Destination New Zealand: How to have a great weekend in the Waikato

Now that we've grown up a bit as a country, Hamilton has more people singing its praises than making fun of it. And, while it's a city that's often just a rest stop on the way to somewhere else, there are more and more reasons for turning this roadie stop-off into a destination itself.

On a recent trip I hit the road with a mate early on a Friday morning and had made a special playlist for the drive. Every road trip with a mate needs a soundtrack right? 

It was my first time heading to the Waikato using the new expressway and while it did take 18 minutes off the journey, I missed the nostalgia of driving through Huntly and Ngaruawahia. 

It took us one hour and 22 minutes to drive the 122km. You don't need to be a genius to work out what the speed limit is on that stretch of road.

As the weather closed in, we arrived at our first destination.

Zealong Tea Estate

Zealong Tea Estate
Zealong Tea Estate Photo credit: Newshub.

While it's popular as a wedding venue and for its high-tea, the estate is also where Zealong grows its product.

In 1996, a man called Vincent Chen attempted to grow the Camellia sinensis plant in the Waikato region, believing conditions were perfect for the tree which produces the traditional Chinese Oolong tea.

Chen was clearly onto something as less than 30 years later, over 1.2 million plants are thriving across the Zealong estate.

We chose the High Tea Experience which begins with a brief history of the Zealong story followed by a ceremonial tea tasting. This is where I learned that tea is more than just a drink. 

Historically, it was a way to relax and take stock, to slow you down and just live in the moment. This wasn't so much a tea drinking experience, it was more about tea appreciation. And, given the traditions and processes that are part of the ceremony, you can easily see how the ceremony would have been used to bring a sense of calmness to someone's day. 

I'd never really thought about the process of tea production, but after learning about its history and the attention to detail that goes into making boutique teas such as Zealong, I feel like my tea drinking experiences will be more relaxing and less "dunk and go" in the future. 

Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

I really wasn't sure what to expect when arriving at the Waikato Museum, but after a friendly welcome and tour from its incredibly passionate staff, it became clear that Te Whare Taonga o Waikato needs to be on everyone's to-do list when visiting Hamilton.

Destination New Zealand: How to have a great weekend in the Waikato
Photo credit: Waikato Museum Te Whare Taonga o Waikato

There's a wide variety of exhibitions as you can see in the Instagram post below. 'Shaping Hamilton Huringa Kirikiriroa' was probably my favourite, with fascinating maps and photos from the early days of the Waikato region.

The museum and neighbouring gallery should be top of the list for anyone interested in the arts. Their selection of paintings has the museum punching above its weight in regards to what they have on display. All of it intertwined telling stories of Aotearoa, both its people and its land.

Good George

The story behind this craft beer brand is simple, as is the story behind its name.

"We wanted to make a beer that was good, and the building we were moving into was the old St George's Church, so you put 'good beer' and 'St George' together and you get Good George," our tour guide said.

His name is Neil, because if you don't you'll hit your head...which I did.
His name is Neil, because if you don't you'll hit your head...which I did. Photo credit: Newshub.

This tour is ideal for those keen on doing something fun before sitting down for dinner, as Good George also serves up some good grub.

With beer in hand, we were taken through the process of how Good George's range of beers are brewed. As the success of the brand continues to grow, the company is finding itself having to take over some surrounding buildings just to keep up. The tour can take about 45 minutes, but can really take as long as you want it to, depending on your interest levels. 

Fans of a home brew could spend an entire day here asking questions. But, regardless of your personal level of interest, make sure you ask about the time everyone in the bar got free beer - all over their clothes, when one of their tanks blew up.

Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari

About an hour's drive from Hamilton is Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari, an entire maunga set up to protect Aotearoa's native trees, birds and wildlife. 

There's hours of hiking to be done on the mountain, which you can do either by yourself or with a guide.

An hour long tour means you won't have too many hills to climb and is probably the easiest option for people not used to hiking through the bush, but longer tours are available.

The mountain has been entirely surrounded by a sophisticated wall that I'm sure Donald Trump would love to emulate. 

This multi-million dollar structure has numerous lines of defense to keep pests out, allowing for the vulnerable native life to thrive.

The kiwi flap door.
The kiwi flap door. Photo credit: Newshub.

Flying, or in some cases walking, through the dense bush are the hihi, kaka, takahe, North Island brown kiwi and kokako.

There's also tuatara, geckos, skinks and the Mahoenui giant wētā - although I wasn't overly keen on finding one of those on the walk.

