Waitomo’s glorious glowworm caves are just an hour south of Hamilton. With a Maori name that can be translated as ‘the stream which flows into the ground’ (with ‘wai’ meaning water, and tomo being ‘a hole into the ground’), Waitomo is characterised by its rolling hills, unspoiled greenery and a network of subterranean limestone caverns that have been around for millennia. A scenic underground cruise is the best way to see the glowworms. If you’re looking for an adventurous thrill, the area is also a great spot for caving, abseiling and black water rafting.
Tolkien fans won’t want to miss visiting Hobbiton. A 45-minute drive will transport you into Peter Jackson’s rendition of Middle Earth. Bus coaches regularly depart from Hamilton into the movie set too. A tour of this lush Kaimai Ranges location will guide you along 12 acres of magic, which consists of Hobbit holes, the Mill and the World Dragon Inn. Those who want to ramp up their Lord of the Rings experience should also consider exploring some of the other filming locations around the Waikato region, including the Weather Drop Hollow, near Port Waikato, and Trollshow Forest which was brought to life by rugged Piopio farm near Waitomo.
Raglan is a beachside town 48 kilometres (29.8 miles) west of Hamilton. It is a summer hot spot for surfers who are drawn by its consistent breaks and swells. Ngarunui (Ocean) beach is a good practice spot for less experienced surfers, while Manu Bay, Whale Bay and Ruapuke offer a challenge for seasoned veterans. Raglan also has an artsy flair to it, with its landscapes and natural surroundings inspiring many paintings, photography projects and local exhibitions. In fact, the Raglan Arts Weekend, held every January on the town’s Anniversary Day, was set up to celebrate this local surge in creativity.
Cambridge is a small town situated within a 30-minute drive from Hamilton. It is locally known as ‘the town of champions’, because it has produced many sporting superstars along the years – including Sir Mark Todd (winner of five Olympic medals in equestrianism), Sarah Ulmer (a world champion cyclist), Joelle King (a squash champion) and the legendary rugby player Colin Meads. An interesting blend of old English charm, flourishing forests and rural pastures add to Cambridge’s appeal. A series of heritage walks and a burgeoning network of cycling trails enable visitors to revel in the town’s interesting landscape.
Tirau is a small rural Waikato town 50 kilometres (31.1 miles) southeast of Hamilton. Don’t let its size deceive you though, the town is quite famous for its collection of grandiose attractions. The local i-Site Visitor Centre is housed in a corrugated iron building shaped like a big dog, while a pair of massive sheep look after the town’s wool and craft shop. Other local gems to check out include the Castle Pamela, where you’ll find New Zealand’s largest toy, doll and train collection; and the Tirau Museum, which boasts an array of vintage cars, military memorabilia and an assorted collection of antiques.
Putaruru sits on the Oraka river, 65 kilometres (40.4 miles) south-east of Hamilton. Over the years, the town has earned international attention because of its picturesque Blue Spring, where much of New Zealand’s bottled water comes from. Te Waihou Walkway is the gateway for seeing this natural attraction – the 4.7 kilometre (2.9-mile) one-way trail offers a mix of smooth-sailing sections and steeper surfaces, lined by lush native wetlands and adorned by small waterfalls along the way.
Otorohanga, approximately 45 minutes from Hamilton, is locally known as the Kiwiana Town – basically, a place that encapsulates all things related to the New Zealand sense of identity. The Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Park is its most famous must-do, showcasing the country’s best renowned bird specie as well as a myriad of other native wildlife. The town’s Sir Edmund Hillary walkway is where you’ll get to see its largest collection of cultural icons, including the Buzzy Bee, a large kiwi sculpture, some Number 8 Wire (a symbol of Kiwi ingenuity) and food staples like the pavlova, Marmite and Wheetbix.
If you like your heritage and history, the Waikato War Driving Tour is a good way to get familiar with the battle sites in the area. Its starting point, interestingly enough, is Highwic in Auckland. It takes approximately an hour-and-a-half to drive in from Hamilton. The journey then follows on to focus on the Waikato region, sweeping past the Bombay Hills to Whangamarino, Rangiriri and Ngaruawahia, before heading into Orakau, Pirongia and King Country. The Waikato War took place from 1863-1864 and was fought between British forces and the supporters of the Kingitanga movement.