Road Tripping New Zealand’s North Island: Cathedral Cove, Coromandel and “The Backside”

Here’s the route: we’re driving from Coromandel down to to the surf town of Raglan, up to Paihia in the Bay of Islands, west to NZ’s Tasman Sea Coast, and then down the enigmatic Highway 12 through the misty fern filled Waipoua Forest and back to Auckland.

First stop is Mana Retreat Center in Coromandel. We pass bays and inlets with signs saying “50 cockles per day limit,” or something like that. There are mostly empty parking lots with an old car or two and some have swing sets that sway eerily in the wind. Sometimes people wander the shoreline with buckets. The road winds RIGHT along the shore with abrupt drop offs to sandy inlets and coves.

We stay at Mana for Georgie Jahner’s weekend dance retreat, founder of

The workshop includes (unbeknownst to me) a (gasp!) a 24 mandatory period of silence. Aroooo? Like NO talking. This is, ahem, a first for me. Mana hosts all kinds of courses and retreats and offers lodging and meals on site. The food is largely local, including delicious kiwis of course. Beware party people, there is no meat or alcohol available here. You have to travel to the town of Coromandel, a short drive down winding green hillsides above the bay. Which fills and drains dramatically throughout the day. A smiling white bearded man (the proprietor?) hips us to a beautiful deserted bay about half an hour away. Indeed the only people there are some Australians napping beside a Westy, and miles of turquoise water:

Little hobbit dwelling at Mana Retreat Center (possibly the sauna?):

Here we meet a man from Minnesosta who married a Kiwi. He’s in the unique position of offering cultural tidbits we can easily digest, so we ask, “so what are Kiwis like? What’s it really like to live here?”

He tells us about the Tallest Poppy Syndrome. Kiwis have “a thing” about “standing out.” It is culturally discouraged to be extremely loud, extremely awesome, extremely curious or pushy, or well, extremely anything. We sip our coffee. Eeeenteeresting.

At the very top of Mana Retreat Center, there is a sanctuary overlooking the bay. People come up here at sunrise to mediate and shit, so Mom and I thought we’d give it a go. We start walking (without coffee, mind you) up dark fern lined roads that turn to little trails, and sun begins to rise.


We open the doors to the sanctuary, and what to we see but a beautiful man wielding a violin. Who proceeds to serenade our sunrise.

Okay, so the coolest places to visit on the Coromandel Peninnsula are Cathedral Cove, the Hunderwasser Toilets (yes I said toilets) and Driving Creek Railway and Potteries.

Cathedral Cove is stunning but getting there is just as fun. A hike through giant ferns plops you out right about here:

There are black ferns abound on the path to Cathedral Cove. And white ferns. And all kinds of ferns. Which I’m sure have much more specific names, pardon my ignorance.

This mural is across from the fabulously famous Hundertwasser Toilets in Kawakawa, designed by a quirky Austrian artist. I won’t give it all away, but let’s just say these are the coolest public restrooms you will ever see.

Alright, so I’m a train officianado. When I heard about nearby Driving Creek Railway and Potteries, I knew we had to go.  Local pottery artist Barry Brickell had a dream of making his own railroad to gain access to rich clay deposits for his art, and after years of laying track largely by HAND and building bridges across gorges, here you have Driving Creek. They even built their own little rail station.

You can read more about the railway and make reservations here:

It’s just north of Coromandel Town. New Zealand’s only narrow-gauge mountain train takes you across steep hillsides of forest and the wide views of the green hills and beautiful Coromandel Bay. In fact, so beautiful they look, uh, exactly like the San Francisco Bay. (Auckland and SF are in fact at the same latitude, just on opposite sides of our spinning planet.)

Did I mention I like trains?! After the retreat I book us a night at Solscape in some converted railroad cars in Raglan, home of the epic left in the surfing world. I think the trains are really cool! Mom thinks the trains are… really cold. It’s May which is almost the dead of winter in New Zealand, and there’s no heat. But so much charm! There’s a shared kitchen, wifi, a cute cafe and surfboard rentals, all with a view of the break and the Tasman Sea.

Raglan is on the other side of some very windy roads once you pass Hamilton. (Don’t go to Hamilton, by the way.) There is a waterfall on the way with good signage.

