MCD writer and fervent foodie Alexia Santamaria scours the mighty Waikato in search of the best places to go to get your tastebuds tingling this autumn.
If you’re planning on exploring the Waikato on your next motorhome adventure and food is your thing, you’re in for a treat. No matter where you go in this plentiful North Island region, there is something delicious just waiting to go into your camper pantry, drinking glass – or directly in your mouth. After all, it is the birthplace of Good George Brewing, Mamas Donuts, Duck Island Ice Cream and Winner Winner – and the location of New Zealand’s only tea plantation, not to mention numerous excellent coffee roasteries, bakeries, and much more besides.
Great places to eat are everywhere in the Waikato, from double-hatted fine dining establishments to cheap and cheerful cafés with great cabinet food. Whether you’re travelling with the kids this holiday or you’re after something special, there’s something for every mood and budget. Just remember to check social media or call ahead before visiting, due to the unpredictability of our current Covid climate.
Heading south from Auckland
If you’re driving down from the north, take a pit stop at Kiki, the new café in Te Kauwhata. So named because the definition of ‘Kiki’ is ‘a social gathering, usually for the purpose of casually kicking back, gossiping and sharing stories’, Kiki is definitely worth a visit for great cabinet and menu food. While in Te Kauwhata, it’s also worth popping into Peplers on the main street to stock up your motorhome with their iconic Black Raspberry vinaigrette – and of course their other jams, chutneys etc.
If you’ve got kids in tow, they will love the magical Woodlands Garden Grove Café & Bar for its enormous cricket oval filled with fun games for your little darlings to play with, while you sit down for a well-earned coffee. If you have time, it’s definitely worth a look around the gardens and historical homestead too.
Stay, play, eat, drink
Whichever direction you’re headed in the Waikato area, there’s a place with your name on it.
Zealong Tea Estate
A tea plantation in rural New Zealand? How can any self-respecting foodie not visit the only commercial tea estate in the country. The plantation tour is fascinating, as is the tea pouring ceremony and we highly recommend you indulge in their delicious high tea afterwards. This beautifully crafted selection of seasonal savoury and sweet dishes are served alongside your choice of Zealong tea; a truly special afternoon out, with views across the region.
Right by the river in Hamilton, this fabulous eatery is where to go if you feel like something special – let’s face it, sometimes even the most committed camper deserves the occasional break from cooking up campervan meals! Recently awarded two hats in the Cuisine Good Food awards, Palate delivers impeccably on interior, service – and of course food – with a huge focus on the best of New Zealand produce and ingredients. Oyster lovers might want to check out their ‘Oyster Happy Hour’ on Thursdays and Fridays; at $2 each it’s a real treat.
Breweries are great when you’re stocking up the camper; breweries with award-winning beers are even better. And breweries with award-winning beers, visiting food trucks and a fascinating location take the cake (or maybe the hops). Sip on a Bootleg Apehanger IPA, or a flight if you can’t make up your mind, in this great space on the site of the original Matangi Dairy Factory, which was built in 1885 and is a big part of the New Zealand dairy story. Check out the website for taproom times and updates on what’s on in this bustling brewery:
Of course, these are far from the only excellent places to eat or stock up in this productive culinary region. If you’re looking for something in particular, make sure you take time to pop by some of these other fabulous culinary experiences that are well worth adding to your road trip itinerary.
For al fresco refreshment, Gothenburg on Grantham Street has lovely river views, and serves a wide range of cocktails and drinks with fabulous tapas bites to accompany your favourite tipple. If you’re keen on share plates, it’s hard to beat Mr Pickles Bar & Eatery if you’re wanting to eat centrally, and just up the river a bit is the wonderful Hayes Common where ordinary ingredients become wonderful flavour bombs.
Staying central, Scott’s Epicurean in the heart of Hamilton is a popular local spot. Well known for its Aglio Olio dish – which has been on the menu since the café first opened in 1999 – it’s also open for breakfast from 7am weekdays (8am weekends). Scott’s, with its heritage building and pressed tin ceilings, is a must for art lovers in the region too.
If you’re in Hamilton for Easter, Volare’s, on Gallagher Drive, is an essential stopover for some of the best bread in the business. Pick up a pack of their award-winning hot cross buns, chocolate treats, croissants and brioche that are available as part of their Easter collection, or simply pick from their range of artisan sourdough, a cheese and jalapeno scone, a pretty pastry or a hearty sausage roll. Whatever you pick, you won’t be disappointed.
For something iconic…
Yes, you can get Duck Island Ice cream in other cities now, but pay your respects by grabbing a cone in the place it all began.
For something new…
Ernest is a recently opened bar – or late night lounge, as they call it. The owner is ex Alpino, in Mount Maunganui; if you’ve ever been there, you’ll know why you need to visit.
Cambridge is always a good time, and there’s plenty of wonderful stuff to eat, both in situ and to take away with you.
Cambridge Farmers’ Market runs on Saturday mornings. Make sure you bring lots of bags for your jam, salami, Cornish pasties, fruit, veggies, honey, organic milk, donuts, salmon, bread and so much more. Of course you can’t leave without a coffee and a Mamas Donut. The Store has also recently opened on Alpha Street if you can’t get to the market on Saturday.
While stocking up, Monavale blueberries may be almost out of season, but you can still pop by to pick up some of their other products, which include condiments, gifts, supplements and even blueberry wine, cider and liqueur. If it’s time to stock up on meat for on-the-road dinners, do it in Cambridge. Wholly Cow likes to say “It’s not the Cow, It’s the How” – which pretty much sums up their ethical, sustainable ethos.
Lovers of Italian food might be familiar with Alpino in Mount Maunganui; now you can indulge in this delightful restaurant in Cambridge too. Both are exceptional for modern Italian cuisine but make sure you book as it’s already a Cambridge favourite.
For cheap and cheerful, tasty food, The Chilli House has a branch in Cambridge and Hamilton and you’ll fall madly in love with their dumplings, spring pancakes and youpo noodles made fresh daily. Beloved food truck Hanoi Boy has also just opened a bricks and mortar space for your Vietnamese cravings.
By the Sea
If you’re heading to the coast you have so many choices! Head to Raglan Roast for great coffee (and stock up on beans for the camper while you’re there); if you’re in the area, the smell of warm sourdough from Raglan Artisan Bread will guide you on where to go to get your fresh bread.
For great café action, The Shack and Rock-It Kitchen are Raglan institutions, and for good reason. If you’re ready for a party vibe, all the Raglan locals love Ulo’s. Currently takeaway only, but try and time your visit with a ‘Heavy Loungin’ session so you can roll out your picnic rug, listen to the live music and devour your delicious Asian dishes.
If you’re trippin’ to Kawhia for Hot Water Beach action, stop at The Rusty Snapper Café for the biggest double scoop ice creams you’ve ever seen. It’s not a fancy joint but you’ll find a hearty lunch and some excellent home baking there too.
Other places worth a stop
If you’re looking for a place to stop on your journey around the Mighty Waikato here’s where the locals go in some of the smaller towns:
- Pio Pio – Fat Pigeon Café
- Matamata – Te Kowhai Creamery for ice cream
- Kihikihi – Viands bakery for take out treats
- Whatawhata – The Village Café
- Te Awamutu – Red Kitchen
- Otorohanga – Fat Kiwi (Fat Pigeon’s sister café)
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