CATHEDRAL COVE, NEW ZEALAND — We started today off by driving to Hahei Beach to do the short hike to Cathedral Cove, a popular tourist destination that features two beaches connected by a giant, natural passageway through the cliff.

Riding into town, we saw signs that read, “Carpark full, use shuttles,” and all kinds of other signs you’d expect in a tourist place where there is only one attractioneverybody goes go. Being confused, we missed the turn-off to the car park for Cathedral Cove and kept driving, which brought us to the town’s beach with ample parking available.

Our faux-pas turned out to be a blessing, because we saw that the hiking trail actually starts here, goes past the official car park and on to Cathedral Cove. Also on this beach is a water taxi that takes people straight to the beach and back, for $15 per person. Although I thought that it would be nice to take the taxi one way to get a sense of the shoreline cliffs, we decided to hike first and were treated to beautiful flower patches and views we would have missed on the hike from the car park. We also got our exercise, because right off the bat, the trail climbed steeply up a cliff from the beach.

A view back to Hahei Beach from the first cliff top.

From there, it was a continuous descent to the beach, with some spur trails to secluded coves. We hiked down into Gemstone Bay, a rocky cove that featured a snorkel trail. The low tide kept us from going for a swim, which the signs told us would not be as good as in a high tide.

All along the hike were beautiful views, both out to the island-studded sea and inland, where forested cliffs and rock formations provided a stunning backdrop. To climb down onto the Cathedral Cove beach, one has to descend a set of steep steps, and once we got on the beach, we were actually surprised to see the famous arch: The views along the hike were so spectacular that we totally forgot about the main attraction.

We plopped ourselves down on the beach for some exquisite people-watching. We were struck by how international the crowd was (for once, not overrun by Germans) and how busy the water taxi was: Every 30 minutes, a full boatload of about 20 people would be whisked away or arrive. At one point, we saw three girls walk onto the beach and do nothing for a solid 30 minutes but take pictures of themselves in various contrived poses, making pouts and duck lips and sticking out their tongues with different backdrops: the ocean, a sea stack, the arch.

Then they left. We wondered how much of the scenery they had actually noticed.

About halfway on our hike out of the cove, we understood why so many people are taking the water taxi. The scenery was still stunning, but it was real work hiking up and out.

We had lunch at the beach, surrounded by pesky sea gulls waiting for a handout or a stray potato chip. We tried to scare them off, but they just kept coming back. A short while later, we noticed why:  A woman on the beach held out her arm to try and feed a flying sea gull, who was very conflicted about flying in to take the food and its fear of humans. In the end, the woman just tossed the food on the beach.

After lunch, there was time to stop by Hot Water Beach, a place where veins of hot water rise from a hot pocket deep in the ground and surface at the beach. People dig into the sand and sit in warm water. The best time to do that is within 2 hours on either side of low tide, and we were, as usual, late to the party, with low tide having passed 3 hours ago.

Feeling pretty lazy, we drove to a monument to Captain Cook in Mercury Bay. The monument wasn’t much: It was commemorating the fact that Cook and his crew spent a few days in this bay to wait for the transit of Mercury, which allowed them to accurately determine the latitude of the bay. By all accounts, they also gorged on seafood. That passing of Mercury is how the bay got its current name.

Cook also renamed the cliff we were going to hike next: Shakespeare Cliff. The views were nice, but the real treat was a little cove known as Lonely Bay. On the way there, we saw signs that there was a new, “very mobile” chick of the endangered dotterel on the beach, and that dogs should be leashed. We saw the rope exclosure, but no chick, so we sat down in the shade, napped and listened to the waves.

This dotterel chick, an endangered species, roamed the beach of Lonely Bay.

A while later, Beth gently nudged me that the chick was coming towards us, so we sat there, motionless, to watch. It really was mobile and walked a lot in a short time frame, apparently unsupervised.  But they weren’t, we found out a short time later; when some gulls landed on the beach, the parent came zooming up to chase them off.  The aerial scrimmage was something straight out of “Top Gun,” with the dotterel parent victorious.

A little surprise was waiting for us in the campground. With laundry $4 and showers $2, we were one coin short. So instead of being the stupid Americans who had to borrow coins, we became rule-bending Americans with a plan: We filled a collapsible bucket with water and went into the handicapped shower, where Beth would poured while Torsten washed. We had used this method a lot during backpacking trips, but never in a developed campground. There’s a first for everything.

This cliff bordered Lonely Bay on one side.

For dinner, we went to a quirky place called Eggstatic, where we each had their Ocean Lover main course: Grilled scallops and calamari, with prawns and fish on a lemon risotto cake, with a chocolate mousse with raspberries for dessert. The restaurant was packed and very lively: A table of six Frenchmen (and women) were having a lively and noisy conversation over two bottles of wine and dinner. The French seem to know how to live well, and it occurred to us to ask any French tourists we would meet where they would be eating that night — sounds like a good way to find great restaurants.