Whitianga Scallop Festival

As I looked out from my campsite at Fletcher Bay on the northernmost point of the Coromandel, I thought: 'How lucky am I?' Here I was, sitting with just one other smaller campervan, right in front of a beautiful crescent-shaped sandy beach with some rocky outcrops poking out into the Colville Channel. It's small and spectacular, as well as lonesome at certain times of the year, but it says everything about New Zealand's coastline. A perfect spot for swimming, kayaking, fishing, diving or, if you like hiking, a stroll on the 10km Coromandel Walkway to Stony Bay is a must. Two days earlier, on a wet and windswept day, I aimed my Britz campervan in the direction of the Coromandel Peninsula to firstly sample some good food and wine at the annual Whitianga Scallop Festival, now in its ninth year tempting travellers' and locals' taste buds. After adjusting my seat and mirrors, I soon figured out that the warning sound in the two-person Britz Fiat Adventurer was a clutch alarm that annoyingly beeped at the slightest lingering of my foot on the pedal. I inched my way into heavy Friday afternoon traffic on Auckland's southern motorway – clutch beeping – as I got my trip underway. Three hours later I was searching for the hard-to-find but well-worth-the-effort Motu Kitchen in Whitianga. This one-year-old restaurant is housed in a small villa that looks as if it's been transported from a Ponsonby side street. Expect some exquisite cuisine: for starters I ordered squid, chorizo, roquette, chickpeas and cherry tomatoes. My main was the fish of the day, John Dory, with agria potatoes and goat cheese mash accompanied by a champagne and caviar beurre blanc. Finally, I couldn't go past a dessert of crème brûlée with ice cream. The following morning the sun was shining and the rain clouds had all but disappeared for the annual Whitianga Scallop Festival, which packs out the small laid-back coastal town of Whitianga. This is something every New Zealander should attend once in their lifetime. This year's festival attracted over 4500 ticket holders from many locals, young families, older couples, well-heeled Aucklanders, an assortment of fancy-dressed groups and even the odd outrageous character. There was an array of cooking demonstrations and stages featuring great music, from rock 'n' roll to swing to country and western… but to be fair, it's the scallops that are the stars of the show on this coastline every year. My favourite was simply barbecued scallops in a white bread sandwich. The next morning I followed the example of the locals having brunch at Cafe Nina. It's located in an old one-storey villa near the waterfront that has been made into a very respectable café, where good coffee and great breakfasts and lunches are served daily – try the Eggs Benedict with salmon – yummy! Then it was off to a place I'd never heard of before, The Lost Spring Thermal Pools and Spa. Alan Hopping bought this three-plus acre site in 1980 and had intentions of turning it into a campground, until he was told a story from an 80-year-old local. "This old guy told me that, as a kid, he'd played with his mates in a local stream that had bubbling hot water in the sandy shallows, but that years later the springs had ceased. That got me to thinking," recalls Alan. In his quest to discover the Lost Spring, Alan tried a number of times to find the source, until an attempt by an Australian water diviner advised him where he thought the best spot to test would be. After drilling down 667 metres, Alan finally hit clear, pure, ancient geothermal waters. Today Alan employs 27 people and folks flock to his relaxing and soothing bathing pools: Amethyst Pool, Cave Pool and Crater Lakes rise in temperature up to 44 degrees. Forty-five minutes away from Whitianga is Coromandel township, another treasure of a place on the peninsula. This is one of the last towns in which to stock up on supplies if you plan on heading to the tip of the Coromandel as I was about to do. Oh, and remember to buy a box of matches if you want to sit around a campfire watching the sunset on a secluded beach somewhere. The road north to Colville Bay is sealed for 31km and then it's a well-graded gravel road that runs along the coast to Fletcher Bay for another 30km of twisting turns and tight corners under overhanging pohutakawa trees. In places it is simply stunning in its desolate beauty. On my first night I camped in the Port Jackson Department of Conservation (DOC) campground on the edge of a crescent-shaped sandy bay below a beautiful pohutakawa-clad valley. When I arrived at about 5pm there was just one other campervan, a couple in a lovely old caravan and a tent with two European lads. But in summer this campground's 113 tents and campervan sites are full from one end to the other, so bookings are essential. As dusk descended I lit a campfire in one of the many allocated fire pits and watched the glow of the sun reflect off the shimmering sea as a few ducks waddled by towards a pond and a couple strolled hand-in-hand on the beach. My next night stop was on the eastern coastline looking out to the Mercury Islands. Waikawau DOC campground is nestled just behind the sand dunes of a beautiful long, golden, sandy beach. This is a large campground with 338 sites, including some that have electrical and water hook-ups. However, fire pits are strictly prohibited here. A short walk through the trees and over the dunes brings you out onto beautiful Waikawau Bay. In order to head out early the next morning, and with no DOC campsites in the vicinity of Coromandel town, I opted to stay at the family-friendly Shelly Beach Top 10 Campground for my last night, which has a well-protected waterfront location, a safe bay to swim in or kayak and with great facilities, including Wi-Fi and a visitor's lounge with a roaring log fire. The township of Coromandel has an array of things to do if you plan on visiting with the family, including nearby Driving Creek Railway, a 100 year-old Gold Stamp battery, local museums, beautiful coastal walks, great dining options as well as a local art and crafts trail – literally something for everyone – but if all else fails, just go fishing. That's what I did at 7am on a cold, blustery and overcast day with a biting wind that at times gusted over 30 knots. There were 12 hardy souls on board as we headed out to the local mussel farms where Mussel Barge Snapper Safaris prefers to drop its lines in search of big snapper, especially when the commercial mussel harvesters are working the lines. In all, we boated about a dozen snapper – to be honest, not the best day's catch I've ever had, but that's fishing for you. We are blessed in New Zealand with some spectacular coastal roads, and none more so than the road leading to the head of the Coromandel Peninsula. Whether you plan a weekend camping trip or visit during an extended campervan road trip, sitting on the 'DOC of a bay' campsite, wine in hand, campfire roaring with the waves crashing onto the beach, you can be sure of one thing: a slice of paradise will be right at your feet. For the latest reviews, subscribe to our Motorhomes, Caravans & Destinations magazine here.
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