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The Coromandel peninsula makes a strong claim to be one of the most beautiful spots in New Zealand, and there is no doubt that it is one of the favourite holiday destinations for Kiwis and visitors alike. But if you have neither the time nor inclination to drive there, and you don’t know any friendly skippers to zip you across the Firth of Thames for a day trip, a delightful option is to take a ferry and get a taste of what all the fuss is about. You’ll get a tour of the gorgeous Hauraki Gulf thrown in, with a running commentary if you’re lucky.
The Coromandel township is on the east coast of the Coromandel peninsula. The ferry leaves from downtown Auckland on most days of the week, depending on the season. The one-way trip takes 2 hours, returning to Auckland at 6.30pm and giving you about 4 hours of free time. The ferry is popular with local and visiting day trippers, cyclists and is also a commuter service of sorts so it pays to book ahead, especially on sunny public holidays and weekends.
The ferry stops briefly at Orapiu at the bottom end of Waiheke Island and at Rotoroa Island to drop off and pick up passengers and then it’s full steam ahead across open ocean to the Coromandel peninsula. It pays to stay alert as dolphin sightings are common in this part of the world. At Hannafords Wharf, passengers board a bus (included in the price of your ferry ticket) for the 10 minute drive to the township. Along the way, the bus driver will point out the green lip mussel farms and the oyster beds, and tell the story of the Royal Navy ship, the HMS Coromandel, which sailed into the bay in the 19th century and began the decimation of the native Kauri forests. These tall tall trees were prized as ship masts and keels and the story goes that it was Kauri spars that gave Lord Nelson the winning edge in the Battle of Trafalgar. It's somewhat gratifying to know that they were put to good use because it’s taken a long time for the forests to regenerate, and we Kiwis miss those trees.
Coromandel Town has a population of 1600 but this swells to 40 000 over the holiday period. For its size Coromandel offers a good number of options for coffee, snacks or more formal dining (try the seafood) and there’s a charming pub in one of the oldest historical buildings in the main street. It was re-opened in 2003, 100 years after the original, and today it offers fast internet, local food, sport on TV, and cider and beer on tap. Be warned, it’s a cash bar but there’s an ATM if you’re caught short of cash, as I was.
There are bush walks to take, swims to have, fresh seafood to buy (packed on ice for the return journey) and quirky shops to browse in Coromandel. A highly recommended tour is the Driving Creek Railway and Potteries (tickets can be booked at the same time as booking your ferry ticket or you can get tickets on the bus). This is the life work of Barry Brickell, one of New Zealand’s most famous potters who has worked tirelessly to return the Coromandel to its natural beauty. Barry is also a train enthusiast and over many years he has built (with his own hands, and a few helpers) a complex narrow gauge rail system which switches back and forward up the hillside to give the most spectacular views. The staff at Driving Creek are volunteers and they clearly love being part of this project and have enormous respect for the man who made it possible. Be warned, while the train is suitable for all ages and abilities, heads and arms must be kept inside the train. When the driver says that the vegetation grows close to the track he is not kidding.
At the end of the day when you board the ferry you might notice some words on back of the crew jackets. “To paradise and back” it says and you’ll undoubtedly agree.
The Local Tourist loves to find New Zealand's hidden gems. You can follow her blog here http://www.thelocaltouristnz.com