Easily accessible from Auckland, this road trip around New Zealand's Coromandel Peninsula takes in superb coastal scenery, remote beaches where you'll probably be the only intrepid visitors, and a fine combination of briny-fresh local seafood and a fascinating gold-mining past. With 400 kms of coastline everyone finds their dream beach on The Coromandel.
Sadly, you're about 150 years too late to get rich from the gold rush in the hilly hinterland around Thames, but there's still plenty to see in this historic town southeast of Auckland. It's also a great place to kick off one of New Zealand's most spectacular coastal road trips. Grab a coffee in one of the excellent cafes in Thames' heritage Grahamstown neighborhood – the wide main street and the 19th-century wooden shopfronts might have you recalling your favorite Western movie – before learning about the Coromandel Peninsula's lustrous history at the interesting Goldmine Experience in the hills above town. Explore old mine tunnels too, before trying your luck panning for gold.
From Thames, SH25 meanders north along the scenic western coast of the peninsula, darting in and out of rocky coves and bays. Visit during a southern hemisphere summer and the route is trimmed with the scarlet blooms of pohutukawa trees, often flowering in late December and known locally as 'New Zealand's Christmas Tree'. There's good gourmet pizza and Coromandel craft beer at the relaxed Waiomu Beach Cafe, and 19km north of Thames at Tapu, a forested road leads east to the Raupara Water Gardens. Wander the walking tracks past garden sculptures in Raupara's verdant bush setting abutting the rugged wilderness that runs down the peninsula's central spine.
Jump back in the car and head north where SH25 becomes even more spectacular, negotiating hills and valleys to provide glimpses of remote bays. Around 7km south of Coromandel Town, an essential stop combines horizon-stretching views with super-fresh, local seafood. Oysters, scallops and fish and chips fill the menu at the rustic Coromandel Oyster Company, and along the road at the Coromandel Mussel Kitchen, huge green-lipped mussels are perfectly combined with locally-brewed craft beer from MK Brewing. Our recommendation? Try the grilled mussels in garlic butter and a Gold Digger pilsner.
Even more quaint and old school than Grahamstown in Thames, Coromandel Town is a sleepy byway framed with wooden buildings from the 19th-century days when the region attracted gold-miners from around the world. A mandatory stop is a cold beer at the iconic Star & Garter Hotel – visit on a weekend for the best chance of live music – before embarking on more heritage discoveries at the Coromandel Goldfield Centre and the local Mining Historic Museum. Don't worry, that's the last focus on all things golden. After Coromandel Town, this road trip soon reverts back to exploring some of New Zealand's best coastal scenery.
On the outskirts of Coromandel Town, this quirky narrow gauge railway winds up a forested hillside negotiating four bridges, two winding spirals, tunnels and a careful double switchback. There are views aplenty – courtesy of the breezy open-sided passenger carriages – and even better vistas at the railway's terminus high above at the 'Eye-Full Tower'. Booking ahead online is definitely recommended on summer weekends, and don't leave without watching the video about Driving Creek's inspirational founder, pottery artist and conservationist, the late Barry Brickell.
Yes, that is a prayer flag-adorned Tibetan Buddhist stupa amid the rural farmland north of Coromandel Town and the surprising Mahamudra Centre is open for simple accommodation and meditation retreats. Nearby, sleepy Colville is a tiny village that's popular with alternative lifestyle folk drawn by the blissful solitude. Stock up on all things organic and vegan at the Colville General Store before securing a sunny outdoor table for good coffee and fresh fruit ice-cream nearby at Hereford 'n' a Pickle. If you're self-catering and having barbecues on this roadtrip, their excellent sausages and fruit relishes are available to buy.
Around 3km north of Colville, the road further north becomes unsealed, but confident drivers and intrepid travellers should definitely continue on to remote Fletcher Bay. Venturing off the main routes down quieter side roads to hidden beaches is what makes this Coromandel road trip so special. Expect a winding 37km journey from Colville – about an hour's drive – and if you're camping, it's worth spending a night at the Fletcher Bay Department of Conservation (DOC) campsite at the extreme northern tip of the peninsula.
You can't drive from Fletcher Bay to the eastern side of the peninsula – although hikers can negotiate the 3 ½ hour Coromandel Walkway to Stony Bay – so roadtrippers need to return south to Colville Bay, and then detour north on another unsealed road to remote Port Charles. It's definitely another Coromandel coastal diversion worth investing in, especially if you overnight in the comfortable wooden cottages at Tangiaro Kiwi Retreat. A forested spa, relaxing massage services, and a good cafe are surprising distractions in such a remote spot. And yes, New Zealand's iconic national bird is sometimes seen after dark. Good luck in spotting the nocturnal and shy kiwi.
The drive south to remote Kennedy Bay – around one hour from Port Charles – is a truly stunning journey. There's another DOC campsite at sleepy Waikawau and plenty of holiday rental houses if you're keen to kick back for a few days. Continuing south to Kennedy Bay, the winding road narrows and provides glimpses, through the New Zealand forest, of the Coromandel Peninsula's beautiful east coast. Not many travellers make it this far, so you will not be jostled by loads of other travellers, so please just enjoy the brilliant coastline before continuing over Kennedy Bay Road - a very scenic pass - back to Coromandel Town. (But do remember, if you're driving a campervan (RV) take extra care on the region's often hilly and winding roads.)
