Alexia Santamaria finds there is more than enough to keep both parents and kids happy on a day trip to Hamilton.
Poor old Hamilton. It certainly gets some stick, especially from those north of the Bombays. But when we took our two young kids there for the day, it was hard to see why anyone should give it a hard time. The kids came back raving and we really enjoyed our day in the Waikato too.
We started out with a trip to Candyland. I haven't been there for years and when we first entered, I did have my doubts. Michele Coker, daughter of the original Candymaker is in the process of sprucing the place up but some parts still look a bit tired as they patiently await their makeover. Don't let that put you off though, it is worth a stop for the show, and kids couldn't care less about decor.
We saw a chocolate-making show and a candy-making demonstration and both were fascinating and interactive. We witnessed the choc-coating machines in action and our kids got to help make a chocolate egg. The candy demonstration consisted of watching a big striped lollipop being made -from clear syrup through colouring, pulling, stretching and cutting. Once the stripes had been put in, we were given sticks and the log of sweet and we were able to curl it round into whatever shape and insert the stick ourselves (not as easy as it looks).
The guides were great with kids and we learned a lot too. It was charming to witness an old-fashioned sugar artisan as I imagine most sweet-making is automated these days. And there was generous sampling to be had - much to everyone's delight, including adults.
Despite having filled up on sweets we thought the kids should really have something vaguely nutritious in their day. We had been recommended the Verandah Cafe as a child-friendly venue. No kidding! This place was a haven for parents of young kids, with nice cafe food (and wine, even better) and a back deck that opens up on to Hamilton Lake Domain.
The kids could run around all they wanted in the abundance of green space, play on one of the four big playgrounds or sit by the water and watch the ducks. The food was good - especially my salmon with harissa yoghurt sauce - and the kids' meals were generous and tasty. We would definitely go back.
Our last stop was the Hamilton Miniature Railway - a huge highlight for our train-mad boys. It was quite a modern operation, as these things go, with two routes - one 850m and the other 1300.
We've been on a few of these things now and this one was great - an enjoyable ride, ducking through bush, over bridges and through tunnels. It's run by the Hamilton Model Engineers club, people with a huge passion for all things railway. It was a pretty difficult extracting the kids from this train heaven.
Several private owners also bring their trains out in the weekend and there were some lovely old mini steam trains chuffing round too. There is quite a large expanse of grass around and if we hadn't eaten so much already, it would have been a great picnic spot.
We headed back in the late afternoon, much to the protest of our little travellers. "When can we go back to Hamilton again?" was the tired cry from the back of the car as we drove back past the river and parks of this pretty city. If you've got little kids, Hamilton is a good day trip and a great reality check for those who may have been guilty of undue judgment in the past.
Candyland: 75 Henry Rd, Taupiri, ph (07) 824 6818.
The Verandah Cafe and Function Centre: Hamilton Lake Domain, off Ruakiwi Rd, ph (07) 838 9975.
Hamilton Model Engineers: End of Tui Ave, Forest Lake, Hamilton, ph (07) 849 7215 (Not after 7pm please) or text (021) 0226 5163 or (021) 103 8999 to check running times.