With its lush rolling green hills, some of the country’s best horse stud farms, and globally renowned tourist attractions such as Hobbiton, Waitomo Caves, and Hamilton Gardens, there’s no shortage of drawcards for visitors to the Waikato region. While these key attractions are widely familiar and regularly visited, there are just as many hidden and lesser-known delights to capture your interest, making it worthwhile to spend time exploring the area further. Editor Lisa Potter shares some of her personal recommendations.
1. The Boatshed Kayaks
Lake Karapiro is home to a world-class rowing venue (and the training ground for most of New Zealand’s Olympic rowing medals), as well as hosting powerboating, yachting, canoeing, and waterskiing events and activities. However, less familiar is the opportunity to explore the beauty of the surrounding landscape by kayak and paddleboard with The Boatshed Kayaks. If this alone isn’t enough to whet your appetite, the unexpected offering of twilight kayaking through glowworm-lit walls is surely a once-in-a-lifetime must-do. Once you’ve reached Glowworm Canyon, you can even pop ashore for a quick glass of wine or hot chocolate, enjoyed by the warmth of a campfire. The return trip is equally spectacular, as you drift slowly downstream surrounded only by the unique incandescence of glowworms. The Boatshed Kayaks also offer trips through the hidden Karapiro waterfalls (two of which are only accessible via kayak), and guided adventures include an activity tour with on-water games.
Spearheaded by owner Richard Clark who boasts more than 15 years’ experience in multi-sport paddling (including 11 coast-to-coast races), you can rest assured that you’re in the best possible hands. Group and private kayaking and paddleboarding lessons are also available. Open Monday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm. Bookings essential.
2. Te Waihou Walkway
Offering almost unrivalled beauty, this lush walkway takes you to the famous Blue Spring, one of the purest water sources in the world. Up close, it’s almost hard to believe this pristine clear water isn’t just the most perfectly edited photo you can imagine. Located five minutes from Putaruru, it’s absolutely worth the drive, and I challenge you not to return armed with dozens of stunning photos and memories.
Currently, access is only possible via the main entrance (Whites Road) where you can choose the 10km walk along the well-maintained and easy walking track, suitable for most fitness levels. The shorter 15-minute option (from Leslie Road) is currently closed due to some land slippage.
Te Waihou Walkway meanders through wetlands, bush, and farmland so make time to stop and soak in the vista around you. Astonishingly, this track is free to enjoy, with the hope that everyone departs with special memories (along with any food and litter). No dogs are permitted.
3. Zealong Tea Estate
The lush idyll of meticulously planted Camellia sinensis bushes (more than a million of them) is at the heart of Zealong Tea Estate. The former dairy farm on the outskirts of Hamilton is now home to New Zealand’s most prestigious tea plantation. The Waikato climate has proven the perfect environment to grow tea. Even foggy Waikato mornings play a role, ensuring the plants enjoy the levels of moisture needed to thrive.
This 48-hectare organic team farm has been transformed into the ultimate high tea destination, with the Zealong Tea Room offering a farm-to-dining experience like no other. The creative menu features dishes delicately infused with home-grown New Zealand tea, and the menu is a visual delight, creating a memorable experience. There’s also an immersive modern retail boutique, which showcases rare and unique teapots, a tea-tasting experience, as well as everything you need to create your own elevated tea traditions at home. Zealong Tea Estate and The Tea Room are open Thursday to Monday, 10am from 5pm, the Retail Boutique is open Monday to Sunday, 10am from 5pm, and guided tours are held on the third Thursday of every month.
4. Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari
As the name suggests, this ecological island is a unique sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s most threatened species.
At 3400 hectares, it’s also one of the largest pest-proof fenced projects in the world and a magical place to visit, located just 30 minutes out of Cambridge.
This ancient forest, which has been recognised as an eco-reserve since 1912, houses rare and native birds (hihi/stitchbird, kākā, takahē, North Island brown kiwi, kōkako, titipounamu), skinks, geckos, frogs, bats, and insects. The functioning ecosystem is as close to the pre-human New Zealand environment as it’s possible to find. With three enclosures (to keep pests out), the southern enclosure, Te Tūī a Tāne is the largest and features a 16-metre viewing tower. Bush walks are a speciality of the northern enclosure, while the Tautari wetland enclosure showcases a live functioning wetland ecosystem and includes a purpose-built habitat for Tuatara. Open daily, 9am to 4pm.
5. Te Awa River Ride
There’s a reason cycling is soaring in popularity and it’s largely down to the sheer delight and ease of exploring New Zealand on trails like Te Awa River Ride. This superbly designed experience is one of the most accessible and scenic cycling (and walking) trails in New Zealand, boasting the longest concrete path in the country, winding a total of 65km from Ngaruawahia to Lake Karapiro. There are plenty of opportunities to pop on and off the trail, with superb café and points of interest along the way. It’s truly a world-class experience, centred around the majestic Waikato River and taking in lakes, rivers, waterfalls, bridges, and elevated boardwalks. Look online for your most convenient access point.
6. Camjet Tours
It’s hard to ignore the significance of Waikato River, and one of the best ways to explore it is on the water. Camjet offers both a leisurely boating experience as well as a more high-octane option for adrenaline junkies. The one-hour Ecological Cruise allows time to absorb the breathtaking scenery and learn about the history of the river and surrounding areas. Taking in waterfalls, fish, and birdlife, it journeys through the narrow Cambridge Gorge, Karāpiro Dam, and power station.
Taking things up a notch, strap in for the Extreme Tour (with 15-, 30-, and 45-minute options) in a 450hp V8 jet boat with 360-degree spins part of the action. Departs Hamilton City and open seven days a week. Bookings are essential.
7. Lovegrove Lane
Tucked away down a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it sideling in Hamilton East is Lovegrove Lane, perfect for those looking to indulge their senses with some retail therapy. Featuring a collection of beautifully intentioned businesses, you’ll find like-minded business owners nurturing their passions to share with customers.
At the heart of Lovegrove Lane is The Flower Crate, recently expanded to include The Potting Shed, where you can fuel your houseplant and gardening obsessions while indulging in some of the best home and giftware shopping in the city. Sustainable floristry is another major drawcard, using seasonal New Zealand-grown flowers only and rejecting oasis and plastics in all arrangements. Stroll on down to GGs and immerse yourself in the good vibes, with delish coffee and cabinet goodies (cinnamon buns, lamingtons, and ginger loaf) with plenty of vegan and vegetarian options. Also, don’t miss out on Hamilton’s two other enchanting shopping lanes: Casabella Lane and Riverbank Lane (both in the central city) where you’ll find dreamy cafés, shopping, and off-the-beaten-path delights.
8. Browsers Bookshop, Central Hamilton
As traditional bookstores continue to dwindle, in the centre of Hamilton City amidst the cool places to eat and drink, Browsers is standing firm, remaining true to the authenticity of the original bookstore ethos. The walls are lined with thousands of quality second-hand books, the staff is incredibly helpful, and you can sink into one of the cosy leather couches and lose yourself in the pages of a pre-loved book for a few hours. The perfect place to escape the hustle and bustle of life, it offers an enviable collection curated by fellow voracious readers and book lovers. Bonus: Open until 9.30pm Tuesday to Saturday for some late-night book browsing.