Raglan has cute shops with expensive local crafts, art and clothes. I spent way too much here. There are a handful of restaurants and the Harbor View Hotel with a beautiful inner courtyard. The kind of place I imagine myself sipping a martini at dusk.. but didn’t. WTF?! The whole town has a hippie surf vibe, without a lot of the pretentiousness.

The next leg of our journey is back through Auckland and up to the Bay of Islands. Passing over the more historic and seemingly more pricey Russel, we decide to stay across the bay in Paihia. After walking past rows of tour operators, crank em out restaurants and souvenir shops, we decide to book our hostel for one night and one night only.

In the morning, we set off on a boat tour of the Bay of Islands from Paihia. They’re all kind of the same. Different boats, different voices on the microphone. The morning starts out foggy and I’m worried we won’t be able to see the islands, but it clears by mid morning. Apparently this is normal.

My favorite stop is Urupukapuka Island. Clear turquoise waters showcase schools of fish. We hike up to the top of the island, scaring goats and listening to the call of strange birds as we creep through bent over trees. We look out onto a curve of yet another white bay and teal water. Hundreds of goats and their late afternoon shadows move across the grass, darting from the gaping visitors.

We see loads of happy spinner dolphins. I take a 2 minute video of them playing next to the boat and when I’m done, they’re still frolicking!

So we get the fudge out of Paihia the next day. We stop at little cafe and ask a bearded, newspaper reading man about our next route: west across the island and then down 12 along the coast past Dargaville. He’s never done it. How could you live on this little island and not have done it?? We glance at each other. Whatever. We’re still going.

I notice the bulletin board in the coffee shop as we leave:


At some point on this journey, we see a small brown sign that says “Glow Worm Caves.” Now these are not the well advertised, pricey caves near Waitomo, south of Auckland. I guess NZ has lots of glow worms and some caves are more hyped then others.

We drive up a gravel road, no one in sight except rolling green meadows broken only by farm houses. But now I can see we’re driving straight at the most interesting sight: this cluster of funny looking rocks. When we get “there” I still don’t’ see a soul. No one in the parking lot. We find a trail and start walking, past giant boulders with trunks twisting around their bulk, and the air gets cool and wet. Soon we go over a ridge and descend into a staircase that leads into blackness. Now, we are not prepared for this. We have no light. We giggle and hold onto the railing smoothed by many hands, and I use the dying iPhone to cast a little light on our path. We are in deep deep dark. And then there they are. Looking up is like looking at the night sky, only its the middle of day. Bagillions of little glow worms, bright and almost blue. At the other side we are stopped, half way to our car, by a Maori woman in a uniform. Apparently we spaced the signs pointing to the “tour” where people tell you about glow worms and have lights and shit. Oops. We took the unofficial tour. And backwards. At the very end, (really the beginning) we see the signs that say “No Photography.” Oopsies again. Mind your signs.

We pass through Kaikohe in the middle of the island, which has an inexpensive (and very sulphuric- take off your silver) local hot spring, and descend into Opononi just before sunset. This was just a speck on the map. But there’s something cool about this town… there’s a skate park with a view of the ocean, where two points of land- one pale dunes, one forest- allllmost meet like the tips of a horse shoe, with distinct white peaking waves cresting from different directions. Across the bay where the sand dunes are, a Kiwi tells us, is a local village. People over there speak, live, read, and conduct business entirely in Maori. I am kind of shocked and delighted to discover this, especially coming from Maui where the Hawaiian language is more of guarded treat than something lived and breathed by entire towns.


We stay at the Copthorne Hotel in Opononi, unannounced and unreserved. (Not recommended- this place hosts events in its conference room and the place can be completely booked.) There is a pool, well landscaped grounds right on the water, a driftwood filled beach and a pier to sit on at sunset. The restaurant serves up creative cocktails and filet of local fish (among other yummies) in the old fashioned classy bar, with a view of the ocean.

The next day we continue to Waipoua Forest. This is home of the oldest Kauri tree in New Zealand, going back something like four thousand years. Pre- JC. This tree has seen some shit.


So we pretty much pass NO cars from Opononi to Waipoua Forest. But when we get to the trail that leads to the famous tree, there’s a handful of beater cars and some Maoris hanging out with their family. And friends. I think. Just on the road.

I say hi.

We smoke a joint, chat, and before I know it we’re all cracking up. They are especially interested in my vape stick. Maybe these haven’t come to NZ yet.


Point being, locals are friendly.

If you are.

Like most places.

So be friendly. Be awesome. (Just not extremely)


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