When the Waikato comes to mind, visions of cow-crammed paddocks tend to crush the notion that this is a worldly part of the country. But, if you take the time to explore the region, you’ll discover there’s more to it than just dairy.
Saturday: Maungatautari Ecological Island (MEI) is the largest fenced sanctuary in the country and is ringed by a staggering 47 kilometers of pest proof fence. At 3400 hectares, MEI caters for avid trampers who will enjoy 4-5 hour tramps as well as family groups favouring quick trips with lots of action. A good short option is the 30-minute return walk taking in the Viewing Tower (a 16m tower leading you into the tree tops) and the Clearing, where rare takahe roam and kaka nibble on peanuts mere metres away.
Explore the 300 kilometers of tracks and marvel at the effort of a 300 plus volunteer team and 300,000 pest traps. MEI is home to many endangered species such as kiwi, hihi (which come to feed on the sugary supplements at various feeding stations around the Island) and, the newest arrivals, tuatara. The 'Tuatarium', home to twenty tuatara, opened in December and allows visitors to get close-up to our oldest living fossil.
Out in the Styx is the obvious choice for accommodation. Snuggled into the base of Maungatautari, it's the perfect spot to relax after your walk (they even have three outdoor spas) and the food is incredible.
Lance and Mary have been running the place for 17 years and guests are treated to a hearty breakfast, generous hospitality and a four-course dinner, with each course being announced by Lance's train whistle.
The guided night walk at Maungatautari is a hit with nature enthusiasts of all ages (the oldest tour-goer so far was 91). Humble, passionate and well-informed, your guide Phil Brown is well-versed in forest ecology and an avid conversationalist. His keen eye picks out the interesting creatures of the night as you stroll under the cover of 1000 year old rimu and slow-growing nikau.
You'll see river pools filled with the torch-reflected eyes of koura and kokopu, sheets of glowworms, and bizarre insects like vein slugs and pill millipedes. Visit the 'five star weta hotel' bursting with tree weta and you might even spot one of the 40cm (tip to toe) cave wetas. You'll hear the cry of moreporks, and, if you're lucky (and out late enough), the shrill call of a kiwi.
Sunday: Pop into Viand's bakery in sleepy Kihikihi and grab some lunch. Viand's has taken the top prize at the NZ Supreme Pie Awards for the past two years, beating traditional meaty favourites with its delectable fruity pies. You'll find all the usual favourites plus vegetarian options.
Next head to Alphra Lavender, run by the lovely Ian and Bev Parlane. Their lavender farm was set up 15 years ago and it now boasts over spray-free 12,500 plants. During the summer months, these violet strips of lavender evoke the French countryside and the air is heavy with the drone of drowsy bees. Drop by for a free tour of the farm and distillery, or take a picnic lunch and lounge amongst the lavender.
The Parlanes stock three different types of oil and a range of lavender-based products. Bev swears by the curative power of lavender for spots, sweet sleeps (three drops on your pillow) and minor injuries (rub a bit on a cut and it'll soon heal). Their Lavender Mist Spray, a natural bug-repellent, is a hit with eco-families.
The final stop is Zealong Tea Estate in Gordonton. Zealong grows more than just your average tea -it is the sole tea plantation in New Zealand (and the only one on the planet producing tea to food safety standards) plus it is grown organically. Try a cup or two of their world-famous Oolong tea varieties, join the 'Discover Tea Experience' or take a break at the Camelia Tea House overlooking the rows of the plantation, and treat yourself to a beautifully-presented high tea. Bookings are essential.
Waikato is the only part of the country where you can explore traditional Taiwanese tea culture, walk amongst lavender typical of Southern France and get lost in ancient rain forests - and all at less than two hours from Auckland.