It’s so often the way for those who have backpacked or spent significant time travelling to have explored more of other countries than they have their own—which is almost criminal when we’re blessed enough to live in one of the world’s most beautiful nations. Aucklanders don’t even have to set aside too many precious holiday days to get exploring, there’s plenty of world-beating tropical trips close by that can be tackled over a long weekend away from the Big Smoke. Here are a couple of appetisers…
Coromandel Road Trip
We’re so lucky to have this Edenic peninsula on our doorstep. The Coromandel is just a couple of hours from Auckland yet great swathes give even South Island a good run for its money in terms of isolation and scenic wonder. Rather than head straight for the more popular east coast, consider heading north from Thames toward charming Coromandel Town on the west—the short water-hugging highway is one wondrous drive.
Departing from (or finishing at) Thames, the Hauraki Rail Trail is a fabulous, family-friendly Great Ride, a bike track that follows one of Aotearoa’s first railway routes, snaking through the spectacular Karangahake Gorge. Riders usually take a couple of days to complete the 80-plus-kilometre route, but you can choose to tackle shorter sections. Thames is also the gateway to the Pinnacles summit track, a rewarding—if taxing—day hike that affords 360-degree views of the Coromandel’s mountainous centre and the Hauraki Gulf. Book ahead to stay at the DoC hut near the summit to get up for sunrise—it’s one of North Island’s coolest tramping experiences.
Don’t leave Coromandel Town without riding New Zealand’s only narrow-gauge train at Driving Creek Railway & Pottery, or sampling some straight-from-the-sea green lipped mussels or oysters from the Coromandel Mussel Kitchen or the Coromandel Oyster Company. From Coromandel Town, you may continue further north toward the devastatingly gorgeous Port Jackson at the peninsula’s tip. This is a region of enchanting beaches that can be explored via the windswept Coromandel Coastal Walkway. New Chums Beach to the east of the northern reaches is a hard-to-access sugar-sanded ribbon of paradise.
The 309 Road connects Coromandel Town to Whitianga, and though it is the most direct route, it’s a rip-roaring 22km unsealed stretch that curls through dense bush and past a legendary gathering of semi-feral—though super friendly—pigs. Pretty Whitianga is the main town on the Coromandel’s east coast and serves as a launchpad to the region’s most revered natural attractions: Cathedral Cove and Hot Water Beach.
An hour south is my favourite Coromandel town, Whangamata, a laid back surf hub with a picturesque marina and arching golden beach bookended by forested headlands. Just offshore sits Whenuakura, or Donut Island—a collapsed volcanic crater that can be kayaked into.
Two and a half hours north of Auckland unfolds the Tutukaka Coast, a seaside stretch hailed by National Geographic Explorer as one of the world’s best coastal destinations, overlooking what Jacques Cousteau rated as one of the planet’s finest dive sites: Poor Knights Islands.
But before you get that far from (or on the way back to) Auckland, be sure to call in at the wondrous Waipu Caves, a gem of a free-to-enter natural attraction where a galaxy of glowworms glimmer from the roof of a 200-metre deep limestone cave that’s also adorned with some impressive stalactites and stalagmites. There are some small stream crossings so be prepared to get a bit wet (though don’t enter during or following heavy downpours as flash flooding is possible), and you’ll also need a torch (your mobile phone one will be fine).
Expansive white sands, age-old pohutakawa and sparkling waters abound along the Tutukaka Coast, most notably around Sandy (great for surfing), Whale (great for snorkelling) and MatapouriBays—the latter two separated by a headland that can be crossed via a lovely, shady track (or by a longer road). The Tane Moana Walkway can be accessed from Matapouri, a 4-6-hour return to the east coast’s largest kauri tree with an 11-metre girth. Sand Bay Horse Trekking offers tours through bush and along beaches and ridgelines for some life-affirming Pacific views.
To the north of the coast, Whananaki is home to the southern hemisphere’s longest footbridge (440m), that spans an estuary often patrolled by marinelife; while the nearby Helana Bay Lodge has been voted the world’s best luxury hotel thanks in part to its own private stretch of unspoilt sands (you’ll need to set aside at least a couple of grand to reserve a night here).
Poor Knights Islands, the region’s pièce de résistance, jut 25 kilometres off the Tutukaka Coast, and though landing on them is forbidden (they are sacred Maori sites) exploring the surrounding marine reserve is not. The waters of this ancient volcanic archipelago hide a sprawling network of underground caverns, sheer cliffs, black coral and kelp forests alive with colourful fish, rays, dolphins and occasionally orca. Exploration options include guided scuba diving and snorkelling tours, kayaking and scenic cruises that sail through Rikoriko Cave, the largest sea cave in the world.