Here are some day-tripper suggestions - from Hamilton City with its gardens, eateries, shopping, art and a zoo, to Māori and European history, or hiking or cycling in the great outdoors; or taking the plunge in the Waitomo Caves, or dipping into fantasy at Hobbiton Movie Set; then there’s surf town Raglan, fishing, kayaking and the natural hot water spa you can dig for yourself at Kāwhia Beach.
Option 1: Hamilton - A Class Act
Hamilton, Kirikiriroa is its Māori name, is the fourth largest city in New Zealand and growing pretty fast. It’s in the centre of one of the richest, most productive food growing areas in the world - and the city itself has a special vibe that’s not to be missed.
Here are just some of the experiences awaiting visitors to Hamilton:
- Take a walk or a bike ride along the riverside. With the mighty Waikato River running through the city there are parks and trails threading the banks, including the amphitheatre-style Victoria on the River in the heart of the business district where there’s often music or street theatre entertainment - all overlooked by a dramatic mural depicting a giant soaring kārearea (native falcon).
- Go shopping. Boutique stores are to be discovered throughout the city, including in the European-style Casabella Lane, or in one of the malls - e.g. Centre Place, The Base and Chartwell.
- Be sure to eat. Whether it’s a quick bite, or a more leisurely lunch, there are plenty of palate-pleasers in the city, from fine-dining riverside at Gothenburg to Hayes Common where the atmosphere is neighbourhood and the cuisine creative, to a burger and a beer (try a local craft brew), pizza or pie, or simply coffee and perhaps an ice cream (look for a local like Duck Island). Then, if you’re in town on a Sunday morning, head for Hamilton Farmers’ Market at Claudelands where local growers and producers have plenty to sink your teeth into. Check out dining options in Hamilton
- Spend time at the Waikato Museum. Interactive historical exhibitions and contemporary art are here. Te Winika is the waka taua (war canoe) that makes a welcoming statement and is on permanent display. Nextdoor to the museum is ArtsPost showcasing the best local artists in ever-changing exhibitions.
- Challenge friends and family. It could be a few rounds of ten pin bowling at SkyCity Hamilton's Bowl & Social, or golf - fun at Ice Age Mini Golf in the central city, or perhaps a serious game at the newest course in the country, Tieke Golf Estate near Hamilton Airport.
- Go sky-high. A hot air balloon ride is a magical way to start the day and get a bird’s eye view of Hamilton City, the mighty Waikato River and the surrounding countryside.
- Smell the roses - and other flowers - with a visit to the acclaimed Hamilton Gardens. Themed gardens range from English flowers, modernist, Italian renaissance and Chinese scholar to tropical, picturesque, fantasy, sustainable backyard and the traditional Māori productive garden, Te Parapara.
- Be arty. Hamilton’s thriving arts scene highlights the city’s cultural and creative diversity with, on one hand, dramatic street art in the form of murals and statuary alongside city and private galleries, and on the other, performing arts - again some of it in the streets, but also local and visiting acts and enterainment at a variety of bars, theatres and other venues around town including the Claudelands Arena.
Option 2: Hamilton - Family Fun
For families Hamilton City is a treasure trove of fun - but also informative - experiences.
Check out these family friendly things to do in Hamilton:
- Visit Waikato Museum and explore the interactive exhibitions - some purely entertaining, others a learning experience.
- Go to Hamilton Zoo to see the Sumatran tigers (the matriarch, whose name is Mencari, is now 22 years old - elderly for tigers that have a 15-year life expectancy in the wild), chimpanzees and white rhinos, along with a huge range of other animals - some 400 in total.
- Picnic at Hamilton Gardens. These beautiful, designerly gardens welcome the kids with a special garden playground that will intrigue with games and puzzles aimed at fun discovery and learning. When it comes time to refuel the young ones, there’s a café or plenty of places to have a family picnic.
