Growing up in New Zealand, you soon realize the great choices you have of beautiful places to visit.
New Zealand has a diverse landscape of lush native forests, beautiful beaches, snow-capped mountains, unique wildlife, and glorious songbirds.
It’s probably why freedom camping is a popular choice to see the best of New Zealand.
With the Coromandel, freedom camping is one of the best places to see in New Zealand.
A Coromandel Peninsula road trip through this stunning region of New Zealand offers the history of the early explorer Captain Cook, the height of majestic Kauri trees, abundant fishing, and old gold mines.
You can walk along white sandy beaches or swim in crystal clear seawater.
But, when good friends invited us to freedom camping on the Coromandel Peninsula, we just had to say yes.
Where is the Coromandel Peninsula?
The Coromandel Peninsula is on the North Island of New Zealand between the Firth of Thames and the Pacific Ocean.
On a sunny day, you can see across Auckland, Waiheke Island, and even Great Barrier Island from the west or northern tip of the Peninsula.
The Coromandel Peninsula is 40 km wide and 85 km long, with Fletcher Bay at its northern tip.
How to get to the Coromandel
Auckland Coromandel Road Trip:
- Highway 1 is south over the Bombay Hills, turning left onto Highway 2 near Pokeno. Travel Highway 25 in the direction of Waitakaruru to Thames.
- Fullers Ferry from Auckland city to Coromandel town.
The drive from Auckland will take you across the Waihou river before Kopu. The old one-lane bridge on the left used to be the only access to the Coromandel from Auckland. It made the journey slow, especially during holiday periods.
If you are arriving at Auckland International airport:
- Allow time to adjust to the New Zealand time zone
- Take some extra time to relax after your long flight and enjoy a good strong coffee
- Remember, in New Zealand, we drive on the left-hand side of the road
Known for its wild southern coast, picturesque waterfront, and the famous Te Papa museum, you have two options:
- Drive along the Kapiti Coast through the centre of the North Island’s Desert Road volcanic plateau of Mount Ruapehu, Tongariro, and Ngauruhoe to Taupo.
- Drive over the Rimutaka Range via Masterton to Napier and take a scenic hill to Taupo.
Where to Stay in Coromandel – Freedom Camping options
When your motorhome is seven meters long and fully self-contained, freedom camping is all you need. To find freedom-camping places, check out the Thames-Coromandel District Council.
Two of our favourite stops were:
- MacDonald Reserve near Otautu Bay (free, no tents allowed)
- Simpsons Beach near Wharekaho
The alternatives are:
- DOC Campsites (Department of Conservation)
- Bed and Breakfast – look for advertised signs on the gates or ask at the local tourist office.
Tips for Visiting the Coromandel Peninsula
- Wifi is limited the further north you travel up the Peninsula, especially for Vodafone customers.
- Remember to recycle, and it is free at town refuse centres
- Buy BLUE Coromandel region rubbish bags from the supermarkets to dispose of your rubbish (free disposal at refuse centres)
- Unsealed roads past Colville to Fletcher Bay and Sandy Bay are best for experienced drivers
- Lots of one-lane bridges; remember to give way
What to See in Thames, Coromandel
Our adventure started in Napier. First, we drove over the Napier-Taupo, a scenic hill road, stopping two hours later at Lake Taupo, known for trout fishing, hot mineral pools, refreshing lake swims, and the spectacular Huka Falls.
Lake Taupo formed over 5,000 years ago from a massive volcanic eruption. It’s an accessible location for New Zealanders with holiday homes. And the perfect spot for a road trip breaks to see the fantastic Huka Falls.
From Taupo to the Thames, you will pass near the famous:
- Hobbiton village at Matamata – for Lord of the Rings fans
- Paeroa – for the renowned taste sensation, Lemon and Paeroa soda
Arriving in Thames, you experience a small New Zealand settlement with impressive colonial buildings from when it thrived as a gold mining town.
Things to Do in the Thames:
- Pinnacles Walk
- Rapaura Watergardens
- Admire a giant Kauri
- Boilerhouse Brewery
Sadly, our giant Kauri trees in New Zealand are under attack by a fungus called Kauri Dieback. Please follow the signs to ensure you stay on the indicated paths and that your shoes are clean of dirt and mud.
Drive from the Thames to Coromandel
The road trip from the Thames to Coromandel is a coastal road with views of the Firth of Thames. You have the Coromandel Forest Park on your right and the sea to your left, with many beautiful bays to stop and admire the views.
