Guide to the ultimate “man day” on New Zealand’s Coromandel peninsula

Caution: In this article the author makes wildly general, mildly controversial, and borderline sexist remarks, none of which are meant to be offensive. Any abrasive remarks can be attributed to an obscene adrenaline rush derived from an extended period of time in the great outdoors. And maybe the feijoa juice.

Don’t get me wrong, the Coromandel Peninsula on the North Island of New Zealand is a place that can be enjoyed equally by both sexes. Clear ocean waters rife with marine life, dense jungles dotted with waterfalls and swimming holes, rural towns with country stores set beside single lane roads; these are qualities of the Coromandel which can be appreciated by men and women alike.

Nonetheless, in scouring the Coromandel from the confines of the campervan, there are elements of the sparsely populated peninsula which speak to the curious, nearly-Neanderthalic urges of adventurous young males. Climbing mountains, digging big holes, these are things we enjoy. Throw in a little local alcohol just for fun, and the Coromandel can make a case for one of the world’s best outdoor playgrounds.

Planning on visiting the area? Here’s a three-step itinerary for piecing together a “man-day” on New Zealand’s Coromandel peninsula.1. Climb a mountain

Although the Coromandel doesn’t have any mountains taller than 3,000 ft, the dense, forested interior of the peninsula is covered in walking tracks ranging from 20 minute loops to multi-day tests of wilderness navigation. In the Kauaeranga Valley alone there are 21 marked hiking trails which offer sweeping views of the entire Coromandel range, many of which offer access to isolated watering holes where thundering waterfalls are your only companion.

While all of the tracks on the Coromandel are worth a wander, none of them offer views as famously stunning as the challenging Pinnacles track. Departing from the top of the Kauaeranga Valley, the 16 km long Pinnacles track passes through sopping wet jungle that was once home to loggers harvesting massive kauri trees. From the sides of the muddy trail it’s still possible to make out the campsites cleared for early loggers, as well as the stone steps in the pathway carved so that pack horses could gain a better foothold.

At the top of the three hour climb lies a set of metal stairs and hand rails which lead to the greatest view in all of the Coromandel. Clambering to the summit of The Pinnacles offers the hiker a 360 degree view full of vertical rock faces and densely forested jungle as far as the eye can see. The entire gaze to the horizon is completely devoid of humanity, and from the tip of the craggy summit it’s still possible to feel that just for a moment you may actually be the only person on Earth.

2. Drink

After completing such a conquest it’s fair game to have sudden urge for a drink. After all, nothing screams victory like a celebratory stein full of grog. Luckily for Coromandel visitors there are a handful of local wineries and distilleries scattered along the eastern side of the peninsula, all of which are within close enough proximity to hit a few different spots over the course of an afternoon.

At Purangi winery, a funky, curious establishment set discreetly off the side of the highway, the visionary winemakers have actually experimented with creating a liqueur derived from the extract of the feijoa fruit, a little known citrus fruit which flourishes in New Zealand and is sometimes known as “pineapple guava”.

“All Kiwis love their feijoa mate”, claims the bartender, who I reckon has already had a few glasses by mid-afternoon.

“Most don’t know you can freeze it though. Keeps it good all year. We just like to make liquor out of it.”

With the type of sip that inevitably leads to a full body shiver, the feijoa juice alarmingly goes down potent but smooth. It’s just one of the myriad drinking opportunities which occupy the rural coastline, and whether it’s wine, local craft beer from Whitianga, or a generous quaff of feijoa juice, an afternoon spent imbibing the local swill can be a Coromandel afternoon exceptionally well spent.

3. Dig a Hole

Yes, that’s right. Dig a hole. As evidenced by young children at the beach, particularly boys, there is a certain fascination with digging big, deep, maybe-I’ll-get-to-China types of holes. Now take that fascination and combine it with the possibility of striking an upwelling of volcanically charged hot springs, and the digging mission takes on an entirely new level of excitement.

At the Coromandel’s insanely popular Hot Water Beach, amateur diggers descend in droves onto the golden brown sands during low tide, and for two hours on either end of low tide it’s possible to dig a massive hole in the sand to create your own hot tub fueled by the 140°F upwellings rising from the volcanic Earth.

Admittedly a bit overplayed (nearly every store in town sells shovels, for example), creating natural hot tubs on the beach at sunset is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the entire Coromandel.