- Take a walk or go for a bike ride. Around the city there are gentle jaunts on well laid out paths, including through parks and the Te Awa River Ride which hugs the Waikato River as you pedal through the city. Check out the Hamilton City page in the Waikato’s Best Cycle Trails for Families guide.
- Cool off at Waterworld. There’s a diving pool, a hydroslide and a choice of indoor and outdoor pools suited to different age groups, along with a barbecue area, picnic spots and café.
- To finish off the day with a bit of family fun and team challenge, check out SkyCity’s ten pin bowling accompanied by family-friendly dining.
Option 3: North Waikato
Significant in both Māori and European history, the North Waikato region honours its human and natural heritage with a range of experiences suited to day trips.
Here are some things to do in North Waikato ideas:
- Take a hike in Hakarimata Scenic Reserve, near Ngāruawāhia. Stand next to the towering silence of the largest kauri trees in the Waikato. It’s a two-hour loop from the carpark to the kauri grove and return. There are other longer hiking trails in the reserve too.
- Journey beneath the earth. Not as well-known as the caves in the Waitomo region further south, the Nikau Caves are the best place close to Auckland to go caving and see limestone formations and glowworms. The caves are about 90 minutes’ drive from Auckland and make for a great day trip experience for family groups, social clubs, team building exercises or just with your friends.
- Picnic on the shoreline or go for a stroll around Lake Hakanoa in Huntly. This body of water and surrounds have been restored by local residents with support from Waikato District Council. The 45-minute walk takes you through 13 different garden zones.
- Take tea or coffee and history at Rangiriri Heritage Centre. The centre, which also doubles as a tea room, honours the history of the area which visitors can learn about in a video documenting the Waikato wars fought in the area. You can also visit a partly preserved fortification from the battle fought there in 1863.
- Enjoy the race action, or take the wheel yourself, at Hampton Downs Motorsport Park. Nearby is New Zealand’s number one drag strip, the Meremere Dragway, where there’s competition of one kind or another many weekends, as well as the regular thrills at Huntly International Speedway.
- Follow the Waikato War with the driving tour app. This mobile app provides GPS linked maps of the 13 sites of significance in the 1863-1864 Waikato War. Today, you can find haunting remnants in the hills, gullies and riverbanks throughout the Waikato.
- Visit historic Woodlands Estate. Near Gordonton, Woodlands is registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust and the New Zealand Gardens Trust. You can stroll through the gardens, which feature many old trees, as well as tour the homestead, built in the 1870s, and have lunch at the café that looks out over the English-inspired cricket oval.
- Indulge in high tea at Zealong Tea Estate - or picnic under the trees overlooking the plantation. On the northern outskirts of Hamilton, this is the only tea estate of its kind in New Zealand and where you can learn about how the oolong tea is grown and harvested.
Option 4: Hobbiton Movie Set, Matamata & Surrounds
The green pastures, rolling hills and rocky outcrops that make up the rural landscape surrounding the Waikato town of Matamata provided the natural setting for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit trilogies. As well as a visit to Hobbiton Movie Set, you can learn about the agricultural legacy of this rich farming region, visit horse studs that breed champion thoroughbreds and go for a hike to witness spectacular waterfalls.
Suggested activities in Matamata:
- Tour Hobbiton Movie Set to hear behind-the-scenes stories about how Sir Peter Jackson chose this site on the Alexander family sheep farm and the construction of the set, including the charming Hobbit holes/houses. You can time your visit for the Second Breakfast Tour, or the Mid-Winter Feast or even International Hobbit Day. Here’s where they are drinking beer too. Locally crafted, the Hobbit Southfarthing beers are served year round at the Green Dragon Inn and celebrated with a special festival. For dates and further details go to Hobbiton™ Movie Set Tours (hobbitontours.com)
- Take a guided tour at one of the many thoroughbred horse studs in the area. Tours are by appointment, unless there’s an open day, so call the stud of your choice first. Leading thoroughbred racing studs in the area include Waikato Stud, Mapperley, Valachi Downs and Wexford, all proud breeders of winners.
