Hamilton: Rough diamond

By Lisa Ellis

The lake at Hamilton Gardens. Photo / Supplied
The lake at Hamilton Gardens. Photo / Supplied

Mention you're off to Hamilton for the weekend and you're likely to elicit either sympathy or derision. New Zealand's fourth largest city is better known for farming, Fieldays and fog than classy restaurants, tempting shops and a humming nightlife. But with the World Rowing Championships kicking off on October 30, the Waikato is set to prove it has plenty to offer. Whether you're going to watch the rowers or just fancy a new weekend destination, leave your gumboots at home and pack an extra credit card.

FOOD
* Start the day right with breakfast or brunch at Scotts Epicurean, a favourite among locals and visitors. Good coffee, excellent counter food and a small, but perfectly formed, short-order menu. Their spaghetti aglio olio has a cult following. 181 Victoria St, Hamilton.

* Szechuan Style: A brilliant new addition to the city's plethora of Asian restaurants. Spicy, bold flavours served up in slick surroundings, already a big hit with Hamilton's Chinese student community. Don't leave town without trying their Szechuan-style dumplings or Kung Pow chicken.

24 Collingwood St, Hamilton.

* Chim Choo Ree: Quietly establishing itself as the place to dine in Hamilton, thanks to its innovative food, classy but unpretentious surroundings and exemplary service. If you can't get a table, pull a stool up to the bar and devour rice paper rolls or anchovy toasts. 244 Victoria St, Hamilton.

* Palate: This is a frequent recipient of local eating-out awards and a recent gong at the 2010 Cuisine Restaurant of the Year Awards so it pays to book if you want to sample its classy dishes. 170 Victoria St, Hamilton.

* The Woodbox: There's more to Mystery Creek than an annual tractor display, such as Mystery Creek Wines and this, its acclaimed restaurant. This local favourite is open for lunch and dinner and is well worth the 10-minute drive from Hamilton. Cnr Mystery Creek and Angus Rds, Hamilton.

DRINK
Most of Hamilton's nightlife centres around Hood St (and the nearby southern end of Victoria St). There are many student-friendly booze halls if that's your kind of thing, but you can find plenty of more mature drinking options, too.

* Flow Bar: If you're after live music, this is where it'll be at. Regular drink specials will help you find your dancing feet. 266 Victoria St, Hamilton.

* Gothenburg: This welcoming cafe/bar, run by a Swedish gal and her Kiwi partner, has the best beer list you'll find anywhere. There's Hofbrau on tap and more than 60 bottled beers to choose from, plus a well-chosen wine list. Nibble on Swedish tapas while you drink. 15 Hood St, Hamilton.

* Go Vino: With more than 160 wines to choose from, plus boutique beers and mad scientist molecular cocktails, it's no wonder this is a local favourite. Tapas and DJs complete the mix. 242 Victoria St, Hamilton.

* House: New Zealand craft beers are the order of the day at this refurbished bar with a great outdoor seating area where you can soak up the sun or watch the action. If you fancy something more intimate, pop around the side of the building to the bijou Grand Central bar (but don't tell your mates, it's tiny). 27 Hood St, Hamilton.

* Lido Theatre: Hamilton's newest boutique cinema also boasts one of its most elegant drinking spots. Once inside, the cosy surroundings and sparkling chandeliers will make you forget you're in a cinema above a shopping mall. Then again, where else can you order a Rush Munro icecream to go with your glass of wine? The Balcony, CentrePlace, 501 Victoria St, Hamilton.

SHOP
Massive mall developments in the north of Hamilton are being accused of ripping the heart out of the central shopping district. Generic malls are all very well but these gems show why the city centre is still where it's at for discerning shoppers.

* ArtsPost: Proof there is a thriving arts scene beyond the Bombays. Part gallery, part shop, ArtsPost is just a stone's throw from Waikato Museum. Ever-changing exhibitions give visitors a chance to view (and buy) works by local artists. A good stop for out-of-the-ordinary souvenirs. 120 Victoria St, Hamilton.

* Bird: You'll regret wearing your polar fleece to town when you step into this gorgeous boutique which boasts labels like Velvet, Pearl and Zambesi, plus Awa Jewels and other treasures. Shop 6, Casabella Lane (off Barton St), Hamilton.

* Browsers Quality Secondhand Bookshop: Need something to read while your other half watches the rowing? Walking into this cavernous shop is like stumbling into a Narnia-like wardrobe. It's easy to lose an hour or two leafing through its wares (and there's a sports shop next door if your companions are getting bored). 221 Victoria St, Hamilton.

* Remains To Be Scene: Collectors of all things vintage and retro will love this store and its eclectic mix of pre-loved clothing, accessories, furniture and design curios. Prices are well below what you'd pay in the big smoke. 444 Anglesea St, Hamilton.

* The White Room: A clothes shop so cool that it has its own outpost of Scotts Epicurean, called Scotts on Ward. Oh, and uber-hip pieces by local-label Nyne, Stolen Girlfriends Club, Deadly Ponies and more. 135 Ward St, Hamilton.

PLAY
There's more to do in the Waikato than just watch rowing, racing and rugby - and plenty of space in which to do it.

* Hamilton Gardens: Possibly the best public gardens in New Zealand, bordered on one side by the mighty Waikato river. Hamilton Gardens boasts 58ha of lovingly and creatively cultivated green space - from the Renaissance flourishes of the Italian garden to the lush kitchen gardens bursting with veges. And it's free. Cobham Drive, Hamilton.

* Maungatautari: No pests allowed at this 3400ha ecological "island" on a forested, extinct volcano near Cambridge. Maungatautari, which is encircled by almost 50km of pest-proof fence, is home to an ever-growing population of New Zealand's rarest flora and fauna. Visitors can spend several hours or a whole day walking the reserve's tracks, with guided night visits also available.Visit www.maungatrust.org for more information.

* Robinson Sports Museum and Gardens: Prepare yourself for surprises at every turn at this 3.2ha paradise for active kids, keen gardeners and sports nuts of all ages. Lots of quirky sporting memorabilia to chat about in the onsite boutique brewery and cafe afterwards. 138 Woodside Rd, Newstead, Hamilton.

* Having all that fertile farmland to play with means the Waikato's produce markets are heaving with fresh goodness. Check out the Hamilton Farmers' Market (Sundays, 204 River Rd Hamilton); Cambridge Farmers' Market (Saturdays, Victoria Square, Cambridge); and the Tamahere Market (third Saturday of the month, St Stephen's Church, Tamahere). Crafty types will also love CraftMad (first Sunday of the month, Rototuna Primary School, Hamilton).

* Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park: This 16.9ha haven, which has sprouted from the grounds of a derelict quarry, also hosts sculpture exhibitions such as the current Re:Fraction show of glass works. There's also a cafe where you can rest your weary legs and sate your hungry belly. 207 Scotsman Valley Rd, Hamilton.

- Herald on Sunday

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