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119km (74 miles) E of Auckland

At the height of the gold rush in the late 1800s, the towns of the Coromandel Peninsula were heavily populated and thriving. Thames, now seen as the gateway to the peninsula, had a population of nearly 20,000 and between 80 and 90 pubs. Today, there are around 7,000 permanent residents and just four pubs, and it's still the biggest town on the peninsula. There's a sense of that more-colorful history all along the west coast, but as in Northland, most of the action is on the picturesque east coast.

This scenic finger of land, reaching into the sea between Auckland and the Bay of Plenty, is famous for its jagged western coastline and its balmy eastern beach recesses that provide endless opportunity for swimming, diving, boating, fishing, and general lazing about. Thousands of New Zealanders have been doing just that for decades. Big, bush-covered ranges divide the two coasts and offer the ultimate challenge for fit trampers, and there are quaint attractions scattered throughout.

You can comfortably reach the base of the Coromandel Peninsula from Auckland in just 1 1/2 hours, and from Rotorua in 2 3/4 hours. While it's feasible to do most of the peninsula in a day trip, try to spend a couple of extra days in the area and explore more of what it has to offer. Keep in mind that it is a favorite summer holiday destination for New Zealanders, so book well ahead or you'll miss out on accommodations.