South from Auckland
Leaving Auckland along the Southern Motorway, the last vestiges of Auckland give way to the Bombay Hills. This is the boundary between Auckland and the Waikato districts. Take the road to the left immediately at the bottom of the southern side of the hills (marked for Tauranga).
For the first hour of driving (approximately 100 kilometers/62 miles) there isn't a lot of great interest. You will pass through some small towns before the land gradually gives way to the flat expanse of the Hauraki Plains. This area was once largely swampy forest, until the trees were cleared and the land drained in the early part of the twentieth century. Now it is given over largely to dairy farming.
If you're looking for a lunch or coffee stop, the best cafe I have managed to find on this road between Auckland and Karangahake Gorge (130 kilometers/80 miles) is the Woodturners Cafe. This is at the beginning of the flat stretch of road, shortly after turning onto State Highway 2 (for exact location and directions click here).
Distance from Central Auckland: 98 kilometers/61 miles
Driving time: 1 hour 10 minutes
Ngatea is a small farming service town. It sits alongside the Piako River and was one of the main areas of drainage of the plains from 1903 to 1908. There are shops and a few cafes.
Distance from Ngatea: 24 kilometers/15 miles
Driving time: 17 minutes
Paeroa is just a short distance from Ngatea and it is from here that the scenery gets much more interesting. The town itself is bigger than Ngatea and famous for its mineral water, used in New Zealand's iconic soda drink Lemon and Paeroa (L&P).
It's an interesting place and captures some of the history of colonial times in the area. The main street has some attractive historic buildings and antique shops.
Distance from Paeroa: 7 kilometers/4 miles
Driving time: 6 minutes
This dramatic stretch of road follows the river through the Coromandel and Kaimai Ranges which separate the Waikato from the Bay of Plenty. It was once the site of an historic gold mining town and many ruins of the town and mining operation remain. There are some very good walks in the area, making it a great place to stop.
Distance from Karangahake Gorge: 13 kilometers/8 miles
Driving time: 12 minutes
Waihi is a much larger town and in fact the largest on this entire route. It grew up when gold was discovered here in 1878. Gold mining continues here to this day, and it is the second-largest gold mine in operation in New Zealand. The history of mining can be seen at several places in the town, including the Waihi Arts Center & Museum.
A worthwhile detour is to Waihi Beach, just 10 kilometers/6.2 miles from the town. This is a magnificent ocean beach and a popular holiday spot for New Zealanders (most of the houses there are the typical kiwi holiday beach house called a 'bach'). There are good walks at both ends of the beach.
Distance from Waihi: 25 kilometers/15.5 miles
Driving time: 20 minutes
As you approach Katikati you will get your first glimpses of the sea, and in particular the large island of Matakana which sits along the entrance to Tauranga Harbor. You'll also notice orchards (particularly kiwifruit and avocado), of which the area is a major producer.
Katikati itself is a small town. It's two most distinctive features are one of New Zealand's best fine wine stores (owned and operated by a real wine enthusiast) and the Katikati Naturist Park, the country's foremost clothes free holiday spot. Morton Estate winery is also nearby.
Distance from Katikati: 36 kilometers/22.3 miles
Driving time: 31 minues
The land here is mainly planted in orchards and it seems apt for an area called the Bay of Plenty. The harborside towns of Omokoroa and Te Puna are to the left of the highway. Also interesting is the Forta Leza restaurant and pub alongside the main road. Going in here is like going back forty years in time. It was once a cheese and butter factory but has been a pub for the last 30 years. Memorabilia adorns the walls and there is a friendly and cozy atmosphere, although the food is fairly basic pub fare. There is also a doll museum in the same building, containing a collection of interesting and rare dolls.
The roads in this part of New Zealand can be quite busy, especially on weekends and during holiday periods when many Aucklanders travel to the Coromandel Peninsula. Closer to Tauranga the roads are narrow in places and require extra care.