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The hidden gems and wonders of the Waikato

The hidden gems and wonders of the Waikato

Looking to explore a new side of Aotearoa? You might be surprised to find some of the country's best hidden gems lie in Waikato.

The hidden gems and wonders of the Waikato

There’s a special fondness one has about their hometown that never quite goes away. Call it nostalgia or a fresh perspective that comes with time, but after a decade of living away from the Waikato, I’m happy to say I’ve found a new appreciation for my home region.

These days, weekend trips back to Hamilton are quickly filled with brunch dates at cafes, day hikes in the countryside, and adventures around the region’s natural wonders. 

There’s a spirit of exploration that’s unique to the Waikato, a feeling of something waiting to be discovered. It’s a region that’s seriously underrated, and full to the brim with hidden gems. Don’t believe me? Let me tell you…

Enjoy the laid-back coastal lifestyle

The Waikato is typically blessed with a mild climate. Autumn is when the region really puts on a show, the golden-yellow and auburn trees transforming the riverbanks of the winding Waikato river. In the mornings, catch hot air balloons dotted about the sky. 

Geothermal water bubbles up through Kawhia’s black sand at low tide

On these crisp days, one of my favourite places to visit is Kawhia Hot Water Beach. Just over an hour’s drive from the city and you’ll find yourself on this rugged west coast beach, dig yourself a hole and soak in the warm water.

While you’re out on the west coast, head to Raglan, a laid-back beach town that’ll make you feel chilled-out as soon as you arrive. One of the best ways to explore Raglan is on the water, so grab a kayak and paddle around the inlets and estuary.

The main beach, Ngarunui boasts a stunning stretch of black sand and is a great spot for swimming and surfing. Of course, a trip to the coast isn’t complete without fish and chips, my favourite spot being Raglan Fish on the wharf. 

Paddle around the Raglan estuary and explore the many beautiful inlets

World-class gardens and delicious eateries

Hamilton Gardens is another spectacular place to visit when the leaves turn. As a local who has been to these world-class gardens countless times, I can honestly say it never disappoints. With over 20 award-winning gardens to explore, don’t rush your trip here. Take a few hours or better yet, pack a picnic and spend the day.

A burst of floral colours greet you at the Indian Char Bagh Garden

Wandering around the Italian Renaissance garden will make you feel like you’ve been transported to Italy, while the Katherine Mansfield lawn with its full garden-party setup is a true delight. One of the newest and my favourite spots is the Surrealist garden, a dreamlike place where everything is five times larger in scale, and gigantic, vine-covered mechanical shapes tower above you. It’s something straight out of a Lewis Carroll novel

As a true flat-white-drinking coffee snob, I’m always excited to check out some of the local cafes in my hometown. Hamilton is famous for its cafe culture and with good reason. If I’m in Hamilton East, a visit to Mavis & Co is definitely on the cards. Their mouthwatering cabinet treats are just as good to look at as they are to eat.

If you’re in the city, there’s no shortage of breakfast spots to try. Scott’s Epicurean and The River Kitchen are two local favourites that are known for great food and damn good coffee. Take a drive out of the city to Camarosa, one of the region’s many wonderful country eateries that’s situated right next to a berry farm. 

If you prefer tea instead of coffee, book a table for high tea at the Zealong Tea Estate and sample from their 100% organic, award-winning tea selection. 

Mr Pickles in Riverbank Lane is a local favourite

If you’re looking for a lunch or dinner destination, Mr Pickles in Riverbank Lane offers amazing charcuterie and sharing plates, and with a terrace view overlooking the river, you can’t beat it. And if you’re craving a sweet treat, head to Duck Island Ice Cream where you’ll find the home of delectable handcrafted specialty ice cream.

You might be surprised to learn that Hamilton is a bit of a hipster haven, and down a little alley off Victoria Street, you’ll find the coolest little late-night haunt, Wonder Horse. Be sure to stop here for a cocktail (or maybe two). 

Natural wonders, Hobbit holes and ancient caves

But there’s plenty more to the Waikato than its capital city. The region is filled with natural wonders that’ll take your breath away. Of course, Hobbiton™ Movie Set and Waitomo Caves are some of the most popular attractions and if you’re new to the region, be sure to add these to your list.

Hobbiton™ Movie Set’s charming Hobbit holes are a unique highlight in Waikato

A guided tour around the Hobbiton™ Movie Set will take you around the green rolling hills, letting you marvel at the charming hobbit holes and of course, end your visit with a pint at the lakeside Green Dragon Inn. 

The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are equally as enthralling, a stunning ancient cave system illuminated by twinkling glowworms. The gentle walk winds around the depths of these magnificent caves, taking you through the grand Cathedral and ending with a tranquil boat ride where you can gaze at the twinkling lights above. 

Marvel at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves’ twinkling glow worms

If you’re looking for a dose of nature without the crowds, Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is one of the Waikato’s lesser-known natural gems. A 47km predator fence wraps around this eco reserve, making it a haven for native wildlife such as kiwi, kokako, tuatara and weta. 

NZ’s cycling heartland

With an expansive stretch of bush tracks, river walks and city trails, one of the best ways to explore the Waikato is on two wheels. For an unforgettable multi-day experience, hop on your bike and explore the 197km Hauraki Rail Trail, a 4-5 day trip that winds through stunning forests and historic sights.

For both beginners and more experienced cyclists, there’s plenty to see on the Waikato River Trails, taking you through the heart of the region over hydro dams, suspension bridges and native forests.

Keen cyclists will also love the 85 km Timber Trail, an idyllic journey through regenerative forest and historic relics around Pureora.

Te Awa – The Great NZ River Ride is one of the best ways to explore the main city strip, stop off at the Waikato Museum and enjoy a coffee on the terraced steps of the Victoria on the River outdoor amphitheatre. 

Suspension bridges take you across the river on the Waikato River Trails

When you’re looking to rest your head, there’s plenty of accommodation options to choose from. The Ramada by Wyndham or Novotel Hamilton Tainui Hotel in the CBD are great spots to base yourself in the city, while The Henley country-house hotel near Cambridge is a wonderful stay out in the countryside. 

So, whether you want to hit the beaten track on your bike, surf the waves on the coast or immerse yourself in natural wonders, the Waikato is a true hidden gem just waiting to be explored. 

Getting to Waikato

Air New Zealand operates daily non-stop flights to Hamilton from Wellington and Christchurch, with connections across the domestic network. Choose from seat, seat+bag, flexitime or flexidate fare types. Wellington-Hamilton flight time is 75min, Christchurch-Hamilton is a 1hr 45min flight.

For bookings and more info visit www.airnewzealand.co.nz

For more inspiration and information on the Waikato, visit waikatonz.com

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