Words by Charly Draper
Golden Week is fast approaching, so a warning for the inexperienced: do NOT try to travel Japan in this time. The other 127 million people are ALSO travelling. Domestic travel in Golden Week is only for the very brave and the very organised! If fighting all of Fukuyama for a shinkansen seat doesn’t sound like fun, it leaves you with two options: one, stay at home with the door locked and curtains closed, or two, make a break for it and get out of Japan. Personally I prefer option two!
But where should you go? The obvious destinations are around Asia, but if you are in the 70%* of ALTs who went to Thailand for Christmas, you may be looking for something a little less, well, Asian. If you don’t feel like going home, but you want to spend a week somewhere where everyone speaks English, I have a suggestion. Make the most of being on the edge of the Pacific and head down to the mild climates and opposite seasons of New Zealand.
Recently I did just that, although admittedly for a wedding rather than to escape public holiday crowds. The spot we visited was so relaxing and picturesque I felt I had to share it with you all. Ever heard of a little place called Whitianga? No, I didn’t think so. Never mind, let me enlighten you…
Whitianga is a tiny seaside town, population 4100, in the holiday hotspot Coromandel, New Zealand. In winter (June to August) the streets are quiet, the grey beach is empty and there is no queue at the excellent fish & chip store. Holiday homes are cheap to rent and peace and quiet is easily come by. However, in summer Whitianga is a different animal.
In summertime, the place is bustling with tourists, both domestic and international. They are drawn there by the good food, the range of adventure tourism options and the close proximity to a number of Must Do NZ experiences. Ultimately, though, Whitianga is all about the scenery. Nestled in a calm, protected bay, Whitianga’s beach is a wonderful, safe destination for families with young children.
Don’t have any toddlers to wade with? Take the ferry at the end of the bay – if you can tear yourself away from the exciting range of restaurants across the road. Once you cross the small inlet, head over the hill to examine stunning sea views, explore charming wee bays and experience delectable local cafes and wineries. Take your time and fall in love with this beautiful corner of the world.
Whitianga has been occupied for over a thousand years – which in New Zealand history, is a really, really long time – since Maori tribes first discovered the place and moved in. In 1769 Captain Cook visited and renamed a few things and in 1836 the first European settlement was developed. Nowadays, Whitianga is known for fishing, farming and the tourism industry. Which brings us back to your holiday…
Ok, day two – what now? You spent a day exploring the town, walking the beach and riding the ferry, but now you want to see more of the country and maybe even get a bit active.
First step – assuming you’re not on a bus tour or anything, in which case your guide will be giving you all this information anyway, you should hire a car. You may have done this already and driven the 208km from Auckland airport to Whitianga – in which case, congratulations on your successful international driving experience. But if you took a bus to Whitianga, now is a good time to hire a car. Try New Zealand Rent a Car Whitianga.
Once you have transport sorted, there are two highly recommended local attractions: Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove.
Hot Water Beach has one of those names that, while lacking finesse, gives you the most important information straight-up. Hot Water Beach has a hot spring that gurgles out of the sand and runs down to meet the surf, where it disappears into the ocean. However, at high tide the spring is lost beneath the waves. Speaking from personal experience, do not head out there without checking the tide information (online here). You will be wasting your time and look like an idiot. Although then I’ll be in good company.
Anyway, assuming you checked the tide times and headed out there when the hot spring was exposed, you then need to hire a spade at the store in the car park (or cross fingers someone will have left their hole in the sand and you can take it. Akin to hermit crabs, moving from shell to shell as better options present themselves, the best holes at Hot Water Beach also get snapped up quickly by scuttling tourists eager to get into the prime location).
In an ideal world, you would have the beach to yourself and could choose where to dig your personal ‘spa pool’. In which case I would recommend you choose one where you get a trickle of hot water from the corner, but not too central or your pool will be too hot for anything but cooking your kai moana (that’s ‘seafood’ to you).
In reality, the place is usually pretty packed and you may spend a few minutes loitering at the side waiting for a likely-looking spot to open up as other people leave. Once you’re in the ‘zone’, you can spend as long as you like getting some vitamin D in the sunshine, although regular repairs to your pool may be necessary, as digging upstream sends more hot your way or an approaching wave fills your pool with too much cold. No-one said this was easy! However, I can promise you will have a novel experience that will make for great pictures and memories.
Had your fill of soaking in the steamy water and getting sand in your togs? (‘togs’ is Kiwi for bathers/swimming trunks/swimsuit/whatever your country calls them) Ok, time to jump in the surf to wash off, then head to destination two: Cathedral Cove.
Cathedral Cove is another location with an immediately obvious name. A huge cathedral-shaped tunnel through rock links two equally beautiful stretches of beach. Cathedral Cove (also known by its Maori name Te Whanganui-A-Hei) is so picturesque that it is even used in movies – you may have seen it in the Chronicles of Narnia movie Prince Caspian.
However, the best thing about this stunning beach is the difficulty in accessing it. The track from the car park to the beach takes roughly 45 minutes, allowing for photo opportunities and getting side-tracked by the other beautiful beaches you pass on your way. The long walk is a disincentive to families wanting to stop off for a quick dip with the kids, or tour buses looking to showcase New Zealand to tourists. Instead, when you arrive there will be only a few towels spread on the sand, leaving you plenty of choice on where you set up.
Once you pick a spot, it is time to enjoy this little slice of paradise. What will you do first? Wander the length of the beach, passing under the ‘cathedral’, admiring the beauty of the water-carved rock formations? Dive straight into the rolling surf? Swim out to rocks from where you can leap, dive, flip or ‘bomb’ into the waves? Or wash off the sweat from that walk under the natural ‘shower’ – a fresh spring that splashes down from the overhanging cliff metres above you, to form an ankle-deep pool before it trickles down to the sea?
Cathedral Cove is good for at least an afternoon’s entertainment, but don’t forget to pack sandwiches and a drink – this isn’t Japan, folks, and there are no vending machines on the beach! Once the shadow of the cliff touches the beach, it’s time to put on your jandals (also known as thongs or flip-flops), wrap yourself in your towel and start the walk back to the car. You will get back to the car park with a healthy flush from exercise and a bit of sun, and having worked up an excellent appetite for those wonderful fish & chips I mentioned earlier!
To end your perfect day in Whitianga, I recommend taking fish & chips and a bottle of good NZ Sauvignon Blanc down to the beach. Watch the last colours of day fade away over the ocean while you lick the salt off your fingers and listen to the cawing of sea gulls. Sunset and a Sauvignon Blanc – sounds perfect to me.
Getting there and getting away:
For the cheapest access from Japan, fly Osaka to Auckland via Australia using the budget airline Jetstar. For a more comfortable flight including excellent NZ tipple, fly Osaka to Auckland direct with Air New Zealand. From Auckland airport, hire a car (try this one) or travel by bus (like this one) down to Whitianga.
*This statistic may or may not be real.