In this series, we follow Peter Dragicevich around the country as he searches out the top spots for a pit-stop on a classic Kiwi road trip. In Matamata he mostly leaves the hobbits alone.
It must be at least a little galling for a town with a proud history of raising thoroughbreds, sports stars and governors-general now to be most famous for hosting hobbits. Spare a thought for Dame Patsy and the late Dame Cath, champion jockeys Lance O'Sullivan and Shane Dye, Silver Ferns legend Casey Kopua and Rugby Sevens star Tim Mikkelson, having to shuffle down the Matamata Hall of Fame to accommodate the likes of the Bagginses, Gamgees and "that fool of a Took".
The point of this pit-stop series is to highlight towns that aren't really tourist destinations in their own right but nonetheless make excellent options for breaking up a road trip. You could argue that the presence of the Hobbiton movie set on a farm 15km southwest of town puts Matamata on the edge of being too touristy for this list but, when it comes to Kiwi road trippers at least, most of us are just passing through. And that's because Matamata sits on the quickest route between our first and fifth-biggest cities, Auckland and Tauranga. If you're coming from Auckland the town hovers at around the two-hour mark, with a further 45 minutes between here and the big smoke of the Bay of Plenty.
The name Matamata (meaning "headland") was taken from an important Ngāti Hauā pā positioned on an outcrop above some wetlands near the present-day settlement of Waharoa, 7km to the north. In 1865 Yorkshire-born businessman Josiah Firth leased a large tract of land from esteemed Ngāti Hauā chief Wiremu Tamihana (known as "the kingmaker" for his role in the foundation of the Kingitanga) and established a farm where the town now stands.
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Firth was an enterprising chap, although not without controversy. Upon Tamihana's death in 1866 he erected a stone obelisk, ostensibly in Tamihana's honour, with an inscription claiming that the chief's will allowed Firth to remain on the land for as long as he liked. As well as rubbing shoulders with King Pōtatau Te Wherowhero and his successor, King Tāwhiao, Firth briefly became the wartime emissary between Te Kooti and the New Zealand Government at the peak of their hostilities.
Besides being well connected, Firth clearly had a liking for the grandiose in the form of castellated towers. He erected one in 1873 at his house on the lower slopes of Auckland's Maungawhau (which is still standing at 11 Castle Drive, Epsom) and another in 1882 next to his Matamata farmstead. Although the Matamata house burnt down long ago, the 16m-high reinforced-concrete tower remains and is now the centrepiece of the Firth Tower Museum alongside a relocated chapel, schoolhouse, gaol and settlers' cottage, all set within pretty grounds.
Today Matamata is one of those leafy, horsey towns that this part of the Waikato does so well – a slightly lower-rent Cambridge, if you will. Magnificent mature trees still line the major thoroughfares, despite the felling of an impressive avenue of 70-year-old phoenix palms late last year.
However, the arboreally inclined will still find lots to love in one of Matamata's lesser-known delights: the 1km-long, 40m-wide strip of parkland known as Centennial Drive. Originally planted in 1939 to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the Treaty of Waitangi, it's a lovely place to get out of the car and stretch your legs under the shade of mature oaks, cedars, Japanese maples, American tulip trees, kauri, rimu, tōtara and miro.
First things first, though – is there anywhere good to eat? On the food front, Matamata doesn't disappoint. In fact, the town's been our favoured Waikato lunch stop ever since Sid Workman opened his retro-styled Workmans Cafe & Bar here in the late 1990s. Although there are now quirky cafes serving barista-quality coffee and interesting food in small towns the length and breadth of the motu, this wasn't always the case. Workmans – with its vintage radios adorning the walls and eclectic all-day menu – was a Waikato trailblazer and it's still going strong.
However, competition is stiff these days and we'd also rate The Redoubt Bar & Eatery for its family-friendly pub vibe and Tolkien-themed pizza (although if "Frodo's Secret" really is pineapple on pizza, the fires of Mt Doom are an appropriate destination for it). Other good options include Osteria, Smart India, Fez Kebab, 64 Coffee & Kitchen and Memento Espresso. Matamata even has a craft beer pub nowadays in the form of Good Merchant, serving the product of Hamilton's Good George brewery.
Second breakfast sorted, there should still be time for the obligatory photos in front of the "Welcome to Hobbiton" sign and the cutesy Shire-styled i-SITE information centre before you hit the road again.
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