- Visit the Firth Tower Museum. One of New Zealand’s largest documentations of farming history, this museum gives insights into the pioneering days of the Matamata district, which is today one of New Zealand’s major dairy farming regions thanks to its rich soils and temperate climate.
- Walk to the base or to the top of Wairere Falls, located about 10 minutes’ drive from Matamata on the western side of Kaimai Mamaku Conservation Park. At 153 metres, Wairere Falls are the highest in the North Island. From the carpark on Goodwin Road a well maintained track leads to the base of the falls; about 90 minutes roundtrip. If you’re up for a longer climb that's steep with plenty of steps, there is another lookout at the top of the falls with rewarding views of the falls, back over the valley and the Waikato plains beyond.
Option 5: Waitomo & Surrounds
From floating on a subterranean stream under a starry canopy of glowworms to plunging into the cavernous depths on an abseil rope, there are many belowground experiences for visitors in the Waitomo Caves region. Above ground has plenty to offer too, making for a great day out - or a longer stay - in this area an hour south of Hamilton.
Here are some things to do in Waitomo:
- Take a tour of the world famous Waitomo glowworm caves – this experience includes gliding in a boat on the underground stream with many thousands of glowworms sparkling overhead.
- Try the excitement of blackwater rafting. Don a wetsuit and helmet and climb into your ‘raft’ - a buoyant inflated inner tube - to float, jump and climb your way through the cave streams.
- Abseil, zipline, and tackle high rope work on one of the many other caving tours offered by various companies.
- For good coffee and lunch, try one of the Waitomo area cafés, or how about a picnic at one of the many scenic spots?
- Walk to the Mangapohue Natural Bridge - the track is OK for pushchairs - to discover the fossilised remains of oysters in the limestone outcrops.
- Said to be one of the most beautiful in the country, the Marokopa Falls are a sight to be seen. An easy walk through nikau palms and towering tōtara trees takes you to a viewing platform; 20 minutes roundtrip from the carpark.
- The best place to see New Zealand’s iconic bird, the kiwi, is at Ōtorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park. This family friendly, not for profit wildlife and conservation centre shows the nocturnal kiwi in specially designed moonlit houses. Ponds, wetland areas and dedicated aviaries show other native birds, most of them rare and many on the endangered list. Most recently the park has added a special breeding laboratory for the rare giant wētā indigenous to the nearby Mahoenui area. A ‘living’ building is being constructed too - one that is designed to deliver energy to the national grid, provide and retain all three waters (drinking, storm and wastewater) on site, and contain no Red List building materials with the entire construction being able to be recycled or composted at end of its life.
- Take a Hairy Feet Waitomo tour to check out the dramatic limestone outcrops where The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was filmed.
Option 6: Raglan
The rugged beauty of the Waikato region’s west coastline makes for the perfect day (or a longer stay), never mind the season of the year. Known as a hot summer surf spot, the beach community of Raglan, also known as Whāingaroa, is also a hub for anyone artistic and eco-minded. There are fun experiences here and in the surrounding area for everyone.
Suggested activities in Raglan:
- Hang 10 at Raglan Surf School - there are lessons designed for the kids and for adults.
- Or SUP - there are stand up paddleboard lessons available too.
- Or kayak. Either BYO or hire one for a paddle around the harbour. Be sure to check out Raglan’s pancake rock formations on the way.
- Another popular way to get out on the water and explore the harbour is to take a cruise, either during the day or to witness the sunset.
- Browse the local artist shops throughout the town.
- Down on the wharf there’s the studio-come-store of master potter Tony Sly. Four decades ago he first put his hand to clay and says it was love at first sight.
- Dine in local cafes.
- Head to the main beach to cool off.
- Enjoy some fish and chips, lemony mayo or tomato sauce on the side.
- Go fishing and catch dinner.
- Take a walk to the 55m high Bridal Veil Falls.
- Bike the Te Uku Wind Farm track, turbines flipping overhead.