As for the native bush itself, the tracks guide you through areas that feel entirely enclosed and surrounded by the amazing rata and rimu trees.

Staffed mainly by volunteers, and running on donations, the people here are as passionate about sharing their love for our nature and wildlife as they are about protecting it.

The volunteers' own take on the cat door concept also provided a good laugh before hitting the road again.

Kayak Glow Worm Tour - Lake District Adventures

This experience is so, so, so good that it's worth the drive, even from Auckland on a day trip.

Lake District Adventures is located on the Waikato River, just south of Lake Karapiro, 40 minutes drive from Hamilton; or in our case after relying on the pre-installed GPS unit in the rental car, 65 minutes after it had us backtrack and do a few circles around Piarere.

Destination New Zealand: How to have a great weekend in the Waikato
Photo credit: Newshub.

Once we had our safety briefing (don't fall out), we made our way up a short stretch of the river before heading up the Pokaiwhenua Stream. As the sun began to set, the twilight colours made for breathtaking scenery. This was one of the handful of times I've been on a trip anywhere in the world, looked around at my surroundings and thought, wow. How did I get here?  

We stopped on an embankment and the group chatted about who we were, where we came from and why we had decided to do this lake experience.

Being New Zealand, of course there was a bit of two degrees of separation. One of my fellow group members was not only from my hometown, but worked at the primary school I attended.

Destination New Zealand: How to have a great weekend in the Waikato
Photo credit: Lake District Adventures

Once the sun had completely departed, we did the same. The natural current of the stream meant no paddling was necessary, except for the occasional navigational move to avoid colliding with the other kayaks.

As we drifted down the stream, all we could hear was the gentle water rippling as we slowly carved our way through it. On each side of us were tall embankments ablaze with glow worms. One particular spot was referred to as 'Glow Worm Manhattan' as the twinkling lights rising from the ground, high in the air, resembled the cityscape of New York.

But, as stunning as the glow worms were, I couldn't take my eyes off the stars in the sky.

Destination New Zealand: How to have a great weekend in the Waikato
Photo credit: Newshub.

Aucklanders sometimes forget stars even exist, and I took this opportunity in the middle of darkness to remind myself. I began counting the satellites moving across the sky and the occasional shooting star. If the kayak were a bed, I'd probably have just rested my head and retired for the evening.

Can you tell I loved this place?

The pure beauty of nature on display here should be shown to anyone who dismisses the effects humans are having on the environment, because it's spots like this that will disappear if humans continue to take the planet for granted.

The tour is run by a family-operated business and the guides are friendly, helpful and great at telling century-old stories from the region.

While this is all probably too much for most people to fit into a weekend, it was mission accomplished. Some food and relaxation was required.

Novotel Tainui Hamilton

While being a part of the Novotel chain, the Novotel Tainui Hamilton is owned by local iwi, and that connection to Aotearoa's history and culture shows the moment you walk through the doors.

Destination New Zealand: How to have a great weekend in the Waikato
Photo credit: Accor Hotels

Tainui Group Holdings recently invested $13 million in adding an additional 40 rooms to the hotel, the modern decor of the newer rooms made for a much more modern hotel experience.

As well as the things you'd expect from a large hotel chain such as a good shower and a large TV, the room also had a few additional touches such as a Nespresso coffee machine.

The food and wine selection at the restaurant was also of a great standard. Restaurant on Alma is the name of the hotel's restaurant and its dining room transitions well from day space to dinner venue in the evening.
Photo credit: Accor Hotels

The staff at dinner went out of their way to make sure guests had everything they wanted and needed for an enjoyable evening. However, staff on the breakfast shift appeared to have a lot more on their plate, no pun intended.

With COVID-19 alert level 2 meaning a buffet breakfast wasn't an option, staff were doing a lot of running back and forth; but this was through no fault of their own and the customer service was still great.  

My one bit of advice: if you are wanting a coffee before heading out in the morning, either with or without breakfast, order early and prepare to have to remind staff passing by to check on its status. I had finished breakfast and gotten changed back in my room before my flat white was ready.

Hamilton is positioned well to build on its popularity as a destination in its own right.

Hamilton Gardens.
Hamilton Gardens. Photo credit: Newshub.

Its location couldn't be any better. Just over an hour from Auckland, close to the waters of Raglan, on the doorstep of experiences such as the kayak glow worm tour and Lake Karapiro. And then Tauranga, Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty aren't too far away either.

With experiences this good and passionate people running them, it won't be long before Kirikiriroa climbs up the table of most popular destinations.