Five years ago, at one of Vietnam’s many waterfalls, I had a memorable conversation with a German tourist about my home country, New Zealand.
This girl was a stereotypical Southeast Asian backpacker, looking like we all do, with too much sun, too few meals and a halfway healed burn on her calf from a motorbike exhaust. But it was her announcement “New Zealand is the best country in the world” that was not said as an opinion, but as a fact, that caught my attention.
She spoke of all the places in NZ that she loved, places that in my twenty odd years of living here, I had not set foot in and I remember thinking, ‘man, I really have to explore my own back yard to see what all the fuss is about’.
It wasn’t until simple conversation with my sister back in Abel Tasman National Park of let’s do this again that I remembered that passionate assertion from a stranger in the jungles of Vietnam.
So there began our budding plans of a trip to the Coromandel. With she being a student, we decided to road trip up the North Island as cheaply as possible.
There’s a real advantage to driving a car while in the Coromandel Peninsula. And yes, you can get there by bus from Auckland easily enough, but the Coromandel roads are so sensationally irregular, that it’s so much more fun to drive it at your leisure.
Where in the Coromandel is the cheapest?
I don't think there are towns in the Coromandel that are cheaper than others, it's more a case of convenience - staying somewhere that is close to where you want to go so you're not shelling out precious dollars on petrol.
The best towns to stay in have a big beach nearby, so you can spend a couple of days chilling by the surf. We stayed in Whitianga, unpresumptuous and welcoming, with a short drive to all the big players in the Coromandel like Cathedral Cove, Hot Water Beach and New Chums Beach.
Where’s the best budget accommodation?
If you’re looking at a hostel, we stayed at On The Beach Backpackers, and they had one of the best located accommodations in town. It really is right across the road from a big stretch of surf. Dorm beds are $26 per night.
If you have a tent or campervan and are looking for a campsite, try one of the DOC (Department of Conservation) campsites in the area at $10 per night.
Freedom camping is legal in New Zealand so long as a local council bylaw hasn’t been passed for that particular park/public domain, in which case you’ll see a no camping sign. Use common sense when parking up in a public place for the night, and be tidy and quiet so future visitors to New Zealand can still benefit.
To make things easier download the free app Wiki Camps NZ for all offline info on nearby campsites, lookout points and places of interest. I have it and it’s a really detailed and useful app for navigating NZ.
What to do in the Coromandel?
There are a handful of locations in the Coromandel that see daily tourist numbers in the hundreds, and rightly so. Cathedral Cove is high on many bucket lists and in the summer months I highly recommend visiting early or late in the day to avoid the crowds. There is limited parking up near the entrance, and we had to park down in nearby Hahei and hitchhike to top of the hill (or about 1-2km uphill hike). Besides, wouldn’t you rather have a photo of just yourself at Cathedral cove?
Hot Water Beach is another crowd pleaser and is available 2 hours before to 2 hours after low tide. The parking is an extortionate $4 an hour, and a shovel can be rented for $5 with a $20 deposit, but unless you’re going extremely early the shovels pretty unnecessary as the beach has been dug up by everyone else already. Just find a hole someone has ditched and check the water’s not too hot before you jump in, because the water can be scalding in some parts. If you want to dig your own pool have a little walk around first, you’ll be able to feel the heat below the sand. Only a certain part of the beach sit on top of the hot spring (you’ll notice that everyone is digging in the same 20 square metres). You’ll enjoy this more in the colder months or early morning/late in the evening.
New Chums beach is rising in popularity, but still considered slightly off the beaten path for having no road access and is a 40-minute walk from Whangapoua. I didn’t get around to visiting this beach but really wish I had.
The Coromandel can easily be done quite cheaply, just like the rest of New Zealand. The real attractions here are the rough and splendid beaches, the unparalleled hiking trails, the lakes, the hills and a clear ceiling of stars, all free to enjoy. Stay off the money trail as much as possible and enjoy New Zealand like a kiwi.
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