The upper North Island region of Waikato was named after the longest river in New Zealand. Surrounded by rural landscapes, lush forests, and interesting towns and cities, this is an area offering a trove of great attractions. From urban must-sees to active must-dos, here are 20 local gems everyone should visit.
If you’re a die-hard Tolkien fan, the Hobbiton movie set in Matamata needs no introduction. A quick drive from Auckland or Hamilton is all it takes to access this wonderful recreation of Middle Earth, where you’ll get to see the original Hobbit holes that were used in the making of the films.
The Waitomo Caves has everything you could ask for – adventurous activities like caving, canyoning and rafting, as well as a relaxed underground cruise along its famous glowworm-lit, limestone-lined caverns. Out of all of New Zealand’s glowworm grottos, these subterranean marvels are the most accessible. They are located on the North Island within a short drive of major cities like Auckland and Hamilton.
The Hamilton Gardens’ unique concept – which is closer to a garden-based history exhibit than a botanic garden in the strictest of terms – entices nature lovers of all kinds to delve into its magnificent public parkland. Here, you’ll find a collection of garden traditions from all over the world, as well as a showcase of traditional Maori cultivation methods and ceremonial practices.
Also known by the Maori name Waireinga, the Bridal Veil Falls is a plunge waterfall located within easy reach of the popular beach town of Raglan. A quick walk up a well-formed track will give you a glimpse of this majestic cascade in all its 55-metre glory.
With an impressive 153-metre drop over two tiers, the Wairere Falls is the tallest in the North Island. A walking track through the lush Kaimai Ranges, between the towns of Te Aroha and Matamata, will unveil this waterfall’s finest features. While you’re exploring the surrounds, make sure to take time to admire the smaller cascades and streams you’ll encounter along the way.
In recent years, Te Waihou Walkway has seen a surge in popularity because of the beautiful bright blue coloured springs that run alongside. The aptly-named Blue Spring’s water is renowned for its purity – so much so, that this is one of the main sources for bottled water in New Zealand.
The Waikato is New Zealand’s longest river: it runs through 425 kilometres (264 miles) of the North Island, rising in the eastern slopes of Mt Ruapehu and emptying into the Tasman Sea at Port Waikato just south of Auckland. Walking and cycling are the best ways to get the most from this mighty regional attraction – the Waikato River Trails, for instance, is a shared walk and cycleway that contours the entire length of the river.
Lake Taupo lies right in the midst of Waikato River, and is New Zealand’s largest lake by surface. It sits in the caldera of the Taupo Volcano, and is a travel hot-spot in the warmer months. Along with being the ideal place to get involved in watersports, Lake Taupo is a popular destination in New Zealand for bungy jumping.
Raglan is a town famous for its coastal treasures and awesome surf breaks. Ngarunui, with its rugged shorelines and turbulent waves, is a picturesque beach that is particularly attractive to experienced surfers. The beach is also a popular spot for swimming and fishing in the sunny summer season.
Sometimes referred to as Te Puia Springs, this is the town of Kawhia’s best kept secret: a largely-secluded beach with its own, natural, hot water spa. Start with a dip in the cool Pacific Ocean, and finish things off by digging a hole in the sand to enjoy the reinvigorating warm waters.
As its name suggests, Otorohanga Kiwi House is a must-visit for anyone wanting to see New Zealand’s most famous native bird up close, as well as a number of other avian species. But there’s more to this place than flying creatures: New Zealand longfin eels and unique native reptiles like the tuatara and green tree gecko are also accounted for.
While we’re on the topic of wildlife, Hamilton Zoo is another regional gem that all animal lovers should have on their radar. Along with housing more than 600 native and exotic animals, the zoo hosts free ‘Meet the Zookeeper’ talks every day of the week to educate its visitors about wildlife and conservation at large – sometimes these even involve an animal feeding session.
Mokena Geyser is located in Te Aroha and the only natural soda water geyser in the world. It is named after Mokena Hau, the Maori chief who once owned the land in which the geyser resides. While a steep path in Te Aroha Domain is its main point of access, there’s also a wheelchair – and pushchair – friendly path you can amble along to reach it.
The Arapuni Swing Bridge stretches across a bush-lined gorge as it connects to the Arapuni Dam. It was built in the 1920s and is currently one of the highlights of the epic multi-day Waikato River Trails cycling route.
Pirongia Forest Park is the largest forested area close to Hamilton. It comprises a large variety of plants and animal species, and the area is home to several walking tracks, plus its namesake Mt Pirongia and the stunning Kaniwhaniwha Caves.
The Waikato region has plenty of history to share. Ongarue, for instance, is renowned for its largely unchanged tramway and spiral. Formerly used to transport felled timber out of Pureora Forest Park, the Ongarue tramway is now a place to appreciate the surrounding bush, stream crossings and spectacular man-made tunnels and bridges showcasing the area’s past.
Maungatautari is an eroded andesitic volcano near the Waikato town of Cambridge. It is also the site of one of New Zealand’s most significant ecological restoration projects, known as Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. The sanctuary relies on three fenced enclosures to house and protect the native flora and fauna that have been brought into it. Visitors can take guided tours of the area and explore the various walking tracks in its vicinity.
The remarkable rocky formations that make up the Mangapohue Natural Bridge, near Waitomo, are bound to amaze all passing travellers. Along with being a great place to get your hiking fix, the bridge consists of a 17-metre (55.8-foot) limestone arch – the remnants of an ancient cave system.
The Kaimai-Mamaku Forest is a forested area composed of several mountain ranges, that divide the Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions. Mount Te Aroha is its highest point, as well as being one of the key access points to the forest park on the Waikato side. A series of short walks and challenging hikes around Mt Te Aroha offer a good glimpse of the Kaimai-Mamaku ranges’ beautiful wetlands, rivers and historic sites.
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