Our favourite was Ngarimu Bay, where the beach was only a few steps away from the car park. Great for cooling off with a swim and absorbing the region’s beauty.
Coromandel is also an old gold town that gives you a glimpse of how early New Zealand began. Old wooden shops with overhanging verandas line the main street.
A visit to the tourist centre will help you find plenty of information about the Coromandel region.
Things to Do in Coromandel:
- Taste a bowl of Mussel Chowder
- Look for views of Waiheke Island
- Book a seat on Driving Creek Railway
Where to Stay in Coromandel:
- Long Bay Motor Camp and Cabins, where you can walk to Tucks Bay and the Big Kauri Tree (a great spot right on the water’s edge)
- Coromandel Top 10 Holiday Park
- Shelley Beach Top 10 Holiday Park
Head north to Fletcher Bay, Coromandel Peninsula
There are still some unsealed roads in New Zealand, including the roads north of Colville to Fletcher Bay and Port Charles.
While there are areas to pull in to let cars pass, you need to drive with care. The road to Fletcher Bay is narrow and creates a lot of dust in summer.
Our group decided to explore the west side of the Peninsula, including:
- Otautu Bay
- Port Jackson
- Fletcher Bay
We pulled into MacDonald Recreation Reserve, staying five nights between Otautu Bay and Fletcher Bay.
The reserve was too beautiful to leave as the beach was only a few meters from the motorhome door.
We swam, kayaked, fished for snapper and mingled with overseas visitors exploring New Zealand.
We even took a day to drive north to Port Jackson and Fletcher Bay.
Highlights included a pod of Orcas swimming by, watching amazing sunsets each evening, looking up at clear skies of stars, and waking to the delightful sound of the Bellbird.
It’s why we love Slow Travel so much. We don’t have a timetable and can stay away from the tourist spots to spend more time in one place for longer.
When you travel away from large urban areas, it’s a whole new experience.
Places to Stay in Colville to Fletcher Bay:
- Colville Bay
- Otautu Bay Farm Camp
- DOC – Port Jackson Bay Campsite
- DOC – Fletcher Bay Campsite
(You will need to remove any rubbish to a designated refuse centre.)
Leaving our idyllic spot at MacDonalds Recreation Reserve, we returned to the town of Coromandel to spend the night. Then, with the laundry done and the cupboards replenished, we got in a round of 9 holes at the local golf club.
The next day our road trip would take us over the ranges to the Coromandel Peninsula’s east coast and sandy white beaches.
Swim at New Chums Beach, Coromandel
Thanks to one of our readers, we got a message saying we should visit New Chums Beach.
A unique name for a beach, we found the walk to get there was over large stones, then winding along a bush path which opened to a secluded piece of paradise.
Wow, this beach is a gem and reminded us of Freedom Beach in Phuket, but without the trash.
The water was warm, the sea clear, the sand white and the surf excellent. The beach felt like a tiny paradise with overhanging palms and Pohutukawa trees for shade.
How to Get to New Chums Beach:
- Take the road to Whangapoua
- Park at the end of Mangakahia Drive (toilet available)
- Walk across the Pungapunga River (low tide) to find the path to New Chums Beach or
- Travel down Te Punga Road past the township, first right turn and stop at the end of the road to find the path.
Not planning to stay the night here, we made a stop at Matarangi to view the new settlement of houses.
Not inspiring for us, we stayed long enough to buy an enormous single scoop of ice cream at the Four Square and continued onto Simpson Beach.
Set up Camp at Simpson Beach, Wharekaho
Unfortunately for families, camping in New Zealand can be an expensive holiday. But if you are up for some freedom camping (self-contained campers), Simpson Beach at Wharekaho allows travellers to camp at a reasonable price.
A small piece of farmland, made available by its owners, is a camp for everyone to enjoy the beach only a few meters away.
We found children and adults enjoying the surf, fishing, or walking their dogs on an early morning walk along the beach. What we found odd was the sandy white beach went only to the tidal mark, and then the beach became black iron sand.
And Simpsons Beach, it’s only a short drive to Whitianga.
Stop at Whitianga and Cooks Beach, Coromandel Peninsula
Road trips always have you wondering, “Could I live here?” The drive along the foreshore to Whitianga had us answering “Yes.”
With easy access to the beach on one side of the estuary and large moored boats on the other, Whitianga has the feel of a summer resort with bars and restaurants overlooking the water.
