Touching down in Mordor (sorry, I mean Auckland, New Zealand) I really do feel, strangely, like I’ve come home. Even though I’ve never been here in my life there is a strange similarity to the place. Our first stop, having picked up the car, was to head out to The Coromandel. A beautiful peninsula east of Auckland, encompassing Coromandel Forest Park, Hot Water Beach (yes, really, due to volcanic activity in the area, the water on a stretch of this beach is hot, very hot, and if you dig a hole and sit in it it’s like having a bath – only a very salty, sandy one).
HOT WATER BEACH
Hot Water Beach itself is on Mercury Bay, on the East of the Coromandel Peninsula. For best hot salt water bathing, it’s best to go two hours either side of low tide (better digging opportunities), but if your itinerary doesn’t permit, you can still go, tho you may find the sea will steal your pool.
Be careful, water can reach temperatures as high as 64 degrees Celsius as it is heated by natural gas filtering up from two underground fissures close to each other. the natural springs can be found on the beach, just in front of the projected rocks. Once you have bathed to oblivion and are suitably salty and sandy, you really should add Cathedral Cove to your beach hop. Known to the Maori as “Te Whanganui-A-Hei” or “The Great Bay of Hei” (in Maori you read ‘wh’ as ‘f’). Legend has it that Hei declared ownership of the area around Mercury Bay as home for his tribe, calling Motueka Island “Te Kuraetanga-o-taku-ihu”, or “The outward curve of my nose” in English, very descriptive.
It’s around an hour’s drive from Hot Water Beach to Cathedral Cove, and once you’ve parked up you can amble your way down the purpose built, yet rustic wooden and carved rock stairway all the way down to the beachfront you’ll soon realise it’s not just ground-based activity here; the surrounding bays – Stingray Bay and Gemstone Bay are popular snorkeling and diving destinations in a protected natural marine nature reserve.
All this adventuring and beach-hopping will make you hungry, and if you haven’t packed your sandwiches (which would be all squashed, hot and sandy by now anyway) don’t worry, as the Coromandel region is home to some of the world’s most delicious mussels. Getting from Cathedral Cove to the Coromandel Mussel Kitchen is a bit of a drive, and if you’re starving (and up for a bumpy ride) then you can take the ‘shortcut’ when signposted – but be warned, in anything other than a 4×4 this will be, err…interesting. Supposedly a 20 minute detour, it was more like an hour sliding around un-laid roads of twisty hairpin bends with the ghostly swirls of dust churned up by mystery drivers only too far ahead from us to see. Just as you think you will be destined to drive this gravel road to the end of days, you pop out in a lush green field with a small car park and the Coromandel Mussel Kitchen right in front of you…anyone would think they planned it like this!
The whole menu is undoubtedly awesome, and be warned, the portions are huge and with sides, and with sides of bread and olives, one offering is just enough to share between 2. We chose a Manaia Mussel Pot at NZ$19.50 – a fine blend of Thai green curry , lime and coconut cream with a classic mussel chowder creamy sauce, with garlic and herb focaccia bread to accompany. Wash this down with a Monteith’s Black beer, or one of the fine selection of NZ wines on offer and you really have lucked out! These guys sure know what they are doing. Now just sit back, relax and enjoy the view.
It’s easy to while away the hours watching the sunset at the Mussel Kitchen, but be warned, once the sun goes down there are ZERO street lights out here. It’s like the English country roads, only there aren’t even any street markings, or stone walls to warn you where the edge of the road ends, so you’re best to set off for your final destination before it gets too dark. Once you reach the coastal road, if there’s still a bit of light left, you will get an idyllic view over the sea. Knackered and full, we eventually reached our final destination – The Coastal Motor Lodge, and despite turning up at gone 10pm, staff were kind enough to leave a hand-written envelope containing keys to our lodge stuck to the reception door, they even stayed up to ensure we got in ok. I’m fast realising one of the beauties of New Zealand (other than the landscape) is the friendliness and helpfulness of the people!