4 Days in New Zealand
If you have only 4 days in New Zealand, you can take a circular route from Auckland to the awesome Coromandel Peninsula and then on to Rotorua to take in a little Maori culture and enjoy the sulphur hot springs. Hire a luxury car, the price starts from NZD95 per day, depending on the size of vehicle required.
Head south on SH1, direction Hamilton. After the Bombay Hill, turn left onto SH2 direction Coromandel and at 88kms change again to SH25. Bird watchers should visit the Shorebird Centre on the side road to Miranda. It lies on the Firth of Thames, an important stopover point for migratory wading birds. One of them, the medium-sized Godwit, breeds in Alaska then flies non-stop to New Zealand in just a week!
113kms – Turn left towards Thames – the gateway to the Coromandel Peninsula. In the late 1880s this was a thriving gold mining and kauri logging centre. Follow the signs into the town centre. If you have time, you could visit the Gold Mine and Stamper Battery at the northern end of town. They offer regular tours showing the impressive ore-crushing stamper plus various tunnels with an informative commentary about the history of gold mining. Alternatively, there is another Gold Mine to visit in Coromandel.
Continue north direction Coromandel Town. You are now skirting the Firth of Thames, the road follows the dramatic and winding coast, so please take it easy. But most importantly, please remember that the locals are not on vacation and are quite often in a hurry to get somewhere. So if someone is pressuring you from behind, just pull over and allow them to pass. You will enjoy the driving much much more and the locals will in turn be much much more friendlier when you do eventually cruise to your destination at your own pace! There are plenty of places where you can pull over and take photos of this dramatic coastline. In fact all the way along there are plenty of places for stopping – Wilson Bay is one of my favourites. From December to January you should be treated to a display of flowering native Pohutakawa trees.
157kms – The picnic spot at the top of the hill has a great view down to Kirita Bay to the left and Manaia Harbour to the right.
169kms - Seafood lovers should stop at the Oyster and Mussel Shed on the left. They also sell scallops and all sorts of other seafood. The Smoking Company in Coromandel Town is also a good shop selling very fresh produce.
171kms – Turnoff for the 309 Road.
5kms up this road is the Waiau Waterways Garden and café, where whimsical wonders are worked by water. If you choose not to go in, the café is still a good option for lunch. They also sell pottery and garden sculptures at studio prices. If you do choose to go in, there are plenty of whacky contraptions to entertain the young and young at heart.
7kms - If you are feeling energetic, there is the walk to Castle Rock. It will take you about 45 minutes to walk up and 30 minutes to walk down. The track is slippery in places and the last few meters is a bit of a scramble holding onto rocks and bits of tree roots to get to the top, but the view worth it from the top!
7.5kms - The small but delightful Waiau Falls – best viewed from below in the bush glade where there is also a swimming hole.
8kms - Continue another 1/2km to the Kauri Grove parking. This stop is excellent, giving you a real taste for the New Zealand bush without much effort. The bush walk is an easy 10 minute stroll on a level path to 600 year old kauri trees. These trees are magnificent, with native bush wonderfully lush and cool and peaceful. Continue past the first lookout for a lovely circuit past the Siamese Kauri and to the Kauri Grove. The kauris are endemic to the northern part of New Zealand’s North Island and can live for 4000 years and grow to twice the height of these ones! They are the largest trees in the world if calculating volume of usable timber. No wonder they call them the giants of the forest and were almost wiped out by the colonials for their timber. The cutting down of a kauri is now banned as they are protected, so thankfully now we are seeing a comeback of these giants to our forests.
Return to Highway 25, Coromandel Town is another 5kms. The main street is an old world delight, full of cafés and craft shops.
This morning you could:
Go fishing for giant snapper at 7am – the Coromandel Fish and Chip shop will fillet and cook it for you, alternatively if you’d like to enjoy your catch in a lovely restaurant setting, then the Success Café will cook up your catch for you – if it is filleted first. Also try the Smoking Company.
Or you could play golf on the 9 hole course. The course winds around old mine shafts, with fairways following what once were gold veins bordered by miner’s shacks.
Most head to the popular Driving Creek Railway, for a unique ride on a narrow gauge train up a ziggy zaggy track that was first built to bring firewood and clay down for the potteries below. There is a great view over Coromandel from the “Eye Full Tower” at the top, where they serve train station style tea and coffee.
Visit the gardens or pan for gold at the 100 year old Goldfields Centre and Stamper Battery.
Departing from Coromandel shops, drive south of the village towards Thames, the turnoff for Whitianga is 400m back. The road climbs steeply for 5.2kms, there are awesome views from the lookout at the top towards Coromandel, Waiheke Island and Whangaparaoa Peninsula (Auckland`s northern boundary) to the east and Whangapoua to the west.
