Oh, the sneers I had to put up with when I told people I was taking the family to Hamilton for the weekend. Well, you can keep your lei-strewn Fijian islands and your sunscreen-encrusted Gold Coasts. Hamilton gave us everything we needed.
Our trip kicked off in Te Rapa, on the outskirts of Hamilton, where we dropped in on the Donovans cafe (of Donovans Chocolates fame) and indulged in molten hot chocolates. Mine was a chilli one, it had a great kick.
It was a clear, sunny day so we quickly dropped our bags off at the handily located Novotel Hamilton Tainui, off Victoria St, and headed straight outside for a river stroll. I was struck by the beauty of the river and the well-planted walks alongside it, bookended by the Claudelands and Victoria Bridges. The work stresses of the week just rolled off me, as I looked at the water calmly flowing past. You'd never think you were two minutes from bustling Victoria St.
If you are sensing some bias here, I am a Hamilton native. We lived there until I was nearly 7 and then I returned for my third year of university. I felt it was time my kids saw where I went to primary school and where we had lived.
That night we headed out to Barzurk restaurant, two minutes walk away in Victoria St, and recommended by my Waikato tourism contact. It delivered everything she'd promised, great pizzas, and delicious salads.
After a multi-course breakfast at the hotel the next morning - two growing boys and a breakfast buffet is not a pretty sight - we went out into fog-cloaked Hamilton. We started our day at the Waikato Museum. Its 200-year-old carved Maori waka taua, Te Whare Waka o Te Winika, is magnificent. There's some great information on the history of the Maori in Waikato and the importance of the river to the community. The Exscite interactive exhibition was a big hit with the kids, teaching them them the fundamentals of bridge building. The Grain Factory, where you could move the grains along through a series of handles and tipping buckets, was their favourite.
A highlight for me was the nearby ArtsPost Galleries and Shop which had a No.8 Wire art exhibition on, wire cleverly fashioned into sculptures of a hedgehog and a white-tailed spider among others. This annual exhibition ties in with Fieldays. In the shop the mainly local selection of pottery, glassware and ceramics on display was the best I've ever seen in New Zealand.
A beautiful sunny day had emerged from the fog and we hit the road for a tour of family hot-spots. We drove past my old school, Hillcrest Normal, and then out to Matangi to see how our old house looked. It was remarkably unchanged though the neighbourhood was more built-up. The cattle were still grazing across the road though, behind a flimsy electric fence which we used to touch on slow Sunday afternoons.
Coming back into town we stopped at the Hamilton Gardens which was new to us, and phenomenal. For me, the gardens which looked out to the river were my favourites, the Italian Renaissance Garden and the American Modernist Garden. The Kitchen Garden had an excellent display of veges.
Our trip ended with a drive around Hamilton Lake, which was teeming with Hamiltonians, then we headed for Scotts Epicurean in Victoria St. Their pasta dish, the spaghetti aglio olio - parsley, olive oil, chilli and garlic - was out of this world and Mum's cauliflower soup was sublime.
Last stop was Browsers, a huge, well-organised second-hand bookstore, a few shops up. An excellent place to spend a Sunday afternoon. I vow to return.
Hamilton CBD is an easy hour and a half drive from Auckland.
Donovans Cafe, Te Rapa (07) 847 5771.
Novotel Tainui Hamilton, 7 Alma St, Hamilton West 3204, (07) 838 1366.
Barzurk, (07) 834 2363, 250 Victoria St.
Waikato Museum, 1 Grantham St, Hamilton, (07) 838 6606.
ArtsPost Gallery & Shop, 120 Victoria St, (07) 838 6928.
Hamilton Gardens, (07) 838 6782, access Cobham Drive.
Scotts Epicurean, 181 Victoria St, (07) 8396680
Browsers bookshop, 221 Victoria St, (07) 839 1919
Upcoming event: Hamilton River Festival is running for four weeks during the Rugby World Cup starting 10 September.