View heading up the east coast of Coromandel near Whitianga
The Coromandel Peninsula
You do not visit New Zealand without taking a trip up the Coromandel Peninsula. This is what I’d been told by many, and here I was sitting in my sub compact, rental car ready to pull out onto the road for the first time. I kinda sat there paralyzed for several minutes wondering if I was going to be able to handle this driving. For extra support and peace of mind, I skulked back to the Thrifty office and got the extra insurance in case the worst happened–which it does. By the way, there are no more car accidents caused by tourists than there are caused by Kiwis; it’s about four percent either way.
Once I got over the initial fright and finally pulled out onto the highway, I was exhilarated and excited to be the master of my own little blue Suzuki. As I’ve mentioned before, the roads are well marked and easy to navigate with lots of round-abouts (traffic circles) and big, blue double arrow signs at ground level pointing to stay left. No GPS for me. I’m using maps! And I’ve made a game of folding them back up again correctly.
The roads driving north beyond Waihi really become fun and at the same time harrowing. I was glad I was driving up the east side of the peninsula hugging the inside because on these narrow, winding, two lane roads there is relatively no shoulder and there are few sections of guard rails! At the same time, as you round a sharp corner, there’s a quick in-take of breath as you gasp at the stunning view thrown at you! You gotta look–but you gotta keep your eyes on the road too! Add to this the occasional cyclist. Cycling up these roads has got to be some form of extreme NZ sport– or a death wish. I’m not sure which.
I’ve also taken to talking –out loud– to myself a lot exclaiming “OMG! Look at that! HOLY SHIT/COW that’s incredible!” Fortunately, there are places along the way that allow you to pull over and stare mesmerized at the surreal scenery in various shades of aquamarine, turquoise, and green. To be honest, I’ve asked myself a few times why I’m doing this alone? I would so enjoy this with family and friends. When I’ve told people I’m doing this trip solo, I get two different reactions. One: That’s really cool, bold, and exciting! Two: They just sort of stare blankly, and you know they’re probably thinking Why would anyone want to do that!?
Driving up the peninsula only takes roughly two and a half hours, so I leisurely took my time stopping at a couple of beaches to… you know… just sit in the sun and sand and think how glad I was to be enjoying summer in January… Before reaching my first day’s destination in Whitianga, I made sure I visited Hot Water Beach. The tide was in, so no thermal hot water soaks, but it was beautiful just the same. Also close by in Hahei is Cathedral Cove It’s about a thirty-five minute walk to the beach from the car park, or you can take a shuttle for 5 dollars. Although the day was cloudy, the beach and cave formations were worth seeing in any weather.
When arriving in Whitianga, I pulled into a Countdown grocery store to get directions to the YHA Backpackers Hostel. I stopped the first person coming out of the store and asked directions, and the next thing I knew, he told me to just follow him, as he was going that way. Kiwis are amazing.
This was my first experience at a hostel, and for $40. ($26.US) a night, I was impressed. This place had such a friendly and happy feel to it, and to top it off, the beach with a lovely esplanade was right across the street. On the way to my private room with shared kitchen, bathroom, and sitting area, I passed a couch full of young German kids cuddling together watching a movie. It could have been a scene right out of my sister and brother-in-law’s home with their two daughters and posses after a long day of fun. My room was teeny-tiny with a single bed and resembled the kiddie room from a Playmobil vacation beach house. I loved it. The best place to access free WiFi was in the office, and I got to chat with other guests, who were, surprisingly, comprised of various ages, families, and older poor people (just kidding).
The next morning I headed west across the peninsula to the actual town of Coromandel and found a small and upbeat downtown (city center) with the iSite tourist center, stores, and several wonderful cafes. Small cafes are every where in NZ and most have free WiFi. I’ve learned to order my coffee–long black–a shot of espresso diluted with hot water, and then settle in for a while checking emails, observing people, and listening to the melodious sounds of accents and languages from all over the world. I checked into the Anchor Motel, where for about $60 ($44.US), I got another great single room, though this time much bigger with a double bed and sliders to a private porch area, along with a shared kitchen and huge separate bathrooms for men and women. Recommended was the Driving Creek Railway and Potteries . I was lucky to catch a ride without a reservation at the last minute (a solo bene) and later visited one of the potter’s studios whose work was featured in the Railway gift shop. I was saddened to hear that Barry Brickel, New Zealand’s first Kiwi-born, fulltime handcraft-potter and creator of this inspiring narrow-guage railway track had died shortly after my trip there.
I finished the day with a two hour hike close by and a meal of steamed mussels, a Coromandel favorite.
This trip really helped me get into the groove. My heart was purring! I was feeling really good, except for the occasional reflection in a mirror or shop window of my upper crepey arms! When the hell did that happen? The next day I headed south down the peninsula to the town of Thames for a cafe stop and got to meet Peter from France, who was on a four month work visa. We chatted and then took turns watching each others belongings for a quick loo visit.
After musing about why I’m doing this alone, a couple of things have occurred to me. First, I can see what “me” really looks like. The ego begins to fade, as I’m in my own little social vacuum. And, Second, traveling alone also shines a light on the kindness of strangers: new friends are every where.