Twinkle, twinkle, little star

By Julie Taylor

It doesn't get much more "New Zealand" than the King Country. The region contains the Otorohanga Kiwi House, the country's shearing capital of Te Kuiti, Raglan, Kawhia's fantastic coastline and Te Awamutu, hometown of the musical Finn brothers and the entrepreneurial Tamaki brothers.
Throw in spectacular caves full of bugs with sparkly bottoms in Waitomo and a visit to this most Kiwi of regions becomes a must-do.
Visitors to the area traditionally stop at the Waitomo glowworm caves en route to Rotorua, Taupo or New Plymouth, but there is more to the region than this and even Kiwis who have been there before should stop again for a closer look.
A fire in 2005 destroyed the visitors' centre at the caves, but the centre has come back bigger and better with an open-plan, covered area that takes visitors into the caves and leads them back to the catering and retail section in style.
The caves are impressive, full of stalagmites and stalactites that have taken thousands, if not millions, of years to form. But the stars of the show shine when the lights go out and the boat begins to glide into darkness broken only by the brilliance of the glow-worms.
Boatloads of people are guided silently around the labyrinth of enclosed waterways, their occupants struck dumb by the sheer beauty and scale of this natural wonderland.
An industry has grown up around the caves and the area now offers black-water rafting, horse trekking, Department of Conservation walkways and a growing hospitality sector. The town plans to expand its accommodation and entertainment.
Otorohanga has always been best known for the Kiwi House, but has expanded to promote itself as New Zealand's kiwiana town.

As well as the Kiwiana Display Gallery, it has decked itself out with murals, sculptures and stunning hanging baskets of flowers - even the public toilets get in on the act.
The Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park guarantees all visitors will see a kiwi, so it's a great place to take overseas guests to meet our national treasure.
There are also tuatara and plenty of native plants and birds to give a real feel for the natural New Zealand that exists beyond the townships and cities most visitors see.
The townships themselves are also something of a nostalgia trip for Kiwi travellers. The "main street" shopping districts in the likes of Te Kuiti do feature some national chain stores, but they have retained the character of 1960s-1970s small-town New Zealand.
Just as Ohakune has its giant carrot, Te Puke has its super-sized kiwifruit and Taihape has an XXXL gumboot, Te Kuiti stakes its claim as the world's shearing capital with a 7m statue of a shearer.
The town hosts the annual three-day New Zealand Shearing Championships in March or April, along with its warm-up event, The Great New Zealand Muster - including the New Zealand Shears Running of the Sheep.
Visitors will be surprised by the serenity of the Tatsuno Japanese Garden at the southern end of the main street - a tranquil and attractive piece of Asia tucked into this very Kiwi town.
The beaches along the Raglan-Kawhia coast are spectacular. Raglan is a well-known surf spot, but there are a growing number of other activities, cafes and art and craft shops available in the town, making it a popular destination.
For a different perspective of the black-sand beach, make the three-hour trek to the top of Mount Karioi.
If that sounds too strenuous, the less arduous Bridal Veil/Wairenga Falls walk is also worth the effort, or take your mountain bike along to explore the trails surrounding the town.
For a less physical coastal experience, try digging your own hot pool in Kawhia.
Natural hot springs are exposed from about two hours before low tide - take a spade.
While you are waiting, try horse trekking, a harbour cruise or the famous Kawhia fish 'n' chips.
Time your visit to coincide with the Kawhia Kai Festival held on Waitangi weekend each year.
It's a great opportunity to get a taste for traditional Kiwi kai.

- NORTHERN ADVOCATE

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