Visiting Cathedral Cove and Hahei Beach
Ask an Aucklander where their favourite summertime beach is and chances are it will be somewhere on the Coromandel Peninsula. For us, the beginning of summer each year is marked by a trip to Hahei Beach and an early morning paddle to Cathedral Cove. The truth is, we just can’t get enough of this place.
So how exactly can you get to Cathedral Cove from Auckland and other nearby towns? The small seaside settlement of Hahei is the closest centre, and from here it’s a 45 minute walk north along the coast to the cove itself.
Click on the blue map near the top of the page to open Google Maps. That will show you exactly where Hahei Beach and Cathedral Cove is in New Zealand, and you can get directions and do all the usual Google Map things. You might also find the following table of approximate travel times and distances useful:
- Auckland to Hahei/Cathedral Cove (via Tairua): 176 km / 110 miles – 2 hours 30 minutes
- Auckland to Hahei/Cathedral Cove (via Coromandel Town): 245 km / 152 miles – 3 hours 45 minutes
- Hamilton to Hahei/Cathedral Cove: 161 km / 100 miles – 2 hours 20 minutes
- Rotorua to Hahei/Cathedral Cove (via Waihi): 206 km / 128 miles – 3 hours
- Tauranga to Hahei/Cathedral Cove: 152 km / 94 miles – 2 hours 20 minutes
- Whitianga to Hahei/Cathedral Cove: 36 km / 22 miles – 35 minutes
Travel times can vary significantly, particularly in popular areas during peak visitor months (December – February). For current travel times and updates on delays, roadworks and road closures, use the NZ Transport Agency journey planner before travelling.
You’ll notice that we’ve included two options when driving from Auckland to Cathedral Cove, the second option being a lot longer. This scenic route follows the west coast of the Coromandel Peninsula and is worth doing if you’re in no hurry. However, the road is very windy and narrow in places so not a good option if you’re tired after a longhaul flight.
Just north of Hahei is the seaside town of Whitianga, a good base from which to explore the more northern reaches of the Coromandel. While Cathedral Cove is only a 35 minute drive from Whitianga, if you prefer not to drive into Hahei during the busy peak season, consider catching a ferry across to Ferry Landing and from there a shuttle to Cathedral Cove.
Facts & Top Tips
A bit of history
The dramatic white cliffs in this area of the Coromandel Peninsula were formed from pumice and ash that erupted about 8 million years ago. Being relatively soft and bearing the brunt of waves and weather from the Pacific Ocean, the coastal cliffs have eroded over thousands of years to form the headlands that separate the many bays along the coast.
So how was Cathedral Cove formed? If you paddle along the coast from Hahei Beach towards Cathedral Cove you will notice many small caves in the cliff faces. At some point, the iconic archway we see today would have been a cave, or more likely two caves on either side of the headland that joined over time.
Bear in mind that this erosion is still happening now and you’ll see a number of warnings in the area about falling rocks. In fact, the north-western end of the beach at Stingray Bay is now closed due to the danger of falling rocks.
Along with Mercury Bay to the north, this stretch of coastline has long been spiritually important to the local Māori people, the Ngāti Hei, whose ancestor, Hei, first visited and claimed the area in the 13th century. In fact the name of the settlement of Hahei is derived from the Māori name for Mercury Bay, Te-Whanganui-A-Hei, or “The Great Bay of Hei”.
In the early 19th century, Hahei was a family farm which over the years proved to be a popular camping spot and continues to be a popular holiday destination for both New Zealanders and tourists alike. Hahei now has several cafes, a bar, a petrol station and a general store with pretty much everything you’ll need for your summer beach holiday.
The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
So here’s a fun fact. If you’ve seen the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, you would actually already have seen Cathedral Cove. Prince Caspian was the second movie in the Chronicles of Narnia series based on the fantasy novels by C.S. Lewis, and while most of the movie was shot in Europe, one particular scene where the Pevensies return to the ruins of Cair Paravel was shot at Cathedral Cove. Here’s a short clip.
When is the best time to visit Cathedral Cove?
Being such a popular spot you’re most probably wondering – is Cathedral Cove busy? The answer is – it depends. Summer in New Zealand is officially from December to February and this is obviously the peak season for both tourists and locals.
That said, we last visited around the 8th of December and did our usual early morning paddle to Cathedral Cove from Hahei Beach. Apart from two other people, we had the place to ourselves. Bear in mind though that schools break up around the middle of December for 6 weeks so that’s when things really start to get busy. You can check school holiday dates here.
For us personally, we avoid Hahei over this period and won’t go back until early Autumn in March. In fact, we think Autumn is the best time to visit Cathedral Cove. It’s still warm, the weather is settled and it’s far less busy. Of course, if you’re not too interested in swimming or snorkeling, and just want to experience the place, Winter and Spring are also excellent times to visit. It might just be you and a handful of dedicated photographers trying to get that must-have shot of the arch.
Hahei Beach & Cathedral Cove car parks
It should come as no surprise that parking during peak season has been a bit of a challenge in the past. There are a number of prime parking spots close to the beach at the end of Hahei Beach Road, but unless you get there really early, you can forget about finding a spot.
Visitors used to park along Beach Road but that tended to cause chaos and made it difficult to walk from the beach to the shops. Fortunately, the good people of Hahei have created a dedicated visitor car park, just on your right as you enter Hahei. As at time of writing (December 2018) parking is free and from here it’s a 20 minute walk to the beach and the lower start of the Cathedral Cove Walk. More on that later.
