When you’re visiting a country as rich in natural beauty as New Zealand, it’s easy to become numb to statements that this or that particular site “is a must-see”. Practically everywhere you look there’s a photo-worthy spectacle or breathtaking landscape begging to be explored. However when it comes to Cathedral Cove on the Coromandel coast of New Zealand’s north island, the “must-see” tag is no exaggeration.
Cathedral Cove takes its name from the cathedral-like cave that nature has patiently and painstakingly carved out of the headland. Centuries of wind and salt on rock have hollowed out an immense void, forming a natural archway that links the cove to the neighbouring bay. A popular tourist destination, Cathedral Cove is barely a 2 1/2 hour drive from Auckland, making it the perfect choice for a weekend escape or day trip from the city.
My husband and I, along with our 11 month old baby, visited Cathedral Cove on a recent trip to NZ. Arriving in Auckland with no fixed plans or commitments apart from a two-day bike hike we’d booked for the following day and which would take us through the Coromandel region of NZ’s north island (you can read about that adventure here!). With some time up our sleeves, we decided to do a bit of impromptu exploring! As we were already headed to Coromandel, Cathedral Cove seemed like a good fit. Plus, every Aucklander we’d asked had declared that we simply “must go to Cathedral Cove – it’s a must!”
We departed Auckland mid-morning and arrived in Hahei a little after lunchtime. Hahei is a small town on the eastern coast of the Coromandel peninsula and the kick off point for walks and boat tours to Cathedral Cove and its surrounds. Accessible only by boat or on foot, it’s a bit of an adventure getting to the cove, but all perfectly manageable with a baby or small kids. There are a number of tour operators running boat and kayak tours to the cove too.
It was overcast and a little breezy when we arrived so rather than commence the day’s hike from Hahei beach (which adds about 20 minutes’ walking time), we drove to the small carpark at the end of Grange Rd, luckily snagged a park and set off (from there it’s about 1 1/2 hours return).
It’s a moderately easy walk, but definitely isn’t pram-friendly. There are quite a few stairs as you descend to Cathedral Cove itself, and otherwise it’s basically a sandy, dirt and rock track. It’s best to use a baby carrier to transport the little ones, though with that said we didn’t bother with ours. Coco simply rode on John’s shoulders, clutching at overhanging leaves and the tree fern tendrils overhead and waving to the folks returning along the track.
Before too long we arrived at the stairs. From there we glimpsed the spectacular white cliffs and sand, and the waves rushing onto the beach. Luckily for us and the many others sunbaking, swimming and socialising on the sand, the sun had come out at just the right time. We picked a spot about halfway down the beach and sat to take in the view (and to let Coco roam free for a while!).
Directly in front of us was a huge white rock jutting out of the ocean, it’s cap smothered in roosting seagulls. Beyond it, offshore islands stretched in a haphazard line to the horizon. Creepers, vines and shrubs clung preciously to the honeycomb cliffs behind us, while to our left was the postcard view through the cathedral-like archway to the bay beyond.
Eventually we made our way over to, and then through, the arch. John and I stood gazing up at the ceiling of rock dripping and glistening above, awed by its sheer size and the fact it has been created over centuries by a gradual, persistent wearing away of the rock. Coco splashed about in the tiny waves that washed up through the cave and mimicked our “oohs” and “aahs” at the appropriate moments!
It’s not only the existence of the cave and archway that is impressive, but the colours and drama of the place – the white rock shining in the sunlight; green trees and vines growing out of control down the sides of the cliffs; the bright blue sky and glistening ocean visible through the dark archway. Perhaps because it can only be reached by sea or on foot, the cove also feels worlds away. Special and unspoilt.
Located within the Te-Wharangaui-A-Hei Marine Reserve, the waters around Cathedral Cove apparently offer some of NZ’s best diving and snorkelling (particularly in Stingray Bay and Gemstone Bay, which we passed on the way). We hadn’t planned for any of those activities – in fact, due to the dodgy weather we’d had earlier, we hadn’t even bothered to bring our swimmers with us. In the end we decided to strip down to our very un-sexy underwear and take the plunge!
We dried Coco off as best we could using our t-shirts, then unpacked the few snacks we’d brought for her. She tucked into some fruit, crackers and yoghurt while John and I took photos and tried to sun dry our soggy undies.
Too soon, it was time to go. Up the stairs we went and back through the tree ferns and forest to the car, Coco once again riding high on dad’s shoulders. Reflecting on the day’s exploits as we drove back towards Thames and the start of our next adventure, we knew we’d been lucky enough to tick a very special “must-see” off the bucket list.
We flew from Sydney to Auckland with Air New Zealand (who were awesome!). From Sydney it’s only 3 hours to Auckland.
From Auckland it’s about a 2 1/2 hour drive to Hahei (175 kilometres) – follow the Southern Motorway for about half an hour, then turn east onto State Motorway 2 for another half hour before taking State Motorway 25 north-east to Hahei.
If parking at the Grange Rd carpark, be prepared to wait/stalk departing tourists for a car spot. As we were there in summer, the car park was packed and we were lucky to score a park.
Staying there (or nearby)
While we didn’t stay the night in Hahei, there are some beautiful spots to stay around there or further afield in Tairua (about half an hour from Hahei) or towards Thames. We overnighted in Thames, the starting point for our next day’s bike adventure). If in Thames, stay at the Avalon Motel – a fab little place with rooms upstairs and ground floor suites that open to a huge grassy lawn and garden, perfect for kids and babies to crawl around and explore!
What to bring
Wear decent walking shoes and take all of the usual beach gear, plus a snorkel set if you’re that way inclined (paper-scissor-rock to decide who goes first and who has to look after the baby). Pack a picnic lunch and either eat at one of the beaches along the way or find a grassy spot on the headland and enjoy the spectacular view out to sea!