Regardless of its popularity, comfortably situated in a recliner made of sand and immersed in the tepid natural spring, I strike up a conversation with Angus, an affable Kiwi who has brought his family up from Wellington on vacation. We talk of the Pinnacles, the hot springs, the kauri forests, and of course, the feijoa, its distilled juices still swimming in my head.

“Sounds like you’ve had quite an adventure day”, he remarks. “That’s why we come up here from the city, to get back into the outdoors. This whole Peninsula is an incredible playground.”

Cracking a smile and shooting a quick glance at his two young boys digging happily in the steaming waters, Angus nails the Coromandel right on the head.

“It’s a great place to just be a boy again.”

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.

The two worlds of Waiheke, New Zealand’s paradise island

Sipping a succulent syrah inside of the beachfront tasting room at Man O’ War winery, a quick glance of the room is all it takes to confirm I’m out of my element.

To my left, a middle-aged man sporting crocodile shoes and hair of a dubious authenticity casually flashes a credit card for $500 of the vineyard’s finest vintage. To my right, a suntanned yachtie with a bushy white mustache gesticulates to an acquaintance about the strength of the new varnish recently applied to his helm station.

Then, sandwiched between the two socialites, is me, a wandering travel writer who temporarily lives in a van which was shipped to the island on a 45-minute ferry. Meekly performing a free wine tasting just trying to learn a little about Waiheke wines, the contrast is pretty black and white.

Luckily for all parties involved, however, Waiheke Island is more multi-dimensional than simply being a playground for the uber-rich. Sure, there are expensive rave-parties at vineyards, hidden beachfront mansions, and trendy, high-priced boutiques lining the island’s main thoroughfare, but there is an entire other side to Waiheke which can’t be invested in, can’t be corrupted, and definitely can’t be bought.

I am here to explore that side of Waiheke.”It’s paradise island!” claims my friend Barlow, a couldn’t-be-happier Waiheke Island resident.

“It’s like living in the 1970’s! Come stay for a year!”

A recent transplant to the island from Australia, Barlow is one of the few workers swimming upstream against the river of Kiwis “jumping the ditch” to Australia for a share of the booming mining business, an industry where average salaries hover around $124,000 U.S. dollars per year. Don’t believe me? Check out this chart.

Barlow, however, wants no part if it. Instead, he’s enamored with the antiquity of Waiheke and the pervasive sense of island calm. There are no malls on Waiheke, and there are no freeways. With a population of only 8,000 residents, Waiheke is the third most populated island in New Zealand, yet still retains a small town feel. He instructs me to park my van on the grass just off the side of the road.

“You can leave it there for a month” he claims. “And no need to lock it.”

Later in the afternoon we take a hike along a coastal trail accessible only at low-tide. Although the island is only 36 square miles and crawling in private boats over from Auckland, there are still a surprising amount of hidden coves with nary a person on them.

Confirming the notion there are still places to escape the “see-and-be-seen” areas of Waiheke, the first person we encounter on the two mile amble along the coast is a woman opting to sunbathe in the total nude. A turquoise t-shirt placed ever so delicately over her face, we decide to scamper further down the trail and allow her to erase her tan lines in peace.

Meandering around a few more empty points, we find a lone fisherman seated calmly on a rocky outcropping, a faded straw hat protecting his sun-shriveled neck. Though I notice no fishtails poking out of his white plastic bucket, he exudes the feeling he hasn’t a care in the world.

“Nice spot for fishing you’ve found out here” I acknowledge upon approach.

“Ah, the fish are just a bonus mate. I come out here to find myself. Have some time for my thoughts. Might dive for some kina when the tide backs out a bit.”

A local seafood delicacy, kina is a a type of sea urchin endemic to New Zealand waters where the bitter tasting roe can reach prices of $25/pound. Climbing a densely forested pathway away from the pensive fisherman, I reason that kina can, in a way, speak to the dichotomy of Waiheke. Some people on Waiheke prefer to buy their kina; others would rather dive for their own.

Treating myself to a glass of Te Whau syrah at the end of the hike, followed by a pint of Onetangi dark ale from Waiheke Island Brewery (what? I’m on vacation), I eventually find myself wandering Oneroa Beach beneath a sky painted pink by the setting Kiwi sun.

There on the beach is when it hits me.

