Land of the Long White Cloud
January 1, 1970
by Anika Aylward Blake
“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can…”
– J. R. R. Tolkien.
The Adventure Begins
Visiting New Zealand has been a dream of mine since I watched the first instalment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The country became synonymous in my mind with lush, green rolling hills, great and towering mountains, and an overwhelming sense of adventure. So when my sister left home to backpack her way through New Zealand, and I was offered the opportunity to spend five weeks road tripping both islands that make up this stunning country – well, it was hardly a difficult choice, was it?
My boyfriend and I calculated both money and how much time we could realistically take away from our lives and came up with the magic number – five weeks to hit both North and South. What we realised early on is that five weeks is an odd amount of time to visit any new place – while it’s more than enough time for a traditional holiday, when trying to fit in an entire country, it has the disadvantage of limiting how much sightseeing you can do balanced with the amount of time you spend traveling from place to place. Considering we wanted to journey from Auckland to Wellington, catch a ferry and do a loop of the South Island, trying to organise ourselves to make every minute count was essential. So I spent months pouring over travel guides/websites and blogs, creating a priority list of everything we needed to see, and then a secondary list for everything else we wanted to see.
Then our flight landed – I spent a good ten minutes giving my sister the biggest hug of her life and, entirely jet-lagged, off we popped to our hotel. That evening was spent comparing notes on what my boyfriend and I wanted to do with what my sister realistically thought we could do.
What a lot of people don’t realise when glancing at New Zealand on a map is exactly how large the country is. It’s nothing, of course, compared to America or Australia, but there’s something to discover around every bend in the road and some of the best adventures are the ones you don’t plan. With that in mind, we decided to ditch the mapped-out route and instead pick a location and let the roads take us there in whichever way we fancied that day, while keeping an eye on our timelines to make sure we didn’t miss anything out.
Bright and early the next day, with an atlas in one hand and a sense of adventure in the other, we were off!
New Zealand: The Coromandel Peninsula
Because we would fly from Christchurch back to Auckland, we decided to leave sightseeing in the city until the end of our journey and instead left immediately for the Coromandel Peninsula.
Jutting out of the North Island, the Coromandel lies directly to the east of Auckland, and on fine days you can apparently look 55 kilometres across the Hauraki Gulf and see the peninsula clearly. However, getting to the Coromandel involves driving around the long way, and our journey to our first destination of Hot Water Beach was closer to 170 kilometres, a nearly three-hour drive. Realistically you can do it in closer to two hours but we stopped along the way several times to just take in the natural rugged beauty of the region.
Visiting Hot Water Beach
Roughly 12 kilometres south east of Whitianga, Hot Water Beach was the first of our unforgettable and entirely unique experiences. The long expanse of golden sand sat cushioned between the Pacific Ocean and a swath of forestry, which was a deep green that I will always associate with the North Island. With a justified reputation as a must-see, below the sand lies a secret you can uncover with just a spade and some elbow grease. Two underground fissures allow beach goers to dig their own hot pools, with the water bubbling to the surface reaching temperatures of 64 Celsius (147 Fahrenheit). When it mixes with the cooler ocean water of the Pacific, you can relax in your own personal spa pool.
Because of an amusing little mix up with the tidal times (one of our party mistakenly thought the tide was linked to the season and didn’t realise the times changed daily!), we arrived just as the ocean water was starting to eat away at the cusp of the hot water pools other visitors had dug. If you plan it correctly, and I strongly recommend you check the tidal times for the day of your visit, you can get a good couple of hours in the pools. As it was, we had about 30 minutes to enjoy the extraordinary beach, sneaking into one of the pre-dug pools to save ourselves some time.
After taking a dip in the ocean to cool off (and I mean cool off! June is the middle of winter, after all), we jumped back in our car and headed ten minutes north to another Coromandel favourite – beautiful Cathedral Cove, named for its enormous natural archway.
Visiting Cathedral Cove
From the parking lot, there’s a gentle rolling walk along the cliff top that took us about a half hour to do, with beautiful views out over the ocean and the islands dotted across the horizon. In true New Zealand winter style, the light drizzle we started our walk with turned to a downpour, which disappeared as the sun broke through – all within ten minutes. By the time we reached the stairs leading down onto the first beach of Cathedral Cove, the weather was heavenly and the light made the contrasting shadows of the archway that much more astonishing.
The arch sits nestled between two sequestered coves, towering over the visitors to the beach. There’s something awe-inspiring about walking through the passageway. You feel like you might be whisked away to some distant magical kingdom. This experience for us was greatly enhanced by the time of day and year we visited – late afternoon in winter meant we were practically alone to gape up at the vaulted stone ceiling. As we exited the cave, our eyes were naturally drawn to the stone pillars rising from the water just off the beach. Make sure to bring your camera for your visit – this is one of the most picturesque spots in the Coromandel, if not the whole of the North Island.
Visiting Coromandel Town
We ended our day in Coromandel Town, stopping for the night at Anchor Lodge Backpackers (70 NZD/three adults). While the bedrooms were basic, the kitchen was more than sufficient for our needs and we had our first home cooked meal in New Zealand. More importantly, to finish off our first full day in the country of my childhood dreams, Anchor Lodge has a free-to-use hot tub under the night sky – and in New Zealand, with so little light pollution, it was a sky full of stars.
NB – This is part of Anika Aylward Blake’s New Zealand Journey – look out for more stories about her travels across the islands here on Travelicious.