’s another smaller area just back along the road at the Karangaheke Hall on Crown Hill Road.

The hall is just across the road from one end of the Karanagaheke Tunnel Walkway, a 1km stroll through a disused and dimly-lit railway tunnel. It’s a good place to park if you’re planning to do that walk, with the added bonus of a nearby caravan selling amazing real-fruit ice creams. That was worth stopping for by itself.

The tunnel walkway is just one of several easy-to-moderate walks that let you explore the whole area. The Karangaheke Windows walk is spectacular, although at the time of writing, the window tunnels (ie, old mining passageways) are closed for urgent reinforcement. They’re due to be reopened soon, though, so be sure to check them out if you can.

Even if they haven’t yet reopened when you visit, the walk is still full of the history of this beautiful area and the gold mining that accompanied it.

Just a bit further east towards Waihi is the Victoria Battery Tramway and Museum. You can drive there, or leave your car parked where it is and walk along the river for about 45 minutes on the Karanagaheke Gorge Historic Walkway (which is also part of the Hauraki Rail Trail mentioned earlier).

Here, you’ll find the ruins of a factory where people used to clean and process the gold that had been mined just down the road. Open on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, volunteers run a tram ride around the area and offer underground tours.

Head to the Beach

The Coromandel Peninsula juts right out into the ocean, so unsurprisingly, there’s a wide range of beaches to choose from. From rocky coastlines to sandy surf beaches, rock pools filled with sea life to great fishing spots, there’s a beach here to suit everyone.

You’ll typically find rockier beaches on the western side of the peninsula and sandier ones on the east, but that’s not a hard and fast rule!

I’ve only specifically discussed three options below, but there are many more, including at Whitianga and Cathedral Cove (above). The town beach at Hahei is also lovely, as is the one at Tairua a little further down the coast.

Soak in a Natural Spa at Hot Water Beach

Person sitting in a hole in the sand that has filled with hot water at Hot Water Beach

Another one of those special (and popular) New Zealand attractions, Hot Water Beach lives up to its name. To get to this dramatic spot full of waves and wind, take SH 25 from either Tairua (about 25 minutes) or Whitianga (about 30 minutes), then turn up Hot Water Beach Road.

The main carpark is pay and display 24 hours, but there are two other carparks accessed from Hot Water Beach Road which are free.

In one particular area, a thermal hot spring sits just beneath the surface of the sand. About two hours either side of high tide is the best time to visit (with your spade in hand), dig yourself a natural spa pool, then sit awkwardly in the salty mineral water as you gaze out to sea, just like I am in the photo.

Do be careful, the water can reach temperatures of 65º C (149º F) so check it before lowering yourself in! This is also a surf beach, so ensure you stay between the flags if you venture out to cool off after your soak.

Head to the End of the World (Or at Least the Peninsula) At Port Jackson

From Coromandel Town, turn off the main road and head north along Colville Road, which eventually turns into Port Jackson Road. After about an hour and a half of driving, you’ll come to Port Jackson itself. Here you will find a large beautiful beach, looking out towards the Pacific Ocean. It’s a popular spot for those into camping, fishing, and hiking, with a lovely (albeit fairly basic) DoC campsite and little to no cell service.

If you’d like to stretch your legs after that drive, the Muriwai Walk follows the coast to the top of a ridge, down to Fletchers Bay, then along the coast back to Port Jackson. There are great views from the ridge towards Great Barrier Island and out to sea, as well as back down the coast across rolling hills. Expect the 6km loop to take 1.5-2 hours.

Relax at Beautiful New Chums Beach

Deserted beach surrounded by forest and hills on the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand

Tucked away near Whangapoua towards the northern end of the peninsula, New Chums Beach is easily one of the best stretches of sand in the area. It’s become more well-known in recent years, but if you visit on a weekday, chances are you’ll still only be sharing it with a few other people at most.

That’s because you can only get to this beautiful spot by boat, or an half-hour walk that’s partially along a rocky shoreline and crosses a tidal stream. As a result, most people head for somewhere that’s a bit easier to get to!

If you decide to make the effort, drive to the small settlement of Whangapoua and leave your car in the free parking space at the end of Mangakahia Road. From there, just walk along the sand and across the stream, which is noticeably more shallow around low tide.

After a bit of rock-hopping at the northern end of this beach, you’ll find yourself on an easy nature trail that crosses a low saddle as it wends through the nikau palms. If you’re feeling adventurous, take the unmarked but obvious track to the right as you crest the hill and head up to a lookout point that’s become somewhat Instagram-famous. Wear good shoes and expect a bit of scrambling to get there.

The beach itself is stunning, a 1km stretch of sand surrounded by forest and with plenty of room to find some space for yourself. Pack some snacks, sunscreen, and plenty of water (obviously there are no facilities here, including toilets), and enjoy this little piece of paradise.