28kms – Kuaotunu Beach is a wide sweeping bay with white sand, if you are in need of a swim.
41kms – You are now arriving in Whitianga, a safe harbour full of holiday homes favoured by Aucklanders. At 43.5kms continue straight, following the beach to where the ferry departs from. This is where all the activity is, including some good cafés. One of the best places for a coffee is on the other side at the Ferry Landing Café, just a short stroll up the hill. Continue south, following signs for Tairua and SH25.
72kms – Turn left to Hahei and Hot Water Beach. After 5 kilometres turn right for Hot Water Beach. It is a lovely beach, but more importantly hot water rises to the surface here from a geothermal reservoir under the seabed. Check the tides, as you need to dig a hole below the high water mark, 2 hours either side of the low tide is your time limit. I recommend it after low tide, so you may then get to use an abandoned hole instead of having to dig one for yourself! You can dig a hole on the northern end of the beach, then sit back and soak in your very own private spa. Look for the sulphur bubbling to the surface of the sand.
Return to the Hahei road and continue north another 4kms, your destination for this evening. Hahei's main attraction is Cathedral Cove, a gorgeous beach nearby hidden within a dramatic coastline. There are 4 ways of reaching it:
Walk the coastal track which starts on the northern end of Hahei Beach. The views are excellent, it will take you about 1 hour to reach the cove itself.
Drive up to the car-park via Grange Road, then walk 45 minutes to the cove.
Take the Hahei sightseeing boat, departing 10am (no time at the beach).
Or my recommendation is to join the sea kayaking tour departing at 9am. A 3 hour truly kiwi experience, includes top quality kayaks and gear, tuition, and even a coffee brewed for you on the beach while you take a swim. You can order whichever style – Cappuccino, Mochachino, even an L Baccino (long black). Sea kayaking is a "must-do" in New Zealand and this is one of the most beautiful places to try it.
Today there is a long drive to Rotorua. Actual driving time is 4 hours without suggested stops. One mistake visitors to New Zealand make is underestimating how long it takes to drive – 300kms in New Zealand is not the same as driving 300kms on motorways in Europe! Our roads are not straight, as you have probably already noticed.
Depart from Hahei Beach car-park, return to the SH25 intersection and go left towards Tairua. Immediately on your left you will notice some vines, they are kiwifruit. You will see many orchards and vineyards today as you travel through what is known as the fruit bowl of New Zealand.
A great photo op is from Paku Hill, turn left as you enter Tairua towards Ocean Beach. Keep following the road around the harbour, at the marina go up Paku Drive, then follow signs to Paku Summit. A short walk will take you the rest of the way, for awesome views over Tairua Harbour and Pauanui Beach, Return to Tairua and continue south, direction Whangamata. Just after the Pauanui turnoff, SH25 goes left...if you go straight, you will end up in Thames again!
62kms - Whangamata Beach is over 4kms long and is popular for swimming and surfing. Drive through town (which is less winding than following the official SH2 signs) and the beach is certainly worth checking out - I recently rented a kayak and paddled out to Whenuakura Island where there is a cave entrance that opens up into a romantic beach hidden within the island surrounded by native bush, stunning! The locals call it Donut Island because of the hole in the middle.
100kms – Waihi once had 1200 mines producing half of the country’s gold. There is only one mine left now, the massive Martha’s Mine – a huge open cut mine right in the middle of town. On the SH2 intersection, turn right to Town Centre, then at the roundabout go straight onto Moresby Ave, the Waihi Gold Mine lookout is on the right 300m along. The lookout is truly impressive and the Golden Legacy Centre is worth a visit to learn more about the mine. If you walk uphill along the fence there is an impressive Maori warrior statue worth seeing - it is amongst the plants, plus the views over the town are quite lovely. The i-Site has an informative display about the mine.
Return to town and follow signs to Tauranga. Morton Estate Winery on SH2 in Katikati is recommended if you need to stock up on some excellent wines!
160kms – SH2 branches off to the left and follows the harbour's edge, with great views of 'The Mount' along the way. It was once an island with a Maori Pa (fortified village), but it is now joined to the mainland and marks the entrance to the Tauranga Harbour. In Maori, Tauranga means 'sheltered anchorage', the harbour has become a huge port catering for massive cruise liners and container ships filled with lamb, kiwifruit and timber heading for Japan and Europe. The Mount is now a congested suburb of Tauranga, with the beach becoming a popular holiday destination for the wealthy and the not so wealthy surfing crowd alike.
