Weekender: Glamping on Slipper Island in the Coromandel
Situated within half an hour's drive of some of New Zealand's most iconic beaches, Slipper Island holds its own as one of the Coromandel's most beautiful spots. Though easy to access by boat, the island's natural charms offer complete respite from the pace and problems of daily life.
Slipper Island (Whakahau) lies about 3 kilometres from the Coromandel Peninsula's east coast, accessed by a 15-minute boat ride from marinas at Tairua and Pauanui. Slipper Island is one of New Zealand's few privately owned islands. It was in the Needham family for 45 years before an Auckland-based property developer, Wendy Wu, purchased 217 of the island's 224 hectares in 2015 for a reported $7.5m. The remaining 7ha had been subdivided and sold off.
Its natural harbour has a halo of glittering pink sand and turquoise waters so clear snorkels are superfluous in the shallows. The weekend we visited, a manta ray was flapping its wings above the water. We were told that the incredible black and white sea creature would have eaten bait out of our hands, should we have felt so inclined to tempt it.
Slipper Island is easy to circumnavigate by boat or kayak - there's a "mermaid pool" halfway around where rock formations and tides create a natural spa to languish in. The volcanic cliffs in Crater Bay at the island's northern end are a mesmerising geological feature; the strata of rainbow colours is best appreciated in person rather than in photos. In the water, huge jellyfish - pink, purple and frilly - float idly by.
The Slipper Island Resort encompasses the majority of its 224ha. Visitors can stay at the lodge, chalets or glamping tents, or at the good old-fashioned campground at South Bay. The operation is managed by Brian and Fiona Brakenridge, a Kiwi-Canadian couple whose warmth and hospitality will leave a lasting impression. (Ask Fiona about her Golden Shears title.)
Glamping is the best way to experience island life. Two luxury tents are stationed on a grassy slope facing the ocean, featuring wooden floors, a plush queen-size bed, fold-out sofa and writing desk, as well as a shower and flushing marine-style toilet. The decor's natural pallette of muted creams, greys and fawns only serve to offsets the dazzle of blue and green visible through the tent flaps.
There's rainwater to drink and freshen up with, and solar power to charge your electronics, if you're not wanting to stray too far from the grid. Outside on the deck, there's a table on the deck outside to enjoy drinks and a platter as the sun goes down. At night, you can stargaze while snuggled in bed. You'll awake to the peaceful sounds of bleating sheep and chirping birds.
To glamp is to experience a novel paradox - opulent luxury in the midst of nature. After the initial oohing and ahhing at the beautiful space and surrounds (the beach is a literal stone's throw from the bed), we soon felt right at home. The bed was cosy and we slept all the better for the cool sea breeze filtering through. Take proper pyjamas and a jersey for the evenings, which can be chilly. A raincoat or umbrella also wouldn't go amiss.
The lodge's cooking and refrigeration facilities, as well as array of crockery and cutlery mean glampers want for nothing. On Slipper Island, you can rough it as much or as little as you like.
It's a self-catering arrangement: guests bring all their own food and beverages (aside from drinking water) in chillybins, but have access to the lodge's full kitchen (there's even a gas stove) and spacious dining area. There's also a sheltered barbecue area should you wish to cook and dine al fresco. We stocked up on booze from Golddiggers Liquor in Tairua, which boasts an impressive array of wine, spirits and beer - including local offerings from the Coromandel Brewing Company (we were particularly enamoured by the Cloud 9 - a honey rye beer brewed from local manuka honey). There's also a Four Square supermarket, health food shop, butcher and bakery in the town. Put a bit of thought into your meal planning, and err on the side of over-catering - there's limited opportunity to return to the mainland. And let's face it - if you've gone to all the effort of getting to paradise, it's best to stay put.
While you are there
Explore the island's various walking tracks - you'll spy sheep and cattle on your wanderings (the island is a working sheep and beef farm), as well as a smattering of skittish alpacas. You'll also spot dotterels and pukeko pecking around the wetlands Brian and Fiona are seeking to restore - Brian's dream is to lure enough birdlife back to the island to hear a dawn chorus. There's a lighthouse on the island's eastern most point, about 79m above sea level. Don't expect an East Cape-esque monument - Slipper Island's is a modest structure - it's the view that makes the trip worthwhile. The Alderman and Mayor Islands can be spotted in the distance (and offer diving experiences on par with Northland's Poor Knights, should you wish to venture out).
Whatever the island's other attractions, it's likely you'll spend much of your time on the sherbet-like sand, so fine it feels almost suedey underfoot. Find a shady spot at the beach's far end, explore the rock pools, and watch gannets plunge into the water in search of a snack. Kayaking, snorkelling, and diving might yield some kaimoana (paua and kina) for dinner. Brian and Fiona can also help you arrange fishing charters with local operators.
Worth stepping out for
The Old Mill Cafe, across the road from Tairua marina, is the perfect place for a coffee and a treat before setting off to Slipper Island (equally, upon your return to civilisation). They make a mean lemon curd cheesecake.
Speaking of which, The Cheese Barn at Matatoki serves fantastically priced platters of its finest fromage. Stop in for a driver reviver on your way to the Coromandel, and stock up on cheese and preserves for your Slipper Island stay. Delightfully, there's a petting zoo at the Barn with rabbits, guinea pigs and alpacas, among other critters. You can hand feed the animals with pellets.
The Coromandel 's other treasures, such as Hot Water Beach and Cathedral Cove, are less than 30 minutes' drive from Tairua. Visit The Pour House in Hahei to imbibe Coromandel Brewing Company's brews at the source, and get a tasting paddle of what's on tap with a cone of chips and a few pizzas. The Pour House is it's the peninsula's first brew bar, but not its last - the nearby Hot Water Brewing Co. is worth a visit, too.
Our long weekend at Slipper Island was truly one to remember - there's an enduring desire to return one day. I'm not sure I've encountered a more beautiful spot in New Zealand.
Tairua and Pauanui are about two hours' drive from Auckland. Brian can collect visitors from either marina, where visitors can leave their cars free of charge. You can liaise with Brian and Fiona after booking online to arrange a pick up time. Those with their own boats can make their own way to the island, weather-dependent. Keep an eye out for orca and penguins.
Helicopter transfers can also be arranged.
The nightly rate per tent is $350 for two adults. Up to two children aged under 16 can stay on the sofa bed for no additional charge, or one additional adult can stay for an extra $25 per night. The resort's water taxi service costs $150 per tent, for a return trip. Visit canopycamping.co.nz.
The writer travelled courtesy of Canopy Camping.