In order to access the beaches and holiday towns of Coromandel's southeastern coast, you have to dog leg and hop back on SH25 - heading to the east. Just after the rural hamlet of Te Rerenga – do make a stop here for locally-made fruit chutneys and chilli sauces at the Castle Rock Cafe – an unsealed road leads to remote Whangapoua Beach. Whangapoua is pretty special in itself, but a walking trail at its northern end continues for 30 minutes to a stretch of sand that's been ranked in the world's top ten beaches. Bookended by tiny Motukopu Island, New Chum is a remote, white sand cove that can easily steal an afternoon. If the tide's in, you may need to wade through a shallow inlet, but it's definitely worth getting your feet wet. (People often call this beach New Chums but we've had it on good authority that you drop the s old chum!)
Yes, it's another beautiful arcing Coromandel beach – this time with views of the islands of Mercury Bay – but Kuaotunu is also a destination for travelling foodies. Combining a cafe and art gallery with excellent wood-fired pizza, Luke's Kitchen & Cafe also features live music gigs across summer. Check their Facebook page for what's on, and be surprised by super-local craft beers from Kuaotunu's tiny Blue Fridge Brewery. Try the Riwakasaurus Rex pale ale, crammed full of zesty Riwaka hops from Marlborough on New Zealand's South Island.
Before continuing south on SH25, this road trip includes another essential detour to two more stunning Coromandel beaches. Unsealed Blackjack Rd winds from Kuaotunu across a spectacular headland before descending to largely unpopulated Otama. Dunes fringe aquamarine waters before the road continues to Opito Bay, an arcing cove that is even more spectacular, and has a better range of accommodation. Even if you've already decided to continue south to Whitianga, be prepared to change your plans and overnight here instead.
From Kuaotunu, it's a short 20 minute drive to Whitianga, a convenient departure point for boat trips to explore the nearby Te-Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve. Snorkel off the boat with Ocean Leopard and Whitianga Adventures or take a glass-bottom boat tour for the most colourful memories of this seascape often including dolphins, sea lions and penguins. On the way into Whitianga, stop at Buffalo Beach - Whitianga’s main beach - which is hugely popular with summertime holidaymakers.
An excellent Sunday morning spring and summer farmers market, home-style baking at the Colenso garden cafe, and an iconic Kiwi pub with some great summertime holiday gigs from New Zealand's most popular bands, all conspire to make tiny Coroglen punch well above its weight. Add in good craft beers at Hot Water Brewing Co in nearby Whenuakaite, and you'll be in no rush to hurry back to the coastal attractions just a short drive away.
At nearby Hahei, an easy going walk of around half an hour leads to spectacular Cathedral Cove – bring along gear to tackle the underwater snorkeling trail at Gemstone Bay en route – before descending to the cove's giant stone arch and thrilling outdoor shower. Cathedral Cove is very popular with visitors so try and visit early in the morning or late in the day.
Here's your chance to dig your own natural spa pool on the edge of a wild surf beach. For two hours either side of low tide – tide times are advertised by local businesses and at the visitor centre in Whitianga – get digging in the soft sand and wait patiently for hot water from an underground spring to come bubbling up. Bring along a spade or rent one for a few dollars from the Hot Water Beach Store and join the throngs at this popular spot. Just note that Hot Water Beach itself can be dangerous, and it's essential to swim between the flags and in the presence of patrolling lifeguards.
After a road trip packed with up close and personal exploration of Coromandel's beaches, Tairua offers the chance to get up higher to check out the peninsula's spectacular coastline. Once a volcanic island – sorry, you've missed that particular view by around seven million years – Paku now forms the forested northern head of Tairua Harbour. Count on a steepish 20-minute walk up Paku, and look forward to views of the spectacular surf beaches on both sides of the broad estuary. Built around the estuary's eastern shores, Pauanui is an upscale residential development with two compact but challenging golf-courses for you to try your hand at.
Heading south, Whangamata is around 36km from Tairua, but an interesting detour en route is to the Wharekawa Wildlife Refuge on the sandspit at Opoutere Beach. A rolling walking track through sandy pine forests – count on a return journey of around 45 minutes – leads to protected breeding grounds for the endangered New Zealand dotterel and compact orange-beaked oystercatchers.
Around 1km from Whangamata's arcing beach, Whenuakura Island and Hauturu Island are also wildlife sanctuaries – sorry, you can't land on them – but kayaking and paddle boarding around them is very popular. From Christmas to New Year 'Whanga' is hugely popular with holidaying families, but during other months it celebrates a laid back surf town vibe. The best coffee in town and excellent bistro food is at SixFortySix, a hip cafe that wouldn't be out of place in the big smoke of Auckland or Wellington. During summer, their Mexican food is popular with surfers in town for Whangmata's big waves.
Continue to Waihi, and use the town as a base to explore the nearby Karangahake Gorge. A spur of the Hauraki Rail Trail continues all the way north to your starting point at Thames, but the best option for daytrippers is to jump aboard the heritage Goldfields Railway for the scenic 7km journey to Waikino Station. At Waikino, hire mountain bikes to explore the flat easy-to-ride section of the Rail Trail running along the shaded and forested banks of the Karangahake River. The perfect spot to toast a Coromandel road trip is deep within the gorge at the Bistro at the Falls Retreat. Wood-fired goodness includes excellent pizza and hearty meat dishes.