After crossing the Harbour Bridge, follow the signs for Mount Maunganui – there are plenty of cafés to choose from where you can sit back and enjoy watching the surfers. There is the choice of three walks here, depending on what time you left Hahei. The Coastal Track around the base of the Mount will take about 1 hour, to the summit and back is also an hour, or the full circuit starting from Pilot Bay on the harbourside around the base, then up to the summit via the Oruahine Track and back down the road, will take you about 2 hours.
Leaving the Mount, return to SH2 and continue east on the new expressway which takes you through the original kiwifruit growing region.
At the new roundabout at Maketu, change to SH33 to Rotorua. Or you could first turn right to visit the giant 360 Kiwifruit. If you’d like to know more about the fruit (and have time) stop for a tour, or just visit their café and souvenir shop where they offer tastings of the original green kiwifruit, Kiwi Gold and the new Baby Kiwi, plus lots of fruit wine and yummy liqueurs.
242kms- As you come into Rotorua, follow the city centre signs around the lake. You may smell Rotorua before seeing it, as the area is still very active with sulphur escaping from the earth’s crust (think rotten eggs). Don't worry, you will get used to the smell. Rotorua lies on a beautiful lake, actually a flooded volcanic crater - the surrounding hills are the remains of the rim of the giant volcano. Rotorua sits squarely on the Pacific Ring of Fire, so volcanic activity is part of the city’s past and present. The city has become New Zealand's second-largest tourist centre – so there are no shortages of establishments willing to take some cash away from you but if you’d like to make the most of what Rotorua has to offer and all that is thermal, here are some of my suggestions:
Kuirau Park has the largest display of steam and mud pools. An eruption took place here as recently as January 26th 2001 when mud, steam and debris were thrown 200m into the air. Springs regularly just appear, resulting in families being forced to move and the land having to be given back to nature.
Wander around the original Maori settlement at Ohinemutu. The church is worth a look at, as is the Marae (Maori meeting house) across the courtyard. Wander the tiny streets where everyone has their own private hot-water bore to fill their bath in the out-shed….just follow the steam and, stay on the paths!
If you have time, soak in the reputedly therapeutic thermal pools at the Polynesian Spa, a delightful but busy public pool. If you wait until tomorrow morning the spa is less crowded and it is a wonderful way to start the day - relaxing with serene views across the lake.
Agrodome's principal attraction here is the Sheep Show, a highly entertaining explanation of sheep and the caring of said sheep – the mainstay of New Zealand’s exports. Other attractions invented by enterprising New Zealanders on-site include Zorbing (rolling down a hill in a giant plastic ball), Swooping (a glorified swing), bungee jumping (jump from a massive height with an elastic cord tied to your ankles), farm tour (on the back of a tractor) and jet-boating (the art of speeding in a tiny boat over very little water).
This evening don't miss the excellent Tamaki Brothers cultural show followed by a traditional Hangi (earthen cooked meal). Pickups from your accommodation in a waka (war canoe) cleverly disguised as a bus, followed by a fun evening superbly hosted and entertained by local Maoris.
The excitement junkies can take the Gondola up Mount Ngongotaha for awesome views, interspersed with hair raising rides on a luge (3 levels available, so suitable for children).
Allow at least 3 hours for the drive to Auckland (without stops). Head back to Auckland on SH5 and SH1 via pretty Cambridge and Hamilton. Cambridge lies in the heart of the champion horse breeding country. The charming town has streets lined with exotic trees, antique shops and a pavement featuring mosaics of hometown horses that have done well - Sir Tristram and Zabeel to name just a few.
48kms- On reaching SH1 at the new roundabout, turn right to continue north back through Tirau and then along the mighty Waikato River (New Zealand's longest river). on reaching the city of Hamilton, there are a few lefts and rights so be sure to pay attention to the signs for SH1 to Auckland!
220kms - Return your rental car and utilize the Hop-on, Hop-off bus which can take you to as many of Auckland's highlights as you can fit in. Start your tour at the Waterfront where you can find the extremely informative Maritime Museum - the displays are chronological, so you begin with the Maori migration across the seas, step back in time onboard a European immigrant's ship, then appreciate New Zealand's proud yachting history including the Whitbread Round the World race and of course the America's Cup. After all, Auckland is known as the City of Sails. Continue east along the coast to Kelly Tarlton's, he was the inventor of the undersea walkway where you can view the fish from below without getting wet, the Antarctic Encounter and Penguin Encounter are worth stopping here on their own. You can't help but notice the Sky Tower. Admire the sunset and panoramic view, climb the mast, bungee jump from the tower or just have dinner in the revolving restaurant.