Waikato wonders

By Kate Hughes

The Waitomo Caves were formed two million years ago. Photo / Discover Waitomo
The Waitomo Caves were formed two million years ago. Photo / Discover Waitomo

It's a common sight on an Auckland long weekend or the school holidays - clogged motorways sluggishly pouring cars out of the city towards Rodney, Northland and the Coromandel.

Perhaps, like me, you've wondered about an alternative for the school holidays. What about a break somewhere everyone else you know isn't? For Kiwis, the Waikato region is something of an undiscovered treasure, and gazing at the landscape's verdant colouring, I'd say it's an emerald.

The locals definitely see treasure in them thar hills - Jasons Travel Media has put out its "Locals' Top 5 - Waikato's Best" selection on jasons.com, and here members of Waikato's tourism industry have offered up their own hit list for the region - and it's often what's not in the guidebooks.

The famous subterranean wonders of the Waitomo Caves, 12km northwest of Te Kuiti, is top of the list for Phillipa Adam of Hamilton and Waikato Regional Tourism.

The caves are more than two million years old, and tourists have been enjoying their wonders for the past 100 years.

Stalactites and stalagmites put on a majestic show, as do the caves' myriad glow-worms.

Adam also recommends the bohemian atmosphere of Raglan - home to one of the world's longest left-hand surf breaks - and the west coast. There's also a surfing school that offers daily beginner lessons. On Kawhia Rd, after Te Mata, it's is an easy 10-minute, pushchair-friendly walk along the Pakoka River to the top of the Bridal Veil Waireinga Falls. The view is fine from the top, but agile types can descend to another viewing platform and an outlook that's something special. Then hit the beach again at Kawhia at low tide, dig yourself a hole and soak in the hot water bubbling up from underground.

And what about the kids in the backseat, who have already drained your iPhone battery by the time you reach Mercer, playing games? Ray Mudford, owner of the Comfort Inn Southern Cross Hotel, suggests Candyland in Taupiri. At this children's Valhalla, they can see chocolates made, and can make and take away their own lollipop. During the school holidays, candy-making shows at 10.30am and 1pm will keep them enthralled, right up to blood-sugar saturation point.

The kids will also love Hamilton Zoo, which meanders over 8.5ha, and has a wonderful menagerie of species, including a baby white rhino.

From Matamata, you can catch a guided tour of the Hobbiton movie set from The Lord of the Rings. The rolling green landscape here is Middle Earth come to life, and features some of the original hobbit holes. It's a fascinating outing for children, movie buffs and Tolkien fans of all ages.

At the foot of an extinct volcano between Cambridge, Te Awamutu and Putaruru lies Maungatautari. This 3400ha forest is the protected home of the only two breeding pairs of South Island takahe in the North Island, plus kiwi, kaka and many other native bird, plant and fish species.

The Out In The Styx Guesthouse makes a surprisingly comfortable base for exploring.

After a day tackling the north-south traverse, you'll feel totally deserving of a hot spa, some tasty tucker, and a deep, king-sized sleep, drunk on nothing more than fresh air and virtuous living.

Or take a guided night walk to learn how the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust is restoring indigenous flora and fauna. It's a fenced predator-free environment, so you'll need to leave Rover at home, unless he's a guide dog.

After all this fresh air, you might be ready for some town time. Hamilton's Hood St precinct has a good selection of eateries and watering holes.

There are lots of places to stay, making the city a fantastic jumping-off point for daily jaunts.

For a spot of shopping, the markets at Tamahere and Raglan peddle a good selection of local art and crafty things, including woodwork and flax-ware. There's also plenty of tasty local fare to keep you refreshed.

Having a list is always useful for planning your time in the Waikato but one operator, Gavin Oliver of Milestone Tours, has the best advice of all: Follow the river, and use it as your guide - "you'll find plenty of spots that simply take your breath away".

- NZ Herald

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