Hidden gems: Hamilton

By Colin Hogg

In the third instalment of a four-part series of discovering New Zealand's hidden gems, Colin Hogg finds that although it may be the butt of many a joke, it's actually pretty cool in the Tron.

The Good George Brewing company beckons after a visit to Hamilton's Italian renaissance garden. Photo / Colin Hogg
The Good George Brewing company beckons after a visit to Hamilton's Italian renaissance garden. Photo / Colin Hogg

People, and awful Aucklanders in particular, have been rude about Hamilton for as long as anyone can recall. A whole school of conversation is devoted to ways of driving south and avoiding Hamilton. There are jokes and T-shirts.

People in Hamilton are used to this nonsense. When I tell Aimee at Hamilton Promotion I want to include her place in my series about the towns everyone's rotten about, she knows exactly where I'm coming from, but of course she knows those out-of-towners have got it wrong.

Like everyone I talk to in Hamilton, she loves the place.

It's easier to get to Hamilton from Auckland than it used to be thanks to slick new roading. But a sensitive visitor should be careful about how to approach Hamilton and its endless outskirts, which can rush up on you if care isn't taken as you whizz down State Highway 1.

It's important to enter a difficult destination in the best way possible and the best way to approach the river city is by not crossing the river until you're in town.

So hook a left off SH1 just north of Ngaruawahia on to the back road to Gordonton, which is just a short run from downtown Hamilton. It's worth a stop at Gordonton, which comes these days with an added and unlikely attraction - a 50ha tea estate called Zealong.

You can sit in its tea house amid the rolling plantation of tea plants and sip delicate oolong tea, hand-picked, processed and packed locally. Don't ask for milk and sugar, but do ask for their sampler plate. It's delicious and just the boost you need before encountering the distinct charms of Hamilton.

Like some other of our lonesome towns, it's a bit on the flat side, which can be baffling to visitors. Its major star, the mighty Waikato River, is useless as a landmark, lurking as it does way down below its banks. Hamilton has a more sudden charm when approached from the east and across one of the city's six bridges where you get a good gasp of a glance at the Waikato.

Victoria St is the heart of downtown, shadowing the river with its own river of retail. This is the part of town to be in and I stay in a well-appointed apartment at the Quest on Ward St, just off Victoria.

No need to eat in. There are restaurants all around.

Hamilton is up to its hungry ears in restaurants which, along with bars and clubs, are sprinkled on and off Victoria from Bryce St in the north to Hood St at the south end.

The river demands attention first, though, and you can get a close encounter with New Zealand's Mississippi by taking an amble on the river walkway, under trees and bridges, pondering where you'd get out were you to take a dive and try to swim across the scary snake of a thing. Huntly, with luck.

Back up on Victoria St, the Keystone, with Monteith's beers on tap, is a nice spot to take in the last of the day's sun. Lemongrass House, on Victoria, is one of many good ethnic restaurants, though some locals are still adjusting to all the new tastes.

I hear a woman asking for "the closest thing you have to butter chicken". "This is a Thai restaurant," the owner explains with a smile, "but I think I know what you'd like."

Fortified, next morning, after serious coffee at a funky place across the river called Mavis and Co, I make for Hamilton Gardens, a riverside pleasure park of such proportions you could spend a day wandering and still not find it all.

The best bits I stumbled on were the themed gardens - a Japanese Garden of Contemplation, an Italian Renaissance Garden, an Indian Char Bagh Garden. All quite Alice in Wonderland and a good way to start a day in a strange city.

And Hamilton is a little strange. It's our only major city parked well away from the coast, which may be why it makes Aucklanders nervous.

It is a city built from the richness of Waikato soil and an adventurous visitor could find a serious reminder by driving towards the airport to Mystery Creek and its Agricultural Museum, which these days caters to schools and pre-booked tour groups. It's a bit of a hidden gem, though a large one. I had no idea we invented the rotary milking shed.

But a brewery was calling. It's a new one called Good George Brewing, which is making and selling beer and food in funky style in a converted church in Frankton, Hamilton's industrial zone. Its brewer, Kelly Ryan, learned his craft with the famous indie brewer Epic and he knows his stuff.

At the other end of Hamilton's cultural spectrum is the city's splendid art gallery, which shares a stylish home with the museum on the riverbank at the arty south end of Victoria.

And, on the walk back up Victoria, there's Browser's, a second-hand bookshop that could trap a booklover for hours.

And it's impossible to leave Hamilton without visiting the zoo, which is maybe the country's best, with spider monkeys swinging in real trees and a sizeable wetlands area.

I left town feeling I hadn't seen - or drunk or eaten - the half of Hamilton. Which means I might have to go back. How will I explain that to my Auckland friends?

Next week's Hidden Gem:
Colin Hogg is in Palmerston North

- NZ Herald

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