We left Auckland for a day-trip to Hamilton with our small boy singing in the back of the car. We were catching up with my elderly uncle, so needed an activity and venue that would satisfy all three generations. And burn off someone's energy.
Hamilton Gardens were the agreed choice. Located centrally, the gardens were easy to find and though the parking lot was busy, we soon enough grabbed a spot.
Our boy was out of the car and off, adults in tow. First item of importance was rumbling stomachs, and with the on site cafe, this was easily resolved with scones, panini and chips. Oh and coffee and slice for the adults.
Suitably refreshed, we hit the gardens.
The Hamilton Gardens site has been a Maori pa, British military post, Victorian rifle range and more recently a rubbish dump. Later on, some of the land was given to the Hamilton City Council to be turned into a public gardens, officially opening was in 1960.
The concept for the attraction was developed in the 1980s: 21 themed gardens grouped into five collections, each telling a story.
We covered a fair bit of ground -- following the lead of a certain small person, whose pace was either breakneck running or at a standstill not wanting to leave. Each new garden was his favourite and understandably so.
In the Productive Collection, we discovered the Sustainable Backyard, complete with hen; the Herb Garden with lion statues and plants to fossick in; and Te Parapara Garden, a traditional Maori productive garden which houses impressive carvings.
The Italian Renaissance Garden, complete with bubbling fountain, took my husband and I back to the days of pre-children European travels; while the Indian Char Bagh Garden was arresting in its beauty with bright flowers set against white marble.
The highlight of the Paradise Collection for me was the Japanese Garden of Reflection.
Here, looking across from an Oriental structure, we were enchanted and calmed by a peaceful small lake. On the other side of the building was a Zen garden of large rocks and small stones in swirls.
There were some amusing elements in the Fantasy Collection. The Tudor Garden's maze-shaped hedges with striped poles topped by mythical creatures such as griffin, made for fun viewing; and inside the Chinoiserie Garden, there is a huge red door, adorned with a dragon carving, great for knocking on if you're a toddler.
The gardens in each collection are grouped together, making it easy to see their particular themes, and narrative. In the connecting areas, there are other delights, such as a statue of the Alice in Wonderland characters. These spots make for handy meeting points when members of your party have to race off after runaways.
After all our running around, the little person was fading. This meant we didn't make the Cultivar Collection of floral gardens, or ironically the playground. But for all of us, Hamilton Gardens were an exciting enough playground, proving to be a family-friendly outing, which made visiting gardens fun, even for those without green fingers.
The gardens attract more than a million visitors a year, and after experiencing the various collections, it's easy to see why. The gardens are free, and make either a worthwhile destination or a place to stretch the legs and refresh if you are driving on.
Events are held here throughout the year and the gardens are largely wheelchair, mobility scooter or pushchair accessible.
Need to know
What: Hamilton Gardens, free and suitable for an hour or a day visit.
Where: Hungerford Crescent, Hamilton
Phone: (07) 838 6782
Accessibility: Wheelchair, mobility scooter or pushchair.
Hamilton Festival highlights
• Sunset Symphony - The Trust Waikato Sunset Symphony.
• Teddy Bears Picnic - Performances, story-telling, sports activities, adopt a teddy, face-painting and more.
• Tales by the River - Te Rēhia Theatre Company bring to life Janet Martin's beloved stories.
• Top of the Heap - Circus theatre company The Dust Palace.
• Workshops - Waikato Community Hub hgaf.co.nz
• Dirt and other Delicious Ingredients - a dance theatre work with live music set in a land of spice.
• Cinema - Amelie, Casablanca, Nosferatu The Vampyre.
• David Helfgott - tickets still available.
• Workshops - Waikato Community Hub.
• The Wine Project - live music, theatre and dance.
• Opera at Twilight
• Haiku Hike - Learn haiku, while hiking.
• Backyard Beats - Tomorrow People, The Black Seeds, L.A.B (featuring the KORA Brothers).
• Tom Thum and Jamie MacDowell
• Feast Waikato - Foodie Paradise as Waikato chefs and producers unite.
• Garden Giggles - Live comedy provided by Laugh Club NZ!