Paddle Out to the Whenuakura Wildlife Sanctuary

Off the coast of Whangamata, on the southeast of the peninsula, are several islands where wildlife has remained largely safe and untouched. One of these islands, Whenuakura, has an unusual donut shape and a spectacular hidden secret.

You’re not allowed to set foot on it due to its status as a sanctuary, but tour companies like Surfs Up NZ will rent you a kayak or take you out there on a guided trip. It’s well worth the effort: Whenuakura is stunning, with untouched bush surrounded by crystal clear water.

The island is locally known as “Donut Island” due to a sunken hole in the centre, which can be accessed through a network of caves. This section is breathtaking: you’ll find yourself inside a cavern, looking up at incredible rock formations, with foliage draping down towards you. It’s like a scene from Jurassic Park… without the dinosaurs.

Visit a Very Weird Theme Park at Waterworks

Drive ten minutes east of Coromandel Town along the 309 Road and you’ll find yourself somewhere… strange. Waterworks is an unusual mixture of nature park and interactive art museum, and it’s an absolute delight.

Created by the family who originally owned the land, the playground is the star of the show here. Full of interactive exhibits that will have you laughing out loud (seriously!), you might have a few questions about what the people who created the exhibits were smoking. Adults and kids alike will love this weird and wonderful place!

Set in a beautiful backdrop against native bush, you can also wander along the nearby riverbank and swim in the natural pool. When you’re done with playing and swimming, enjoy a meal and pick up a souvenir at the Wet Your Whistle Cafe and shop.

As an added bonus, the owners have a spot where you can park your motorhomes for the night, for a small $5 fee that’s redeemable against entry to Waterworks.

Hang Out With a Horse in Waikarau

Whether you are an absolute beginner or a seasoned rider, Waikarau Horse Treks has a horse for you. With 14 beautiful horses and ponies, you will be matched with an appropriate four-legged friend and taken on a tour of the area, through native bush and including a river crossing or two.

To get here, take Kaimarama Road off SH 25. A beginner’s lesson costs $80, or go on a 1.5 hour horse trek for $130.

Go Jump Off a Cliff

Canyoning is an exciting way of exploring remote areas that you’d never normally get to see, while having an adventure at the same time.

Canyonz operates out of Thames, and on its full day trip you’ll abseil through waterfalls, slide down a natural waterslide, fly down a zipline, and generally have an adrenaline-filled experience that you’re not going to forget in a hurry.

Half-day canyoning options are available, and if all sounds like it might be a little more thrill than you’re ready for, the company also offers a (slightly) gentler abseiling experience for beginners.

Prices range from $75-390 per person depending on the tour you take, and all participants need to be over the age of 12 and have a moderate to high level of fitness.

Something for Everyone at Driving Creek

As attractions go, Driving Creek is one of the more eclectic, with everything from art to trains, pottery, conservation, and flying foxes on offer. Their slogan is “where art, conservation, engineering, and adventure come together”, and that’s a pretty good description. This unlikely combination means there’s something for everyone at this fascinating place just north of Coromandel Town.

Hop on board their train and take a 75 minute tour through the lush bush, climbing nearly 120m up the mountain to the Eyefull tower. Not to be confused with its French counterpart, this tower at the end of the railway track juts out over open air high in the mountains. You’ll get stunning views across the peninsula and out to sea, but maybe don’t look down if you’re afraid of heights.

You can also take walking tours through Driving Creek’s conservation project, where you’ll hear about the significant work being done to return the natural surroundings to something like their pre-European state.

A zipline tour is also available, where you can explore the property via a canopy walk and eight different ziplines. If that sounds like more thrills than you’re after, try one of their pottery classes or workshops instead.

Sleep With a Side of Stargazing

Located on SH 25 between Whitianga and Matarangi, the Stargazers Astronomy B&B has an amazing view… of the galaxy! This unusual place has two accommodation options: a small apartment that’s attached to the main house, or if you don’t want to share, a cottage that’s fully self-contained.

What makes this place special is its onsite observatory. Whether you stay the night or not, you can stop in and take part in one of their astronomy tours or buy a photo of the sky. Stargazers offers a nightly tour, plus day tours by arrangement, and you get the opportunity to operate their telescope yourself.

After your night sky tour, head inside and get your hands on meteorites up to four billion years old, followed by some hot chocolate in the planetarium. Overnight guests get complimentary access to the observatory tours, which are usually $70 per person.


Main image by Shaun Jeffers/Shutterstock.com, New Chums Beach image by Wirestock Creators/Shutterstock.com, other images by author

2 Responses to “17 Cool and Quirky Things to Do in the Coromandel

  • What fun ideas to do!

  • Good morning Dave,

    just finished reading your ideas and hope we can do some of these tips.
    Stay healthy and greeting from Germany,

    Beate

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