It’s hugely family friendly and easy to get there - in the family car, by air or even aboard the regional Te Huia train that now connects the Waikato with Downtown Auckland and via Papakura.
The city centre of Hamilton, as well as the region’s colourful towns, make for easy walking, even for little legs, and they’re stroller-friendly too, as are many of the walking trains out in the countryside.
Whether it’s urban adventures that excite your kids, or the great outdoors with water fun, wildlife and nature to explore, there’s plenty of fun to be had in the Waikato - and the kids want to visit again and again.
It’s exciting - and educational - at Hamilton Zoo where there is much to explore and the opportunity to see and learn about the zoo’s wide variety of rare and endangered animals from around the world. Daily ‘meet the keeper’ sessions will have your children enthralled and entertained.
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is a treasure trove of native wildlife and ancient forest that’s as close to the pre-human environment as you’ll find anywhere else in New Zealand. First declared a nature reserve in 1912, Sanctuary Mountain is protected with one of the longest conservation fences in the world. Walking trails weave through the trees and undergrowth and there’s a canopy viewing tower for a birds-eye view of it all. The mountain is home to a variety of birds, bats, frogs, lizards and insects - spot the tuatara anyone, or the weta?
Heading a little further south, you will come to Ōtorohanga, the Kiwiana town of New Zealand. Ōtorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park is home to many of New Zealand’s native birds and reptiles, including our national icon the flightless kiwi. You and the kids will be sure to be intrigued observing kiwis here in one of the best nocturnal viewing facilities in the country. Amongst the other inhabitants to get up close to are tuatara, the last survivors of an order of reptiles that thrived during the age of the dinosaurs. They like to eat beetles, worms and spiders. Celebrating all things Kiwiana, Ōtorohanga will fascinate the kids with a super-sized kiwi made of corrugated iron, large-scale buzzy bees and murals depicting our icons, from Sir Edmund Hilary to ice cream, pies, gumboots, Swandri shirts, kiwifruit and pavlova.
The children - and accompanying adults - are sure to fall in love with the adorable alpacas at Cornerstone Alpaca Stud, a 10-minute drive from Hamilton. You can take Instagram-worthy photos of the kids as they help feed these friendly animals that have their origins in South America and happily live in family groups.
The mighty Waikato River and Lake Karapiro, home of competitive rowing and exciting waka ama racing, ensure plenty of opportunities for a great family day out on the water. If your kids are a bit young yet to paddle their own kayak, there are jet boat trips and leisurely boat cruises.
And if your preference is to enjoy the water but not get into it, there are walkways and cycle tracks that hug the banks of the river and lake, and provide great views with lots of places to stop off for a picnic or refuel at a nearby café.
Note: If you’re going to Karapiro, for some great views and an interesting learning experience, take the kids across Karapiro Dam, constructed in 1947 as part of the hydroelectric power station that still generates electricity today.
Surfing is at the heart of Raglan and visiting tweens and teens can be sure of plenty of fun in the water safely learning some surfing basics from qualified and experienced instructors at Raglan Surf School. Another way to enjoy the water is to hire a kayak and explore the limestone coastline or the nooks and crannies of the harbour. Raglan has a range of family-friendly accommodations and some excellent child-friendly places to eat.
It’s perfect too at Ocean Beach in Kawhia. One of the best kept secrets at this remote beach is being able to dig your own little spa pool to enjoy a soak in the warm water that bubbles up at low tide. Kawhia is rich with history too, being the final resting place of the Tainui waka that brought early Māori to the Waikato region.
Middle-earth Movie Magic
There’s no better place to see first-hand the magic that is the stuff of the middle-earth movies, The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movie trilogies. In the heart of lush green countryside near Matamata is where Hobbiton™ Movie Set is located. Here on a fun - and fact-filled tour you and the kids will see the hobbit holes tucked into the hillside, where Bilbo and Froddo and friends lived, and learn about a significant part of New Zealand’s film history.
Other middle-earth filming locations in the Waikato include Port Waikato, the location of Weathertop Hollow and farmland near Piopio which was the setting for Trollshaw Forest. Underground sounds were recorded in the depths of the Waitomo Caves system.
The Great Outdoors
Fancy going to earth for a while - well, actually under the earth? Among the holiday ideas bound to interest the kids, is the underworld of the Waitomo Caves region. The caves system is almost unreal. It’s been a million years in the making and is like nowhere else. Weird and wonderful stalactites (they hang on tight to the cave ceiling) and stalagmites (which might reach up to the cave ceiling in the future aeons), as well as crystalline formations, decorate the cave interiors. A gentle boat ride will take you under magnificent cave ‘skies’ of twinkling glowworms. Families will also enjoy the Troll Cave tour designed especially for children, but great for all ages.
Above ground you will find family friendly walking trails such as through the native forest to view the tumbling Marokopa Falls and Taitua Arboretum, along with farm parks, farm shows and great dining options.
Just south of the Bombay Hills in northern Waikato is Hampton Downs, the home of motor sport action. As well as watching the pros, there’s the chance to get behind the wheel and race around the track or go go-karting.
To the west of Huntly at Pukemiro Railway Station there’s a dream-come-true for kids - and adults - with a fascination for trains, in this case the old huffing, puffing steam trains and old diesel locomotives that were once a common sight as they hauled freight and passengers around the country. Thanks to dedicated the volunteers of the Bush Tramway Club, on the first Sunday of each month, visitors can ride the Glen Afton Line Heritage Railway aboard restored trains on restored lines. There’s a café at the station offering hot chips, sausages, pies and drinks, as well as plenty of room for family picnics.
Gardens, however beautiful, may not be an obvious choice when planning family things to do in the Waikato. From checking out the geometry of the Italian Renaissance Garden to understanding how Māori raised their food crops in Te Parapara, the only traditional Māori productive garden in the country, we promise, hand on heart, there’s plenty to intrigue at Hamilton Gardens. The Sustainable Backyard garden will naturally strike a chord, with chickens that are moved around to dig and fertilise different beds, a worm farm, composting and a range of fruit trees, berries and more.
At the gardens and at nearby Hamilton Lake there are idyllic spots to enjoy a picnic, buy ice creams, see the birdlife and even walk the dog (on a leash of course).
Across the Waikato are plenty of playgrounds for the younger ones to explore - here’s a handy list of playgrounds
Although a degree of fitness is a prerequisite for some of the great walking and cycling trails to be found throughout the Waikato region, there are walks that are stroller friendly and suitable for energetic youngsters.
Wet days can sometimes be a bit of a challenge when you’re on holiday with children, but luckily the Waikato has the answer in a range of indoor attractions.
SkyCity Hamilton provides hours of family entertainment all under one roof, with tenpin bowling, an escape room and cafes and restaurants to refuel afterwards.
Also in Hamilton there’s Waikato Museum which specialises in making learning fun. Inquisitive children of all ages can spend happy hours in total absorption in the Exscite interactive science gallery. Meanwhile, the changing exhibitions bring the Waikato’s many and varied stories to life, with a focus on the region’s rich culture and engaging hands-on experiences.
Some energy to burn off? Take the kids to an indoor trampoline park, or drive them up the wall at Extreme Edge Hamilton which specialises in child-centred rock climbing, or head for some exhilarating karting on purpose-built indoor tracks at Blastacars Hamilton.
A warm welcome awaits families in the Waikato, the picture-perfect place to make memories for generations to come.