The Insider’s Guide to Waihi and Whangamata: Things to do, places to eat and places to stay
While the golden triangle of Waihi, Whangamata and Waihi Beach isn’t short on glittering activities and pristine landscapes, the Coromandel’s true gems are not tour stops but people giving back to the community.
Words Cheree Morrison
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Mother nature went well overboard in the area surrounding Waihi. The Karangahake Gorge is staggering in size and wears the Ohinemuri River like an expensive silk scarf. Whangamata has not one, but two world-class surf beaches. Waihi Beach is framed by kilometres of white sand and water as blue as the sky above. And Waihi township — well, Waihi is quite literally built on a gold mine.
But, don’t be distracted by beauty. Turn instead to the locals. If good people are hard to find, then someone forgot to tell the residents of these three towns to hide. There are good people, doing good things, in all corners. Whether it’s protecting their natural taonga, giving holidaying parents an hour of respite, or whipping up community spirit in the kitchen, the four businesses that follow are just an ounce of the wealth waiting to be discovered.
MODEL CITIZEN: SPIKE’S BRICKS & MODELS
Stewart “Spike” Milligan owns more than one million Lego pieces. It’s little wonder, then, that his collection is housed not in a man-cave or on a few shelves in the spare room, but a multi-room building in the middle of Waihi. This is Spike’s happy place, where he dedicates his days to sharing his staggering collection with the public, much to the endless delights of parents who’ve exhausted their rainy-day ideas or grown tired of hearing the dreaded “I’m bored”.
It was a love that blossomed late in life; dairy and beef farmer Spike purchased a Lego set for his then four-year-old son, and had a bit of fun putting it together. That model turned into another, and another, and then over 597 more. His 600-strong collection encompasses the best of Legoland. There are planes, trains and automobiles, a Taj Mahal and “Technics”, a 4000-piece Big Ben and a 6500-piece Hogwarts, plus Lego remote-control cars for visitors to race. It’s a mini-wonderland on a grand scale, and Spike is the infectiously enthusiastic ringleader. His collection has gained value over the years (“if you had invested in gold or Lego 10 years ago, Lego would have made you more”) but that’s not why he does it. He just loves Lego, plain and simple.
25 Haszard Street, Waihi
027 451 5706
Where to eat:
COOKING WITH KINDNESS: THE SURF SHACK
The long arms of the burrito draped languidly over the sides of the plate and waved with each step the woman took. Heads turned. Mouths dropped. Children clutched parents’ arms; parents clenched their knives and forks preparing to defend their meal against little hands; and the social-media-minded whipped their phones from pockets. The reaction elicited a smile from the woman as she placed the plate on the table with a thunk. To say bigger is better, massive is marvellous and enormous is expected at the Surf Shack is an understatement.
It’s not just the food that’s huge at the pancake-house-turned-café in Athenree, Waihi Beach; hearts here are as big as frying pans. Pippa Coombes and her wife Jo took over the business in 2015. The years since have seen them named the 2017 Café of the Year People’s Choice Award winner; Lonely Planet hails them as having possibly the best burgers in New Zealand. Hungry patrons have been left in raptures by the eclectic menu, which mixes street food with good old home cooking. Not bad for two former enforcement officers with no hospitality experience.
Pippa and Jo came to Waihi Beach in search of a cruisy retirement (they now chuckle fondly at such naive bliss). Instead, they’ve found themselves at the helm of one of Waihi Beach’s favourite spots. Pippa braces herself when she hears a helicopter landing at the airfield next door; after all, flights have been chartered from Auckland with the sole intention of buying her burgers for lunch. The Surf Shack also has a reputation for doing good — every year Pippa and Jo use special menu items to support charities, including Canteen and the Surf Life Saving Club. In 2018, they also collected bras to donate to women in need.
