We headed out Thursday evening, cruising through farmland to Waihi’s Manawa Ridge Luxury Lodge as the stars came out. Our hosts Willem and Carla welcomed us warmly and I realized immediately that the lodge itself was a work of art. Our suite was a dream of cosiness with an open fireplace, under floor heat and a private outdoor spa with water from Manawa’s natural spring. It was the perfect gateway to our journey ahead.
We woke in the morning to bright blue skies and a hint of frost in our garden. After breakfast at the lodge, we made our way to Waikino, home to a quietly thriving arts community. Mosaic artist Con Kiernan welcomed us to his studio set in native bush. I’ve always loved mosaics and couldn’t take my eyes off the representations of New Zealand trees and flowers. But I was especially moved by pieces depicting Waikino’s heritage and today’s social issues. I’d never thought about mosaic as a vehicle for social commentary and left with a new appreciation for this powerful art.
Back in Waihi, time slipped by as we lingered in the Art Market, a charming gallery filled with remarkable work from more than a hundred New Zealand and Pacific artists.
We set off next for Tairua, a laidback and refreshingly real beach town, to find The Little Gallery of Fine Arts. What we discovered was an intimate gallery beside Tairua’s estuary, managed as a co-op of
artists from The Coromandel and packed with world-class work.
After so much art inspired by The Coromandel’s landscape, we set our sights on Mount Paku, a twinconed volcanic peak at the edge of town. We left our car near the top and walked about ten minutes to the summit. From here, the sea stretched forever and forested islands dotted the horizon. Two tiny figures strolled along Pauanui’s goldsand beach below.
Full to the brim with inspiration, we had dinner in town then settled in at Sunlover Retreat. I couldn’t get enough of the view from this comfy haven and the lights twinkling in towns by the sea.
We woke to sunrise over the Pacific and started the day with our host Donna’s freshly-cooked breakfast before setting out to visit the artist studios we’d circled in the Mercury Bay Art Escape guide. (We called ahead when visiting studios here and later in Coromandel town.)
In Hahei, we found painter Ginny Deavoll. I immediately recognized her striking work from a bright seascape I’d admired in a friend’s kitchen. Ginny first came to The Coromandel as a sea kayaking guide, she told us, and grew as a painter by depicting her experiences in nature.
I can’t drive through Hahei without a detour to Cathedral Cove Macadamias’ idyllic orchard. After stocking up on dark chocolate
macadamias, we carried on to Cook’s Beach. Years ago, I’d visited this stretch of white-sand beach for a lively summer weekend with friends. Now it was a peaceful paradise for sea birds and, I learned, for painters like Jill Cameron. At Jill’s studio, we learned about her approach to using watercolours and inks to depict the landscapes that have brought her wide renown.
We carried on to The Lost Spring in Whitianga and spent the afternoon soaking in its hot mineral pools. Happy and thoroughly relaxed, we savoured an early dinner at Motu Kitchen that was every bit as inspiring as a gallery visit. Then, on to our lodging at the tranquil Sea Escape. Between the fireplace and the spa under the stars, I couldn’t imagine a more perfect home on a chilly evening.
We made good use of the breakfast provisions in our lodge and set out to cross the peninsula in time for the morning train at Driving Creek Railway.
I was eager to see this area created by renowned potter Barry Brickell but wasn’t prepared for the feat of engineering we encountered. The narrow-gauge railway -- originally created to carry clay for his pottery -- took us through native bush to spectacular views of the Hauraki Gulf. His pioneering work played a major role in building Coromandel town’s arts community.
After this introduction, we were eager to check out ceramics studios nearby. We walked a few minutes to find Louis Kittleson’s “perfectly imperfect” creations. These sculptures, bowls and mugs seemed even more beautiful after I saw the brick kiln where they were fired for four days. Down another footpath, we were welcomed to Caitlin Maloney’s studio by the warmth of a roaring fire. I was captivated by her steady hand in painting intricate patterns on a ceramic vase.
On our way out of Coromandel town, we pulled onto a lane to Daniel Kirsch’s inviting studio. I loved his contemporary graphic take on iconic New Zealand themes and had a blast trying my hand at simple screen printing.
The gorgeous coast road led us to the Thames Society of Arts, a former schoolhouse with a mesmerizing sea view and lovely collection of local art. In Thames, Café Sola tempted us with bright landscape paintings and hearty sweets. I wandered a few doors down to Debrasic, a workshop where Lauren Haynes forged earrings from recycled gold and silver at the back of a shop filled with treasures by New Zealand jewellery artists.
I was reluctant to get back in the car but perked up when I remembered our last destination of this journey: we were headed for Miranda Holiday Park for the night, where a natural hot pool promised one last soak under the stars. After an inspiring and indulgent weekend in The Coromandel, winter didn’t seem so harsh after all.