Tairua, NZ to Hot Water Beach, NZ

15.93 mi / 9.6 mph / 1017 ft. climbing
Home: Hot Water Beach Top 10 Holiday Park

Our strategy of circling the Coromandel Peninsula via short rides gave us time to do a hike before we left town this morning (it also helped to leave from our upgraded camper stay vs. packing up our would-have-been-wet tent!) Paku Hill is an oddly-close mirror to Tauranga’s Mount Maunganui, some 50 miles away down this same coast: both are volcanic pimples towering over their respective cities at the mouths of their harbors, and connected to those cities by a narrow strip of flat beachland with the ocean on one side and the harbor on the other.

Riding along the flat strip that connects Tairua with Paku Hill.

Paku is “only” 400 feet compared to Maunganui’s ~700, but given than Tauranga has about 100 times the population of Tairua’s 1500 people, Paku more than holds his own! Unlike Maunganui, which is a reserve, there is housing (much of it quite fancy) on the slopes of Paku, which actually makes it more interesting. We locked our bikes to a road sign and began the steep climb up residential streets, enjoying the interesting architecture and property layouts that the slope inspires/requires (we were reminded many times of places in hilly Seattle).

Because the volcano sits “out” in the water, It felt strange to be “behind” the ocean waves like this, without being in a boat or a plane. It also gives a view of the foam that trails the waves that you don’t see from the beach!
Our best view yet of the Coromandel Pinnacles from the slopes of Paku Hill.

The route to the top changed to another of those New Zealand-y public paths that just runs between peoples’ back yards, but then eventually it tipped up into a “normal” wooden-stairs/trail that ended with a bit of boulder-climb to the very peak, with great 360-degree views.

The town of Pauanui sits on the other side of the harbor, and while it has 1/3rd fewer people than Tairua, it’s physically much larger, despite being more remote/disconnected. During the summer a half-mile ferry ride connects the two towns, but it’s not running now so it’s 16 mile, 25-minute drive around instead. It also seems like a bad place to own property if a cyclone ever hits this coast!
The dark snaking lines in the water give a view of the hidden ocean swells marching in to the beach that you normally don’t see.

We were able to make it a loop hike, continuing to circle counterclockwise on the way down, thanks entirely to Strava’s heat map. There is no “official” trail that does the whole loop, but by combining more residential streets, and separate bits of trail that confusingly cross private land, it’s easy to cobble together the necessary connections. But only if you know about them! Which the Strava heat map is excellent at revealing; just follow the bright lines that show where other people walk/run.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually seen a praying mantis until we saw this one herky-jerking across the street.
One of the fancy houses on Paku Hill. Architecturally bold statements like this are relatively rare in New Zealand, but it makes sense that this gorgeous seaside location less than two hours drive from Auckland would be a place to see some.
The ocean-facing side of Paku Hill was taking quite a beating, both today, and clearly over a much-longer time period too.
The continuing heavy swells (the same that nearly swamped us a Donut Island) make life good for the surfers I suppose?
Very few of the surfers were even attempting to get up (maybe because they were worn out?) but this guy was successful!
Down again at beach-level, the waves were pretty ferocious, and the wind was tearing their tops off.

With our loop on foot done, we needed to get back out onto SH25, and today climb over Pumpkin Hill, a 750-foot up-and-down. This was our first non-Saturday ride on SH25, and on this Sunday there were at least four times as many cars heading towards us as overtaking us. We took that as a good sign: the weekender traffic is draining south off the peninsula while we head north. Once of the hill, and after less than 10 miles on SH25, we could branch off toward Hot Water Beach.

Heading to Hot Water Beach.
The Coromandel has Shire-lands too, but with ocean-clouds in the background.
After we returned to the coast we were given one more rather rude hill to go up and down. And once again, the ocean is a washboard.
Near the top of the hill was a nice roadside bench with a view back down to the marching line of waves.
Waves, waves, waves. And more waves.

We settled in to our tent spot in an open field at the Hot Water Beach Holiday Park, and near sunset collected our spade (free with our Top 10 membership!) and walked over to Hot Water Beach along with dozens of other campers. Hot Water Beach is obviously the thing here (the one restaurant in the not-a-town is called “Hotties”), and is one of the most-mentioned attractions on the whole peninsula. It’s a beach where a couple of natural hot springs well up through the sand. But those patches of sand are normally under the sea except for the few hours around low tide, so everyone gathers at the same time (and today was the only reasonable time in a few days; the other low tides would be early in the morning, or after dark).

The idea is that you dig a hole in the sand big enough for your party to sit in (hence the spade), and let the hot spring fill it, and you have your own personal, ephemeral hot pool. We arrived at the recommended two hours before low tide, found the spot where the springs are supposed to be, and immediately got swamped by a wave that soaked us up to our thighs and ran high into the rock behind us. Hmm, I guess we’re still way too early.

The hot spring location is about halfway between the rock next to those four people on the left, and the one (“Hot Rock”) out amidst the foam. So, very underwater (Rett is standing a bit higher up for more protection, but as we soon learned, that was still not enough.
With time to kill for both us and everyone else, Rett decided to do some advertising.
45 minutes before low tide, and any holes dug in the sand would still be immediately washed away by the next wave. But it’s funny to see so many people (including us) just standing around a beach like they’re waiting for a bus!

Us and the ~150 other people on the beach simply milled around, waiting for the waves to stop flooding in. Some people attempted to dig holes out of curiosity, but none lasted more than 30 seconds before the waves filled them flat again. This is totally not the advertised experience! When it got to 30 minutes before low tide, and occasional knee-high waves were still washing over ground-zero, we decided to call it quits (the sun had also dropped behind the cliffs by then, so without a hot pool to keep us warm, it was getting chilly).

But, before we left, we did find the hot spring water! You had to be in a pretty-precise spot (and for some reason no one else standing nearby seemed to notice/care), but in the periods when the ocean water would stay away, simply settling your hand an inch under the sand could reveal incredibly-hot water rising up (it’s way hotter than the hottest hot pools at a hot spring resort). Equally cool (pun intended) was seeing the gases bubble up through the water-coated sand. Honestly by that point, the idea of settling down into a sand-bath didn’t sound particularly-comforting anyway, so just getting proof of this geologically-crazy thing (boiling hot water bubbling up through a public beach) prevented it from feeling like a bust.

Rett’s partially-buried foot allowing hot-spring gasses to reach the surface (she was yelling “oww, my foot is burning, take the picture!!!” while I was taking this picture).

In retrospect, I should have realized that the unusually-high swells the area has been experiencing for the last week (and that we had been witnessing all day) would overwhelm any tidal effects. But, this was still supposed to be the lowest low-tide of the next couple weeks, so I suppose I had hope that that would be enough to counteract the waves. Nope! The odd thing is that no one else seemed to understand that no one would be soaking in a hot sand pool today, and even our departure didn’t cause any sort of exodus.

Despite the off-season quiet of last night’s half-full campground, and the traffic exodus we had seen today, the super-sized campground tonight was nearly full, and worse, full with a load of children. We’ve been in New Zealand for so long that we have made it to a second school-holiday period, this one lasting two weeks. And I guess the guidebook-draw of “Hot Water Beach” pulls in far more holidaymakers than a random town 15 miles south. We were able to get dinner cooked without too much crowding, but then the lounge was a nightmare, with about 10 loudly-laughing kids transfixed by some animated crap on the TV. Still, it was better than the damp dark tent, so we sucked it up for a period, but hopefully Disneyland doesn’t follow us much longer.


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