When settled by Europeans, they milled the bushland of its Kauri trees. But by the 1920s, settlers had decimated the Kauri trees.
You can also visit nearby Cooks Beach by taking the ferry from Whitianga (a five-minute journey) to Ferry Landing, with beautiful views of Mercury Bay.
It’s about an hour’s walk to Cooks Beach, where Captain Cook traded with the local iwi for freshwater. Another beautiful place to spend some time swimming is the small estuary.
“The word iwi is from the Māori-language, meaning “people.”
Explore Cathedral Cove and Hahei Beach
The white sandy beaches always look more appealing than the pebbly shores of the west, so it was no surprise to find Hahei beach busy compared to the west coast beaches.
The car park close to the beach fills quickly. The alternative is to turn right at the first car park sign when entering Hahei. It’s only a short walk to the beach, about 10 minutes.
Most people use Hahei as their starting point to walk to the spectacular Cathedral Cove, which takes 45-60 minutes, depending on the heat and your fitness.
Your reward is a picturesque small beach with its cathedral arch looking out to the Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) Marine Reserve.
In the summer season, lifeguards are on duty, as swimming is the perfect way to cool down after your walk. And depending on the tide, you can walk through the arch to the next beach area, where you could be mistaken for thinking you are in Thailand.
You know, the famous James Bond rock Thailand boat tours point out. Well, Cathedral Cove has one, too, Te Hoho Rock.
How to Get to Cathedral Cove:
- From Hahei beach, it is a pleasant 45-60 minute walk uphill through native bush or
- Drive to the top of Grange Road South, park, and walk about 20-25 minutes from here.
- Book a Cathedral Cove Kayak or Boat Tour
Hot Water Beach
Before leaving Hahei, stop at the local shop to buy yourself a small shovel. You’ll need it if you plan on spending time at Hot Water Beach.
Only 8 km from Hahei Beach is the Hot Water Beach car park. Then it’s a short walk with your spade to find your spot to dig and release the hot water.
Jump in, relax, and enjoy.
Don’t miss Tairua, Whangamata and Waihi
Depending on what time you have, the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula has pockets of towns for fishing, surfing, sun, and relaxation.
Along the coast, you can stop and stay at small beaches or towns of:
- Waihi Beach
All of them are spectacular, with amazing views, swimmable beaches, and places to stay.
Whangamata Matariki Forest Trails
If you love cycling mountain bike trails, you’ll want to add a stop to make the Whangamata Matariki Forest Trails. The forest trails (old bullock trails) were established during the gold mine era to service the mining settlements.
Waihi Gold Mine
One place to stop is in the town of Waihi to see the historic Waihi Gold Mine, an old open-cast mine. The Gold Discovery Centre has lots of information on the history of gold mining in the area with suggestions of things to do.
Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway
If you prefer a walk in nature, the old railway line of Karangahake Gorge Historic Walkway along the Ohinemuri River is a great way to spend a day.
The 2.5km walk through old railway tunnels, finding old mining tools, and reaching the beautiful Owharoa Falls is another highlight of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Bring a picnic and allow at least an hour or more for the walk. Just remember to take your rubbish with you.
Hauraki Rail Trail
You may want to consider your visit to the Coromandel Peninsula to explore the southern area along the Hauraki Rail Trail.
It’s a five-day cycle ride along the 197 km Hauraki Rail Trail, broken into five sections with a natural gradient. You can access the trail from Thames, Paeroa, Te Aroha, Waihi, and Matamata.
It’s something we would look to do on our return trip to the Coromandel.
Wrapping up the Coromandel
One of the brochures we found about the Coromandel says it all “The Coromandel, Good for the Soul.”
We think the Coromandel Peninsula is a top place to visit in New Zealand. The Peninsula’s west side gives you places to stay away from the crowds, fantastic fishing, and stunning sunsets.
The east coast of the Peninsula has spectacular stretches of sandy white beaches and beautiful bays.
The only sad part of the road trip was learning about the decimation of New Zealand’s giant Kauri trees. So please take care and read the signs to ensure we eliminate the Kauri Dieback.
And if you have planned to see more of New Zealand from the Coromandel Peninsula, maybe add on a few days at Mount Maunganui in the Bay of Plenty or Okere Falls near Lake Rotorua.
New Zealand has so many beautiful places to visit, and planning to slow travel is one of the best ways to enjoy each stop.
A road trip to see the Coromandel Peninsula is a rewarding travel experience.