This, I realize, does not cost any money. This soft white sand beneath my feet, the smell of salt wafting off the tranquil Hauraki Gulf, the easygoing atmosphere of the locals strolling the beach alongside me, this is all part of the Waiheke charm that doesn’t have a price tag dangling off the end.

So although Waiheke Island may boast a glitzy reputation, travelers to New Zealand should remember that Waiheke is still just an island, and as is often the case, the best parts of island life always comes free.

Kaikoura, New Zealand: Surfing, seals, and seafood

“The chowder isn’t the type you have back in the States” I am warned.

The brunette woman working the oceanfront seafood cart has detected my accent and is concerned I won’t like her steaming bowl of mollusks.

“There isn’t much cream, just freshly made broth mixed with massive chunks of crayfish and mussels.”

Facing the kelp strewn waters of the Kaikoura Peninsula, a popular hamlet on the eastern coast of New Zealand’s South Island, this is exactly what I was hoping for: Massive chunks of crayfish and mussels. After all, it’s only appropriate for a place whose name literally translates to “meal of crayfish”.

Regardless, eating anything else in Kaikoura would just feel wrong, because Kaikoura is not a processed, pre-packaged type of town. It’s a place where the smell of sea salt wafts on the breeze and surfers recount that morning’s early dawn session. Storefronts advertise seal swimming, whale watching, and guided eco-walks, while local scuba shops display the current water temperature and visibility on outdoor chalkboards adorned in smiling blue dolphins.

This, I realize, is what separates Kaikoura from all of the other adventure destinations and photo opportunities which lay scattered around the South Island of New Zealand. Kaikoura is different from the gorges of Franz Josef glacier or walks such as the Routeburn Track in that it has been a long time since I have traveled through a place that refreshingly feels so alive.

Sure, there are pubs with drink specials and tacky New Zealand souvenir stores like any other tourist haunt in the world, but in Kaikoura there seems to be an intrinsic harmony the town has with nature that gives it an energy not felt in other parts of the country.

Nowhere is this more apparent than ambling over limpet covered rocks beneath the peninsula walkway on Kean Point. Aside from the sandy strands of kelp which give the walk a malodorous yet authentic aroma, the shoreline teems with nesting red billed seagulls and dozens of southern fur seals lounging contentedly on the warm rocks.

%Gallery-145599%These same seals were once hunted voraciously by the native Maori people, and given the abundance of sea life in the region Kaikoura was once home to one of the largest Maori populations on the South Island. According to Maori legend, the Kaikoura peninsula was the spot where the Polynesian demigod Maui placed his foot while fishing up the North Island of New Zealand with his great fish hook, and the peninsula extends so far off of the main coastline that Captain Cook on his original voyage in 1770 actually mistook it for a separate island.

With the full-time arrival of the pakeha–Europeans–Kaikoura was transformed into a hub of whaling and trade led by Captain Robert Fyfe in 1843. To this day it’s still possible to visit the Fyffe House, one of the lone remnants of the first European settlement and a structure which still rests on whale bones used to create the original foundation.

Though the whaling trade has long ceased in Kaikoura, throngs of ocean goers have traded their harpoons for camera lenses and have turned Kaikoura into one of the South Pacific’s premier whale watching destination for the sperm, blue, and southern right whales.

It’s not just the abundance of marine life which breathes life into Kaikoura, however, as it’s also found in the people themselves. A rural community of only 2,100 permanent residents, the active, outdoorsy community which populates the Kaikoura peninsula is fortunate enough to be sandwiched between the biking and hiking tracks of the seaside Kaikoura range, and the diving surfing opportunities found where the Southern Ocean meets the rugged coast.

Nowhere is this froth for life felt more potently than down at “Meatworks” a local surf spot set just north of town. Though the clock has yet to strike 7am, a cadre of die-hard surfers has already colonized the heaving beach break and opted to start their day with an active session on the water.

“It’s stunning isn’t it mate?” offers a thinly bearded surfer sitting next to me in the Meatworks lineup.

The summer sun has just risen in the east, and the crisp dawn colors of morning are reflected off the empty Kaikoura mountains.

“Best way to start your day right here I reckon.”

Then, with a quick smile and nod to say goodbye, the affable local strokes into a meaty, overhead set wave and disappears towards the kelp laden shoreline.

