Journalist, playwright, and actor Elisabeth Easther grew up in the Waikato and shares why part of her heart will always belong to Hamilton
They say there’s no place like home. I was born and raised in Hamilton, which means when I do my mihimihi – the traditional Māori method of introducing oneself – Waikato is my awa, my river. Pironngia is my maunga, my mountain, and no matter how long I live away from Hamilton, a piece of my heart will always remain there.
Originally settled by Māori in the 13th Century, the Waikato region soon became an area of thriving settlements, with early iwi making excellent use of the fertile soil, rivers, and abundant natural resources. Later, when the first Europeans put down roots because many of them were farmers, Hamilton grew to service that budding agricultural community.
Declared a city in 1945, over the years, Hamilton has become a cosmopolitan municipality, full of cafés and restaurants, emporiums and attractions, and home to a population of over 185,000 humans.
As a youngster, I lived for the Summer and Winter A&P Shows at Claudelands Showgrounds. For a primary schooler, that heady combination of fairground rides, sideshows, and agricultural displays was utterly enchanting. Although, I never mastered the concept of ‘less is more’ when it came to splatter painting, the stall where thick pieces of card rotated like long-playing records as the paint was squirted on them. But I always used too many colours, so the result was more cow pat than art.
I also loved Te Rapa Pools (now Waterworld) where my friends and I would spend joyful Saturdays whizzing down the hydroslides or daring each other to plunge from the 10-metre-high board.
However, I must also confess that the one time I climbed the ladder to the tallest tower, and instead of taking the leap, I swallowed my pride and climbed back down the way I’d gone up.
I vividly recall my first proper job: picking strawberries at Vernall’s Berry Farm on Newell Road in Tamahere. From the end of term to Christmas Eve, I’d cycle there at the crack of dawn along State Highway One and pick till midday. I’m still not sure what I loved best: the weekly pay packets or the endless access to berries.
Those were the days, and even though my hometown has changed a great deal since the ’70s and ’80s, I still cherish those memories: summer concerts by the lake, special coffees at Pigeons Late Nite Café, and being mesmerised by lavish musical productions at Founders Theatre, Clarence Street and Riverlea. Culture has always been an important part of Waikato life, so it’s no surprise that the arts still thrive there today, with the country’s largest regional arts festival kicking off in Hamilton at the end of February.
Hamilton Arts Festival
Now in its 25th year, The Hamilton Arts Festival/Toi Ora ki Kirikiriroa is based at The Hamilton Gardens and features 46 events across various venues presented by over 1200 artists. Taking place from Friday 23 February to Sunday, 3 March, this year promises the most ambitious line-up ever and includes music, theatre, dance, comedy, movies, and sculpture.
Music fans can sway to the sound of Bic Runga and her full band, where they’ll be joined by Georgia Lines on the Rhododendron Lawn on Saturday, 2 March.
If you grew up in the 1980s, you’ll want to catch The Mockers and Rikki Morris on Friday, 1 March. Can you believe it’s been 40 years since they released ‘Forever Tuesday Morning?’ And don’t miss Sunset Symphony on the first Saturday of the fest, as this free orchestral event is legendary.
To acknowledge how tough times have been of late, the festival has put an emphasis on accessibility, with affordable ticket prices, special deals, and a swag of free events. This also means that during the day in the Hamilton Gardens, you might witness an impromptu classical piano performance or a pop-up puppetry show, or you can simply park up at the Festival Hub for free live music each night from 5pm, where a selection of food trucks will be operating to keep bellies from rumbling.
Other well-loved celebs headed to Hamilton include comedians Tom Sainsbury and Dai Henwood, along with Taite Music Prize winner Jazmine Mary whose 2023 album Dog received widespread critical acclaim.
NZ Opera has collaborated with Opus Orchestra to create Figaro! Figaro! Figaro! – a celebration of some of the opera’s most cherished characters. Hamilton Boys’ High School’s 40-piece jazz orchestra will tune up to deliver their Big Band Jazz Spectacular featuring an all-star line-up of current and past students playing everything from Frank Sinatra to Ella Fitzgerald. And The Up Doos will be performing He’s A Rebel, their catchy celebration of 1960s girl groups.
Lovers of theatre can book for Circa Theatre’s smash hit, Prima Facie, which won the prestigious Olivier Award for Best Play last year, or Morgana O’Reilly’s brilliant Stories About My Body, a glorious fist-pump for body positivity. Stephen Papps brings Social Animal to town, where he plays 12 characters, three of them dogs, in a solo tour de force.
International superstars of existential clown, Ridiculusmus, are also dropping in direct from the UK, with their dark comedy Beautiful People all about ageing and death. Their other powerful piece So tells the tale of long-lost brothers who must overcome their differences to sort through their late mother’s estate. These are both five-star shows that have taken the world by storm.
Flora and fauna are also a focus of this year’s festival, and Force of Nature features evocative chamber music that celebrates Forest & Bird, while Mary Bumby’s Hive of Story applauds the magic of bees in the English Flower Garden.
If your hunger for art is still not sated, you can explore The Boon Sculpture Trail, which is made up of 23 outdoor sculptures across eight public sites. Walk or cycle this free installation that’s in town from 3 February to 31 March.
Be warned though, this is merely the tip of the what’s-on Hamilton Arts Festival iceberg. So pack your caravan or motorhome, and make a beeline for Hamilton, a city that’s likely to steal your heart too.
For more information or a detailed timetable, visit hamiltonartsfestival.co.nz.
Making the most of your Hamilton holiday
Motorhomers are welcomed with open arms in Hamilton City with allocated spaces around the city for freedom camping, including at Porritt Stadium.
You can also park on public roads across the city where there are unrestricted parking spaces, so long as you’re in a self-contained vehicle and not parked on the same road for longer than three consecutive days.
Although, do note, freedom camping is not permitted in Civic Square or Garden Place. visithamilton.co.nz/visitor-essentials/freedom-camping.
Hamilton City Holiday Park
If you fancy parking somewhere central with top-notch facilities, why not plug in at Hamilton City Holiday Park? Close to Ruakura, they offer a range of spacious powered sites on parklike grounds with well-maintained facilities and welcoming hosts. hamiltoncityholidaypark.co.nz.
Cambridge Top 10 Holiday Park
Also known as The Base, this popular holiday park is right on the doorstep of Te Awa Cycleway and is chocka with all the things I hope to enjoy while on holiday, including a barbecue, a jumping pillow, and a tennis court. With powered and non-powered sites, charge up the e-bike and you’ll be in Hamilton to see your shows in no time. cambridgetop10.co.nz/accommodation.
The brainchild of Peter Sergel, Hamilton Gardens started life in the 1960s on the site of the old rubbish tip. Today, according to TripAdvisor, it’s in the world’s top 1% of travel experiences. Spread over 58 hectares, new additions are dreamed up each year. Whether you’re smitten with The Char Bagh Gardens, the Italian Renaissance, or the more recently designed Mansfield and Surrealist designs, Hamilton Gardens is out of this world. hamiltongardens.co.nz.
The Great New Zealand River Ride – 65km from Ngāruawāhia to Karapiro
Built beside the Waikato River, this fab trail features a number of elegant bridges and is one of Aotearoa’s most beautiful cycle trails. Taking riders from Ngāruawāhia to Karapiro along the longest concrete trail in the country, if you’re partial to a spot of cycling, you could potentially park your motorhome in all manner of scenic spots, then pedal to various arts festival shows while stopping here and there to eat, drink, and relax. te-awa.org.nz.