During the summer months, there is a Cathedral Cove Park and Ride shuttle service which costs $5 return per person, $3 for a child and $10 for a family (2 adults 2 children).
The upper start of the Cathedral Cove Walk is at the end of Grange Road and there are a limited number of paid parkings there. However, parking is prohibited here from the 1 October to the 30 April although you can drop people off. This is also the pick up and drop off zone for the Coromandel Cove Shuttle.
When we last drove up to the drop off we noticed that enterprising locals on Grange Road were letting visitors park on their properties – for a small fee of course. We can’t guarantee that this will always be the case but if you do decide to drive up to the top car park, keep an eye out for the handmade signboards along the road.
We all go to the beach for fun and sun right? If you’re visiting New Zealand on a fixed itinerary you may not have your pick of the best weather. But if you have some flexibility and want to check the local conditions before visiting, the nearest New Zealand MetService forecast location for Hahei and Cathedral Cove is Whitianga.
While MetService does provide rain forecast maps, these cover the entire country. To check more detailed local weather conditions and forecasts including wind, rain, temperature and cloud cover we use, and highly recommend, Windy.com.
Unlike nearby Hot Water Beach which you need to visit around low tide, Hahei beach and Cathedral Cove can be enjoyed at any time. That said, at high tide the sea does come up as far as the northern side of the Cathedral Cove arch. Depending on the tide and the swell, you might have to time your dash through the arch to the other side to stay dry. To check the latest Cathedral Cove low tide times, have a look at the New Zealand MetService tide table for Whitianga.
Ways to Explore Cathedral Cove
Cathedral Cove and the famous rock archway can only be reached on foot or from the sea. While we think everyone should do the walk, our preference, as you may have seen from the video, is to paddle from Hahei Beach. That does of course depend on the conditions, particularly the wind. You will find that early mornings are the best with winds usually picking up later in the day.
Cathedral Cove Walk
Most visitors to the area will walk to Cathedral Cove from the upper car park / drop off point at the top of Grange Road (turn left just after the general store on Hahei Beach Road). The track is well maintained and we would stay this is a fairly easy walk although there are some steep stairs as you head down to the beach towards Mares Leg Cove.
The walk will take around 45 minutes one way, assuming you go direct to Cathedral Cove. There are however a number of side tracks including a loop walk to a viewing platform, and tracks going down to Gemstone Bay and Stringray Bay.
We highly recommend these little detours, particularly to Stingray Bay where we’ve found in the mornings that rays like to congregate in the shallow waters close to shore.
There is also a track which starts near the end of Hahei Beach and climbs up the headland to join the main track. Although this will add another 20 minutes to your walk, we think it’s actually the better route as it will give you some stunning views back towards Hahei Beach. The map further below shows the main track and the bays you can explore.
Cathedral Cove water taxi
From around September to April there is a water taxi that will take you from Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove. Just look for the big yellow and black flags on the beach. As the boat launches from the beach you will get your feet wet but that’s all part of the experience.
Weather dependent, the taxi runs every 30 minutes with payment made onboard via card and cash. You can check the latest prices and confirm operation status and departure times here.
Snorkeling and diving
The coast off Cathedral Cove is actually a protected marine reserve, Te Whanganui-A-Hei, which covers 9 square kilometres and is New Zealand’s sixth marine reserve. This area was selected due to its varied marine habitats both along the coast and around the outlying island.
We’ve snorkeled along the coast from the northern end of Hahei Beach to Cathedral Cove and back and Gemstone Bay is a particular highlight. Recognised by the Department of Conservation as a Coastal Gem, the Gemstone Bay Snorkel Trail is an opportunity to explore different habitats. There are a number of buoys floating in the bay with information on them explaining what you see. There are usually big snapper around and if you dive to the bottom and disturb the sand, they often come up close to see what you’re doing.
We have our own snorkeling gear but if you don’t have any you can hire some from the dive shop in Hahei.
Exploring the coast near Hahei Beach
While most visitors to Hahei head to the northern coves, there’s a lot more to this area than meets the eye. If like us you prefer to explore off the beaten path then you need to head south around/through Hereheretaura Point, the headland at the southern end of Hahei Beach.
What awaits is some of the most spectacularly rugged coastline along with a few hidden and not so hidden gems including The Blowhole (if you haven’t already, watch our video) and Orua sea cave, the second largest sea cave in New Zealand. Personally, we actually think this stretch of coast is better than Cathedral Cove. After seeing it for yourself, you might just agree.
For the best adventure we would suggest doing a guided tour with Cathedral Cove kayak tours in Hahei. Alternatively, if you’re short on time or don’t want to paddle, a boat tour is a good option.
Hahei Beach & Cathedral Cove accommodation
When visiting the Hahei area we always camp. In the past we’ve stayed at the Hot Water Beach Top 10 Holiday Park which is a great option, particularly if you want to stroll down to the beach at night. However, if we’re planning on doing an early morning paddle from Hahei, we prefer to stay at Hahei Beach Resort as it’s literally one dune away from the beach.
Of course Hahei Beach camping isn’t the only option. There are numerous Bed & Breakfasts and lodges to choose from as well.
Looking for more ideas on things to do and places to see when visiting the Coromandel region? Have a look at our guide, Top things to do in Coromandel.
Best of New Zealand
If you’re looking for ideas and inspiration for your next holiday, you should definitely check out our New Zealand Travel Guide. We’ve got practical advice to help you plan your trip and region guides to help you decide where to go and what to do. We also share some of our favourite experiences from our own travels around the country. Click below to find out more.