The Coromandel Christmas Tree

I have never seen any reason to improve upon the Christmas tree. Its fine evergreen bows, its pleasing pine aroma, and its soldier-like stature have always made me smile, regardless of the season. Even the lopsided runts and half-dying ones carry a kind of earnest charm, still hopeful to become the centerpiece of joy and conversation one white December.

Then, we arrived to New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula and all of my certainties about the perfection of the traditional Christmas tree were thrown into question. Everywhere we looked, our eyes were rewarded with a crown of crimson blossoms exploding across a blue sky. Great black branches reached out and scooped up these explosions, holding them out to us like little live fireworks, and despite knowing the danger of things that appear to be on fire, we felt compelled to touch them. Brightly colored birds flit amongst these fire blossoms and sheep graze directly beneath, so I feel pretty certain they’re safe, but then again, I’m not so certain about many of my certainties anymore.

These flamboyant masterpieces are called Pohutukawa trees or locally, the Kiwi Christmas tree. The fact that they are usually in full bloom by December makes them perfectly timed to ring in the holidays with an impressive red and green festive display. Even the New Zealand settlers mentioned the great cheer they felt upon seeing these brilliant trees in bloom their first Christmas far away from home. All my preconceptions about what a Christmas tree look like were suddenly diminished by just how beautifully the Pohutukawa fulfills its role.

They are everywhere, up and down the peninsula, dotting the coast, clinging to cliffs, claiming backyards, and painting the town red. It is as if Santa Claus and his elves had simply passed through and planted them a thousand years ago. Even the name, Pohutukawa, causes shivers of delight. It seems to be the perfect onomatopoeia for each and every scarlet explosion.

Pohutukawa! There goes another.

There is a kind of echo to this onomatopoeia as well. It goes: PohutukaWA-Wa-wa. It reverberates off all the other trees in a five mile radius and then swells into its own song. Or maybe that’s just what I hear, or what one would hear if you ever tried to eat the plant. I always wonder about the effects of eating something that is so beautiful. If ugly things like mushrooms have such powerful psychedelic features, what would happen if we just ate the sunset? Has anyone ever tried?

Ashley” Damián’s voice pushes me firmly along the road. He always manages to catch my mind before it washes out to sea. I suppose there is a lot of true love in that.

So once again, we find New Zealand redefining the limits of what we know to be beautiful. I simply refuse to believe that there is something more magical than a well-decorated blue spruce pine, but at the same time, the Pohutukawa continues to bowl me over with its individuality and precise shades of red.

There are other things to see on the Coromandel coast, of course, and well worth it if you can peel your eyes away from trees. Since we chose to visit in early December, we barely avoided the crowds of the holiday season who flock to Coromandel’s pristine beaches and luxurious holiday homes surrounding Mount Maunganui. We stop in Tauranga to explore this typical beachside town and we do a hike up the mountain before heading north along the peninsula.

We spend the night in the coastal countryside at Steve’s place. Steve, a lifelong Kiwi, is a plumber by trade and a veteran Couchsurfing host. In exchange for some dinner and conversation, he offers us a lovely place in his shed that is fitted out with sleeping quarters and a bathroom. His shed reminds me of when I was younger, the time I used to spend at my neighbor’s house who also lived in a shed. To me, it seemed like the most normal thing in the world. Shed people.

With Steve, we trade Nicaragua travel stories and feijoa vodka for some quinoa salad. He tells us about his time working as a maintenance guy on an island base close to Antarctica and shows us some of his finer woodcarving samples. Inspired, I tell Damián that one of my future goals is to learn how to carve wooden spoons. I’m really hoping he’ll hold me to it. (Spoiler alert: Everyone, you’re getting a wooden spoon for Christmas).

The next day we say goodbye to Steve and a beautiful day unfolds of which I am totally undeserving but really grateful all the same: my 30th birthday. The privilege of simply being in New Zealand with Damián on this day, rain or shine, fun or misery, was enough for me, but it really did get ridiculously good. We find beautiful little baby waves in the cute little town of Whangamata. With a brilliant sun and almost no one in the water, I am able to surf my heart’s delight without the fear of being pulled through a washing machine or cut down by some “pro”. I am ecstatic.

Next, we reach Hot Water Beach where you can dig a pit in a certain spot on the beach and it will slowly fill with hot water from below. While it sounds magical, the actual experience is mostly lame. There is only a very small area where the hot water comes up and there is always a frenzy of people with shovels trying to make their own sand-bottom hot tub. It requires a lot of effort to keep the sea from washing away your hot water pit or to dig it deep enough so that it stays full until the tide comes in. The nearby establishments hire out shovels for $3 to let you have a go, but we are content with just burying our feet in the sand, feeling the hot water rush up between our toes, and laughing at the fruitless struggle of so many others.

