Travel

Homes away from home on New Zealand's Coromandel Peninsula

In New Zealand, an impressively large percentage of the population owns second homes. These are called "baches," purportedly evoking "bachelor pad," although this typically refers to their condition and not the marital status of their occupants.

In the past, no self-respecting New Zealander would dare call these structures "homes." They were cheaply built shacks made to withstand serious holiday abuse and were the sort of place in which you'd find Chianti bottle candlesticks and poker-playing dogs paintings. They sat like ugly ducklings amid glorious lake, ocean or mountain scenery. Growing up in New Zealand, our family bach was a sacred place where my parents were liberated from fretting over sandy feet, matching furniture or fish gutting in the sink.

However, New Zealand's baches are becoming posher. Not actually posh, but they might have real decor, a television and a contemporary kitchen. And they can be rented for a steal.

On a recent trip home, my family and I decided to spend a week touring the Coromandel Peninsula and the Bay of Plenty. I wanted a kitchen, privacy and a place my two daughters could go barefoot 24/7. The obvious answer was a bach at each stop.

A quick Google search led me to Bachcare Holiday Homes, an agency that rents nicer baches -- meaning they would meet American standards -- all over New Zealand.

The Coromandel is a two-hour drive east of Auckland up the Thames Coast Road, a pastoral and peaceful drive into rural New Zealand. This is where Aucklanders spend their holidays and ponytailed painters, wood turners and potters live year-round. With its craggy shorelines, golden beaches, velvety pastures and coniferous forests, it is classic postcard New Zealand. To date, however, it has escaped the typical tourist route, probably because it has none of the fancy super lodges found elsewhere in the country.

Coromandel Town, the first township en route, makes for an excellent lunch stop. We ate at the colorful Driving Creek Cafe, set in a tropical garden with excellent organic vegetarian food served by people in Indian skirts and nose rings. The Coromandel is noted for its fine art pottery, and the cafe had a for-sale display.

Outside Coromandel Town was the Waterworks, a funky, fun play land with interactive water-driven contraptions, flying bicycles, zip lines and a river for swimming. The place exemplified Kiwi ingenuity: Hand a New Zealander a bucket of old parts and some fencing wire, and they're bound to come up with a new invention.

Our first bach was on the northeast of the peninsula at a secluded, folksy place called Rings Beach. The house had three bedrooms with beachy blue decor, IKEA-style furniture, a modern kitchen and an uninterrupted panorama of waves. It cost $220 a night for all five of us. Here we recovered from jet lag: The hiking was good, the boogie boarding effortless and there was nothing else to do. There were no shops in town, and to eat out we drove to Whitianga, 30 minutes away.

Whitianga is a classic Kiwi town with one main street, pie shops, adventure outlets, Victorian-era buildings and a couple of excellent restaurants. My mother, Margaret Crotty, was springing for the baches and was with us. She'd first started coming to a friend's bach in Whitianga in 1948. We walked past the former bach and found instead a trendy cafe. "These were all primitive little houses with nothing else here," she said. "There wasn't another soul on the beach." And, pointing to what is now a bike rental shop: "There was a rope swing over there, and it was our only entertainment."

Surrounding the old bach now is a beachfront promenade, cafes, jewelry stores and outdoor clothing shops. Front Beach, a ferry ride from Whitianga, is where the bach concept has gone crazy, with well-heeled Aucklanders spending millions on them. "It's like the Hamptons of the Coromandel," my mother explained. Bachcare also has properties here.

There is no longer a need to invent entertainment -- Whitianga is heaving with adventures. We chose Highzone Adventure Ropes Course 20 minutes outside town. I was reluctant, knowing that a New Zealand ropes course was likely to be twice as challenging as anything in the States. However, my 10- and 12-year-olds likened me to poultry, so shortly I was hanging upside down doing the "possum roll" from a log suspended 30 feet above the ground and then leaping from a 50-foot platform on a bungee swing. My eldest daughter shamed us all by doing the extreme "chicken walk," whereby she shuffled across two thin wires 50 feet off the ground with nothing to support her (she did have on a harness). It was a full afternoon of adrenaline-thumping good fun.

Feeling the need to soothe muscles, my husband and I left the girls and my mother at Bay Carving in Whitianga to carve a Maori bone necklace while we fled to Lost Spring, a day spa. Here we drank champagne while sitting in a searing thermal pool before having the shiatsu massage I required.

Our second bach was in Hahei, a sweet seaside town not far from Whitianga. The house had primary colors, an outdoor loggia, expansive lawn and a garage with a playroom and boogie boards. The cost was $205 a night.

Hahei is near Cathedral Cove, one of New Zealand's most famously picturesque beaches, featuring creamy sand and a buttressing rock with a hole in its center. It is reached only on foot, and the steep trail through the fern forest is serene but not for the fainthearted. My 75-year-old mother made it down, but with much muttering and clutching at foliage.

Next to Hahei is another famous haunt, Hot Water Beach, so called because thermal waters bubble up through the black sand. This place is a fixture in Kiwi culture. When the tide goes out, locals and visitors head down with a spade and dig a hole, sitting in it until the tide comes in again. Most evenings it turns into a party, with people sharing drinks, spades and travel stories. If you are there alone, which almost never happens, spades can be rented at the store beside the beach.

After several days of swimming, fishing, kayaking and eating meat pies, we headed farther south, stopping en route in Whangamata for lunch at Craig's Traditional Fish & Chips, touted as the "best fish 'n' chipper in the region." Outside of town we headed for the Wentworth Falls trail, a bushy, verdant "tramp," as Kiwis call hiking, up to a thundering ribbon of water falling through tangled fern trees.

Our final destination was Waihi Beach, just below the eastern Coromandel in the Bay of Plenty, a popular family vacation community for the entire central part of the North Island.

By the time we reached Waihi Beach, it was Easter holidays and I had left planning too late; Bachcare's houses were booked. Through another service, Bookabach.com, I found another house right on the beach. However, Bookabach is not an agency or management company, so you deal with the owners directly, making it less secure than Bachcare. This house was not as well organized and was more expensive at $300 a night, but the location was unbeatable: 10 steps to the sand, 30 to the surf.

Waihi Beach has miles of sand with shoulder-high, rolling waves, perfect for children learning to surf. It is considered one of the safest beaches in New Zealand, and even dogs can be seen in the waves, watched closely by earnest lifeguards.

A childhood friend of mine is the local Waihi Beach vet. Her two boys are the same age as my girls, and we released them all into the wild, allowing them to roam in a barefoot posse between baches, beaches, boats, horses and the ice cream shop. This is one of those rare places where you can still do that sort of thing. Everyone knows everyone, and they all watch out for one another's offspring.

Outside town we discovered the Karangahake Gorge trail, a hike to motivate even the most lukewarm young outdoorsman. The walk begins over a raging river on a swinging bridge, then through forest, up an old railway track and into abandoned gold mine tunnels.

Beginning in 1852, the Coromandel and the Karangahake Gorge had several booming mines producing more than 60% of the country's gold. Even today you can scoop gold out of rivers, although in the past most of the gold was extracted by crushing locally mined quartz.

Later, over a Steinlager with Phillipa Jones, my friend the vet, she bragged: "What better place than this to be a child?" She moved here from Auckland, a city of 1.3 million. "It's safe, the people are almost bizarrely kind, and you don't have to be wealthy to try every sport or adventure there is. I think this whole area personifies what the world envies about the Kiwi lifestyle. Relaxed excellence."

Who doesn't want that?

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