Waikato: It's a cruisy life in Hamilton

Elisabeth Easther revisited her hometown for a refreshing outdoor experience

The Italian Renaissance garden at the Hamilton Gardens.
The Italian Renaissance garden at the Hamilton Gardens.

Waikato riverboat cruising goes from Hamilton to The Narrows, providing a fresh perspective on the city and its outer reaches. The Italian Renaissance Garden within Hamilton Gardens.

Mocking Hamilton is so passe. I am Hamilton born and bred, and have never knocked the place.

Now, following my most recent trip to the Tron (dumb name, by the way), I feel the urge, more than ever, to stand up and cheer for the Waikato's capital city.

Every single visitor to Hamilton agrees that the Hamilton Gardens are wonderful. Established in 1960, they grow more extraordinary every year, and that's saying something.

In the 70s, when I was a child, having one's young thighs scalded there, while posing for photos on the bronze Little Bull, was a rite of passage. Today's visitors, by comparison, get a much better deal; we are blown away by the outstanding gardens, the first of the fantasy gardens planted in 1992.

Focusing on garden design rather than botanical science, the four riverside acres include a Chinese Scholars' Garden, a Japanese Garden of Contemplation and, perennial favourites, the Indian and Italian gardens, the latter strewn with fallen chestnuts.

We coaxed a few brown fruits from their prickly packages, saving them for winter fires, which have recently been lit in earnest. Beware the kitchen and herb gardens though, they'll have you reaching for your secateurs, which I'm sure isn't allowed, but you can't help thinking about it.

And make sure your stop includes a rest at The Gardens Cafe, overlooking the picturesque Turtle Lake. Recently refurbished, the cafe is now run by the people who started Pumice (on Church St), one of my favourite Hamilton eating joints.

Running alongside this horticultural wonder is the Waikato River, the country's longest where, of a weekend, visitors can take a cruise on the Waikato River Explorer. The handy sign in the Hamilton Gardens car park pointing to the jetty meant it couldn't have been easier to hop on board. Motoring up-river towards Cambridge, the riverboat is a neat way to get a fresh perspective on the city and its outer limits (we went as far as The Narrows).

Skipper Darren's many years in radio are immediately apparent, his voice mellifluous and very easy on the ear. His commentary is clever, informative and just the right balance of fun facts and history.

He pointed out the nesting places of rare, long-tailed bats: these tiny things weigh just 8-11g, but have a home range of about 100km, which is pretty impressive. He also indicated stands of alder trees, which have been used to make electric guitars since the 1950s. We heard interesting stories about the many species of fish that call the Waikato River home, and had a good old gander at some of the stately homes that line the river's banks, sparking a bit of house envy in some of us. There are some pretty flash pads, and a few For Sale signs facing the river, if you fancy making Hamilton home.

As for the food on board our lunch cruise, it pleased the palates of my son (7) and my father (85); hearty soup, great sandwiches and hot savories, with hummingbird cake and fruit to finish off.

The caterers are an outfit called Stellar, which also feed visiting rock stars - we were told most recently they tantalised the taste buds of Steven Tyler and Aerosmith. And there's a fully licensed bar, too.

Everything about this riverside city is elegant, fresh and tasty, so hooray for Hamilton, I think you'refab.


City highs

The River Cruise: 0800 1EXPLORER. waikatoexplorer.co.nz Winter hours: Saturday and Sunday 12.30pm and 2.30pm; charter options are available any day if you've enough people.

Hamilton Gardens: Cobham Drive, Hamilton East. hamiltongardens.co.nz


Elisabeth was a guest of Waikato River Explorer.

- NZ Herald

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