We have no place to sleep that night so we begin to scout the area for cheap campsites. At one place with no vacancy, the owner mentions that there is a “hippie winery” about twenty minutes away that serves wood fired pizza and offers free camping to restaurant patrons. I almost kiss her. A wood fired pizza winery and free camping on my birthday?! It is as if the travel gods had personally answered my prayers. Damián, however, continues to insist that he arranged the whole day himself, including the waves and the weather to my liking.

The Purangi Winery is everything we could have imagined. It is, in every essence of the word, a “hippie winery” that sprouts out of the shrubs in the form of a ramshackle shed with mish-mashed tables and junkyard design. It has none of the pretensions that are typically carried by the word “winery”. In fact, it might be much better off selling good ole’ moonshine.

The bartender or “enologist”, I suppose, is an endless rampage of words, anecdotes, and advice for anyone with two legs or even four. The moment we walk in, he launches into a soliloquy on the correct pronunciation of the word “badminton” – apparently a fierce debate between Americans and Brits – and then somehow connected the kiwifruit to Communism. But it all happens so fast that neither of us are able to follow. More importantly, the pizza and the wine are both spectacular and when we ask about the camping, we discover that not only is Purangi full of good food and good wine, but also good people. The waiter shows us where to park our car before we get too deep into the bottle.

That night, we car camp along with a few other patrons of the winery, which is a random but funny social interaction. I wake up to a dark night sky so full of stars that I fantasize that each and every one of them has made a special appearance just to wish me a Happy Birthday. Damián insists he that he had called ahead to specially order those constellations for me as well. What a guy.

All in all, turning thirty was like walking into the next level of my dream.

We are given another sunny day which we use to check out Hahei Beach and Cathedral Cove in the Te Whanganui-A-Hei Marine Reserve. There are kayaking excursions and water taxis that offer to take you out to this beautiful location, but we recommend getting there on foot. On our hike, we discover the mesmerizing and completely empty Stringray Bay. It is situated right before Cathedral Cove but is often skipped by tourists on a tight schedule so once again, we found ourselves alone on a postcard perfect beach in the middle of summer – a quiet and rare feeling.

In another time, Cathedral Cove must have been a magical secret spot as well, but the intense traffic of tourists looking for the perfect Instagram shot have turned it into “Carnival Cove.” There is a group of teenagers blasting music from their portable jukebox, an Asian couple dragging their wheeled suitcases across the sand (how they got out there, I have no idea?), and yes – we can’t believe it either – a woman who changes her baby’s diaper and proceeded to leave it (the diaper, not the baby) on a rock before she hopped on the water taxi back to Hahei Beach. Clearly, the world is in desperate need of some environmental etiquette instruction.

We decide to check out one more beach before pointing the helm for home: New Chum Beach. It is rated one of the best 10 beaches in the world, but the sun hides from us before we can be too sure. Undoubtedly, its appeal lies in the fact that it can only be reached on foot. There are no buildings, roads, or infrastructure near the beach and you have to cooperate with the tides in order to gain access. Even so, a human footprint was there, in the form of this Castaway-esque shelter.

Another evening creeps up on us and we are once again without a place to sleep and with little energy to go campsite hunting. So we pull one of our epic road trips and drive from the town of Coromandel, all the way down the eastern side of the Coromandel coast (absolutetly overflowing with Pohutukawa!) and roll into our house in Hamilton late into the night.

I fall asleep to the pleasant memory of the Pohutukawa tree, feeling the perfect mix of holiday spirit and wanderlust to make any girl smile in her sleep.

-Ashley

 

WHERE TO STAY

Campsites in Coromandel tend to be more expensive than other parts of New Zealand, especially if you plan to visit during the month of December. Expect to pay between $25 – $30 per pitch and it is a good idea to call ahead and make a reservation. We strongly recommend planning a sleepover at the Purangi Winery, not far from Hahei Beach. For the same price of a campsite, you get amazing food, delicious drinks, and one very unique atmosphere.

WHAT TO EAT

At the moment, quinoa wraps have been our meal of choice while on the road. Quinoa is a high-fiber, protein-rich grain that keeps you going on a busy day. It is not inexpensive (nothing is in New Zealand), but considering that we don’t eat meat, it feels reasonable to spend a little more money on our superfoods. Using quinoa as a base, we fill our spinach tortilla wraps with lots of vegetables, a little bit of cheese, and finish it off with a dressing of olive oil and vinaigrette.

 

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