Into the mystic

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Exploring the Coromandel Peninsula

Clear aquamarine-coloured sea water tempts one to swim. Yet being mid-August in New Zealand, no way.

It reminds you of the Greek Islands, only better. The sand beaches, dramatic limestone and sandstone cliffs as well as caves.

A photo in a travel brochure had inspired me to seek out Cathedral Cove and the quirk of nature that has formed such an intriguing cave.

It’s one of the top spots to see and do in NZ – along with the nearby Hot Water Beach. Yet no-one had told me about it. Until now.

Cathedral Cove is walking distance from the small village of Hahei on the Coromandel Peninsula.

This area of New Zealand’s North Island has long held an attraction.

A work mate loved going there. Home, he would call it.

That was while we were working at Whakatane, on the lower end of the Bay of Plenty.

It was half a lifetime ago but his wistful tales of what it was like there became etched in my mind.

Back in Australia many years later another work colleague would speak lovingly of this special piece of the Shaky Isles.

This winter I had the chance to get a glimpse of this somewhat mystical place so locked in the hearts of New Zealand’s early inhabitants, the Maori.

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Coromandel, renowned for its natural beauty, green pastures, misty rainforests and pristine golden beaches, is regarded as one of New Zealand’s most popular and best-loved holiday destinations.

It was named for HMS Coromandel, a sailing ship of the British Royal Navy, that sailed into here in 1820 to get kauri pine to use as its spars.

The peninsula is steep and hilly, the range rising to a height of about 900m forms a spine. The large island of Great Barrier that lies beyond the northern tip can be thought of as an extension of the range.

Great Barrier Island is a renowned yachties haven, providing safe anchorages for cruisers … departure point into the pacific when weather windows open.

This rugged nature means that much of it is relatively isolated.

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Stop at towns such as Waihi with the eerie shape of the old gold mine dominating the skyline.

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Hahei is to the north of Whitianga, short for the explorer Whitianga-o-Kupe who came to Aotearoa before the great canoe migration some 600-700 years ago.

Today, Whitianga is famous for its surfing with a beach break as well as a right-hand break and right-hand bar break at the mouth of the harbour.

Captain Cook visited Mercury Bay when he first sighted New Zealand in October 1769 on his voyage of discovery.

He had named it to mark the place where the expedition observed the transit of the planet Mercury.

Small islands and island groups lie offshore while the whole Coromandel Peninsula shows considerable signs of past volcanic activity.

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Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve covers 840 hectares.

Getting to Cathedral Cove takes time … time to enjoy the views, time to drive carefully along the roads that twist and turn up ridge lines and down gullies, sometimes winding along the magnificent coastline and otherwise through rainforests and pine plantations or rich dairy and sheep country.

Once you get off the State Highway 2 the villages become smaller. Apart from some nice homes there is just the shop at Hahei.

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For Cathedral Cove you need either to park in the village at a designated area and walk along the coastline – perhaps 2.5km – or catch a boat tour. Otherwise drive up Grange Rd and if it is on a weekday you might get a park at the start of the pathway leading down to the cove.

All along Grange Rd there are yellow lines on both sides of the road to signify no parking .. a tow-away zone.

Once at the car park there are good boardwalks and viewing platforms looking back to Hahei beach and of the islands.

It’s a magnificent outlook. You can just imagine the Maori canoes coming ashore here or Cook sailing past.

The early part of the path is friendly but the steeper slope tells you when to stop according to your fitness.

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Most of the pathway is sealed but there are steps down to Stingray Bay that is about 10-12 minutes from the car park, also on the last part to Cathedral Cove.

Stingray Bay is well worth the detour for the seclusion and the clearest blue of the water … after all, it is the Pacific Ocean.

Cathedral Cove is named after the arch linking Mare’s Leg Cove. It is about 45 minutes walk each way from the car park. Along the way are plantations of pine trees as memorials to the world wars.

There is a sheltered sand beach and the cave linking through to a second beach.

Cathedral indeed. Walk through the cave then dodge the waves to enjoy the second bay.

There is an air of grandeur, especially with the coves framed by elegant pohutukawa trees.

Then there are the rock outcrops and islands in the jewelled seas.

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Te-Hoho is a large pinnacle of pumice breccia rock sculpted over centuries by wind and water.

The walk to Cathedral Cove and back is made for many feet. As well as walking, there are kayak tours, sailing trips, a water taxi and glass-bottom boat tours.

The calm waters, the colours make a huge impact. Just like the sunshine brings a huge difference to the feel.

Check the weather before going. It would not be as comfortable in rain.

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As well as being a great place to dive and snorkel, you are also a 10-minute drive from Hot Water Beach.

This remarkable feature is best enjoyed two hours before and after low water mark. Take a shovel or hire one, dig into the sand and relax in the warm to hot water seeping up through the sand.

It’s good to come across such places, without the crowds or commercialisation.

Coromandel, take the time. The more you see the more you want to look, the more you want to discover.

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