123 Emerton Road, Waihi Beach
(07) 863 4353
Where to visit:
THE PROTECTORS: WHENUAKURA ISLAND
Whenuakura Island (or Donut Island) in Whangamata is a spiritual place. Sacred to local iwi and elevated to church-like status by in-the-know locals, it is one of the Coromandel’s most photogenic taonga. Formed when a blowhole collapsed, paddlers enter through an opening in the rocky cliffside and float into an open cavern in the middle of the island.
“It’s a hidden paradise,” says NZ Surf N Stay owner Katrina Millar, “all you can hear is the sound of lapping water and the echoing rumble of the swell. It’s like a scene from a Disney film, or Jurassic Park when entering the turquoise lagoon. I always get the same feeling when I lean back and look up through the tree canopy — it’s a special experience.”
The islands off Whangamata are privately owned by local iwi, the kaitiaki/guardians of the islands. Three are wildlife sanctuaries, including Whenuakura, and are therefore off-limits to the public. Whenuakura Island, a kilometre offshore, was home to tuatara until the 1980s, and the goal of the kaitiaki is to see them back on the land, only possible if the islands are kept predator-free. The rise of Whenuakura Island as an internationally renowned tourism destination has threatened the sanctuary, and iwi and locals are working together to make sure it remains protected.
While the public is allowed to enter the cavern and explore the island from the water, landing is banned and guided tours, such as those offered by NZ Surf N Stay or Surfsup, are recommended. The role of the guides is not only to navigate paddlers through the entry, which can be dangerous depending on weather and tide, but also to protect the island and ensure visitors are respectful.
227 Beverley Terrace, Whangamata
(07) 865 8323
Where to stay:
FOOD FOR THOUGHT: THE FALLS RETREAT
The moment that Brad and Emma King saw the property, they knew they wanted to buy it. The then-Goose Farm tearooms offered everything they’d dreamt of — room for a young family, a change of lifestyle, a restaurant for chef Brad and accommodation. It almost all worked out: “There’s no lifestyle now”, rues Emma, “we never thought it would reach the level it has.” Under Brad’s award-winning expertise, the Falls Retreat Bistro has become one of the region’s most revered eateries, and not only because of his food. The twosome are also recognized for their environmental efforts and a paddock-to-plate ethos.
“Brad has a special gift, and great food shouldn’t be exclusive. The bistro is warm and friendly, and dogs and children are more than welcome. Good dishes are created from good ingredients, and we grow what we put on the plate.” The restaurant veggie garden isn’t only for the benefit of the diners, Emma and Brad also hold workshops on cooking and fermenting for the wider community, whom they credit in part for their success.
“The community is so supportive and is full of creative people and ideas. We run Barter at the Bistro where locals can bring in excess produce and we exchange it for a meal.”
Lovely locals aren’t the only ones enjoying Emma and Brad’s hospitality. These two are also patron saints of aching cyclists. Weary Hauraki Rail Trail cyclists can indulge in a glass of wine and dessert before coaxing their legs to make the journey a few more metres to the on-site accommodation. Rose Cottage was here when Emma and Brad purchased the property, but they’ve now added the tiny Waterfall Cabin as a cosy couples retreat. If height or family size calls for a larger space, then Rose Cottage sleeps four and has a kitchenette included (but, really, the bistro is right there).
25 Waitawheta Road, Waihi,
(07) 863 8770
Where to stop by:
SHORT & SWEET
Cool off with an ice cream from Mum’s Corner Store (116 Port Road, Whangamata) or hide from the sun at the retro (and pink) Whangamata Cinema.
708 Port Road, Whangamata
Indulge the sweet tooth with an eclair or doughnut from Dandelion Cakery.
314 Aickin Road, Whangamata
Try traditional artisan German breads and baking at The German Bakery in Waihi.
54A Seddon Street, Waihi
Discover Waihi and Whangamata in the annual collectors’ edition The Insider’s Guide to New Zealand. A thorough and independently researched guide to six of the country’s most spectacular regions, packed with interesting things to do and and see, it provides all the research needed for your next holiday. Available in stores now, and online.