Jill Malcolm finds local colour on the Coromandel coast.
The quirky, super-cool shack made of bamboo, canvas and thatch looks like something you could come across on a lonely beach in Fiji. But it’s not; it’s at Kūaotunu, a not-so-lonely village on the east coast of the Coromandel Peninsula.
Over a hundred years ago this tiny hamlet was a gold-mining town of a thousand residents, and almost as many batteries stamping their thunderous tattoo through the valley. The only way to get there was by steamer and because there was no harbour, passengers and supplies had to be disembarked into the surf by way of rope ladders.
Most times now, this little community, set between sharply rising hills and the arc of a shortbread-coloured beach, is at peace. It has a general store and an icecream parlour but its hub is the shack, known as Luke’s Kitchen. Here in the summer months, visitors swell to rival those of the gold-rush days as hundreds of pizzas are thrust into the huge pizza oven each day, to be enthusiastically consumed by surfies, out-of-towners and locals. The atmosphere is laid back, the decor eccentric, and patrons and staff cheerful and lighthearted. Some days local bands jazz things up in the courtyard.
The owner, Luke Reilly, grew up in Kūaotunu. A surfer and a trained chef, he worked elsewhere for a while and when he returned, organised a kitchen in a caravan on the site where his father Paul had owned a garage, before he turned it into an art gallery.
The food was good and word spread. Paul built a pizza oven and added a bar and some seating. The popularity of Luke’s Kitchen grew and so did the venue, but its shack-by-the-sea ambience never altered and is still a significant part of its allure.
The other contributor is the menu. Ingredients are sourced locally and nearly everything is made from scratch: fish and chips crusted in tempura batter; fresh Coromandel mussels; locally caught fish; salt and pepper squid, and 14 different pizzas. My choice was topped with prawn, vegetables, garlic, capers and cheese.
During the winter Luke’s is only open at weekends, but the attached Kua Kawhe (‘have coffee’) Cafe, housed in what was once Paul’s art gallery, is open all year. In the cool season its rustic interior is the haunt of locals, and a cosy spot to be warmed by the fire and absorb a little of village life. Earwigging brought me some free information that flavoured my visit as much as the coffee and the homely food made in the on-site kitchen.
“I won’t be digging those ditches today” … “Deirdre found these great sausages in Whitianga” … “Fishing off the point is ratshit now.”
I heard about the Blue Light Brewery down the road, although it apparently can’t be visited, and about the geologist and astronomer, Alastair Brickell, who owns Coromandel Peninsula’s largest telescope and holds star-gazing sessions at his home when the weather obliges. And then a stubble-chinned local man in a beanie and much-abused T-shirt informed me that if I came to the cafe early on Sunday, I would find the best doughnuts in New Zealand. It was Tuesday and my waistline was saved, but the information is tattooed in my mind.
The Kūaotunu Rest Area is a small reserve just off the main road, where freedom camping is allowed for certified self-contained motor caravanners. Parking is at the Kūaotunu end of the reserve, and directly overlooks the beach. There is not a lot of room, and it is likely to be full over the summer holiday season.
The Kūaotunu Campground, on Bluff Road in Kūaotunu West, is owned by shareholders and many sites accommodate their holiday cabins. There are also sites for RVs but these are heavily booked in summer and holiday periods.