So begins another day in Kaikoura, the living, pulsing, breathing speck of New Zealand shoreline that can be found when given the freedom to roam…

For 2 months Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan touring the country of New Zealand. Follow the rest of the adventure by reading his series, Freedom to Roam: Touring New Zealand by Campervan.

Freedom to roam: New Zealand by campervan

Well. It’s official. For the next three months I am officially living in my car.

No, this vagabond hasn’t fallen on hard times (yet), but rather, I am going to be embedded in the back of a 1995 Toyota campervan in the magnificent country of New Zealand, where, for the record, summer is just beginning.

While this isn’t my first campervan endeavor around “The Land of the Long White Cloud”, my first visit was as a single, immature 22 year-old fresh off of university touring the country with two other reckless American counterparts. Three boys, three surfboards, one decrepit 1988 Toyota Hiace, and the open road beneath our tires. It was the epitome of freedom.

Five years later, the circumstances of my New Zealand campervan expedition are decidedly different. Still immature but now a happily married 27 year-old, the reality of this contrast was brought to my attention at a supermarket where I had purchased some groceries five years prior. Gazing down at the black conveyer belt at my current purchases, I realized the 12-pack of beer and surfboard wax had been replaced by a 12-pack of toilet paper and 200 thread count sheets.

So why would a struggling, married travel blogger scraping to pay off student loans decide to up and move his wife to live in a van in a foreign country? Because in a land as scenic and rife for exploration as New Zealand, there is unfinished business to be taken care of.

So why buy a van? Why not just rent a car like most other vacations? Because even though buying a vehicle is an enormous layout of money up front ($4000 cash. Ouch.) you start recouping that money the minute you set out on the road. In the end, with a little cunning and a fair bit of luck, touring New Zealand by owning your own campervan is the undisputed most economical way to experience the somewhat pricey country.Though C- was the unfortunate bedfellow of my math classes during most of my childhood, allow me to lay out a few figures regarding the financial logistics of buying a van versus renting one during your campervan foray throughout New Zealand:

The over/under on renting versus buying is probably around three weeks; For a stay of under three weeks, flipping a van in that amount of time is simply impractical. For a stay of longer than three weeks, renting a van will incur charges through the roof, as evidenced by the $7800 quote given for my upcoming stay of two months.

Secondly, it’s a campervan, key word here being camp, an activity that New Zealand is incredibly well-suited for. Although I’m a proud American and a huge advocate for our National Park system, New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) oversees a network of huts, campsites, parks, and preserves which stands somewhat above that of the US system.

Average price of a DOC campsite? $7. With the cheapest hostel beds in the country running around $20/person for dorms or $50/night for a private room, over the course of 60 nights, you’re theoretically recouping a minimum of $40 per night, a sum which quickly adds up whether you’re renting or buying.

Finally, when you own a van, provided you don’t get it stuck in a river, drive it off a cliff, or experience any major mechanical issues (always a calculated gamble), upon leaving the country you have the option of selling the van back to the next traveler looking to drive and camp their way through the country.

So how do you go about buying/selling a car when you arrive/depart New Zealand? While the country has online classified sites such as Trade Me, Gumtree, and Backpacker Board, a decent percentage of vans change hands at the Backpacker’s Car Markets in Auckland and Christchurch. Sellers pay a fee of $85 for the privilege of being able to hawk their car on the property for 3 days, and buyers have a whole market of options to choose from.

Nearly all vans have been converted to include beds elevated on platforms to allow for storage of bags beneath, and most vans also come with a full range of camping and cooking supplies included in the price of the van. An important logistical note is that you’re going to need to place a phone call to your bank to let them know you’ll be conducting transactions from outside the country, and to also temporarily lift the daily limit on your ATM card so you aren’t left pulling out a maximum of $600 for seven straight days.

So, after three days of haggling, multiple test-drives, a curious encounter with an elderly German named Volkor, and lengthy sessions spent under the hood acting as if I actually knew what I was looking for, we finally settled on a 1995 Toyota Lucida with a nice comfortable bed already embedded into the back.

All that’s left to do is fuel her up, cross our fingers we didn’t buy a lemon, and head out on the open road.

Now where did I put those sheets…

Gadling blogger Kyle Ellison will be embedded in a campervan for the next two months touring the country of New Zealand in the new series Freedom to roam: New Zealand by campervan.