If you’ve ever been to New Zealand, you’re likely aware that it is one of the most naturally beautiful places on the planet.
A lot of that glory goes to the South Island, with its mystical mountains and voluminous valleys, its crystal blue lakes and snow-covered ski fields – it really is a terrific travel destination.
But the North Island deserves some love, too. In fact, if you like to drive rather than shred and bound around corners rather than bungee off bridges, the North Island could well be paradise for you.
On a recent trip to New Zealand I decided to see what sort of roads the area around Auckland had to offer. I wasn’t disappointed.
Having headed north from Auckland in the past, I was amazed by the natural beauty of the coastline en route to Whangarei. But this time I set a course for a different daytrip outside NZ’s most populous city, to the Coromandel Peninsula.
The jutting land mass is named after its main town, Coromandel, which attracts tourists from far and wide with the promise of a relaxed atmosphere, some stunning beaches, and the biggest mussels you’ll find anywhere outside of Bondi Fitness First.
The road on approach to the ‘Coro’ Peninsula, as the locals call it, is a mix of freeway out of Auckland, lower speed country roads and quite a few lengthy straights. In short, this isn’t the most exciting part of the drive.
But the scenery is pretty, with flat paddocks dotted with Jersey cattle for miles, and the occasional river and crunky old bridge to keep things interesting. Oh, and then there are the roadside eateries, such as the Pink Pig Café and Bugger Café.
When you get to the outskirts of Thames, about 110km from Auckland, the landscape changes considerably.
Mountains lacquered in thick rainforest greet you on one side of the road, while the Firth of Thames bay licks the land on the other.
Thames was a gold rush town in the 1800s, and around that time was the most populated place on the North Island. Now it’s a shadow of its former glory, but the streets are lined with beautiful historic buildings and warehouses.
The road out of Thames narrows considerably as you go, snaking its way along the coast toward Coromandel in the north. There are quiet little towns with baches (beach shacks) dotted along the way, not to mention a speed limit of 100km/h and some incredibly tight twists along the way.
Watch for slow-moving traffic, bicycles, motorcycles and motorhomes as you twine your way along the coast, and beware there are some un-signposted single lane sections of road between corners. Even if the traffic is bad, it can be exciting (but not necessarily in a good way!).
Give-way bridges are a common occurrence, but thankfully if you’re sitting in a line of traffic you’ll have something to look at. The steep hills on the land side of the car hide houses and wildlife, though you’ll also spot a lot of the latter squashed on the road (possums mainly, and they’re regarded as a pest in New Zealand).
Just past Kereta the road climbs up and away from the coastline, with corner after flowing corner ascending towards a picturesque picnic area on top of the hill near the Ohana Farms sign. To your left, there’s the coast you’ve just wound your way up from. To your right, if you peek down the valley, you can see a cluster of distant islands: Waimate, Motutapere, Whanganui, Rangipukea and Motuoruhi.
As the road drops back away from the peak of the hill towards the coast, the scenery only gets better. The crystal blue waters of the Firth of Thames stretch to the distance, and thickly forested, dense bushland gives way to grazing country.
When you reach Coromandel, you’d need to have a heart of stone not to fall a little bit in love with the town.
Quaint is probably an adjective that is on the money. The Star Garter Hotel stands proudly at the main T-intersection in town, and whether you choose to go left or right there are fishing and tackle stores, cafés and shops worth checking out.
If you need a bite to eat, there are smokehouses aplenty on the way in to town, selling smoked fish caught locally. But Coro is better known for its mussels, and if you’re a fan of molluscs, their size alone – up to 10 centimetres – is reason enough to chow down on a bucketful.
When you’re done – if you don’t stay the night, which could be tempting – head back out of town the way you came, and turn left towards Matarangi on Whangapoua Road.
This is where the real driving fun starts.
This 23km stretch of pristine blacktop starts sedately, passing a few pretty houses on sections of land on the town limits, and then suddenly it turns into one of the best driving roads imaginable.
A long hairpin left-hander combines with a tighter right-hander, and then the climb to the top of yet another hill begins. There is a mix of sweeping, faster-paced corners, a couple of tighter blind bends and, further up, a series of semi-switchbacks that allow you to push a little harder.
As you descend towards Te Rerenga – leaping place of the spirits – the verdant forest on either side of the road is hard to ignore. You might even find yourself slowing down to have a look at the surrounds, and the coastal glimpses out to the side of the car will surely keep your occupants entertained as they try to dodge trees when taking photos. But drivers will love the 25-odd corners that slither down the hillside back towards the coast.
Our car – the BMW X3 xDrive35d – wasn’t necessarily ideally suited to the task at hand. It handled the corners well enough, undoubtedly, but to get the most out of this stretch of road it would be highly advantageous to have a smaller, lighter, sportier car. Just be sure that if you take anyone along for the ride in your sports car that they have some travel sickness tablets with them, as the corners are somewhat relentless at times.
I felt like I was constantly changing direction, with the weight of the X3 shifting from side to side (and the bodies of my passengers doing the same). I wasn’t driving as hard as I might have been otherwise…
Still, the 3.0-litre turbo diesel six-cylinder engine in the X3 made easy work of some extremely steep climbs, particularly in Sport mode, which makes the engine rev more aggressively and adds a little extra resistance to the steering to prevent so much arm movement.
The brakes of the X3 need be commended, too, and anyone who plans to tackle this road with intent should ensure they have enough stopping power available.
The twisties smoothed out to longer stretches of country road as we made our way towards the seaside town of Matarangi, then to Kuaotunu. From there it was another jaunt inland over another brilliant mountain range with another couple of dozen corners. This place just kept offering more and more.
After driving through the stunning harbourside town of Whitianga, we headed towards Coroglen, and then after a few more kilometres it was time to head to Hot Water Beach.
This Mercury Bay beach is known for its lava-warmed water. Yeah, it’s hot, that’s why the name of the place is Hot Water Beach.
At the right time of day – two hours either side of low tide – you can dig yourself a bath that will allow hot water to seep through the sand. There are two fissures under the beach that leak water up to the surface, and the temperatures can reach 74 degrees Celsius. A nearby shop rents spades to tourists.
But even if it isn’t low tide, there is a spot in the middle of the beach near the big tree on the cliff that, when you bury your feet down, is hot enough that you’ll only last a couple of seconds. Kids, this one’s not for you. Also, the beach is known for its rips and hidden rocks, so be careful.
With wet shorts it was time to test the seat heaters on the way back to Auckland. They worked a treat, and the lower garments of our two front seat occupants were dry by the time we got back to the hotel. Those in the back didn’t have the luxury.
This is a trip that could be done in a day – that’s how long we took – or a week. There is so much to see and do, and the scenery and nature is so amazing, that it won’t be long until we head back … preferably in a sports car.