It's not everyone's idea of an ideal place to visit, but Elisabeth Easther finds treasures on a trip to Huntly.

While everyone else is whisking the kids off to Kelly Tarlton's these holidays or, if they're lucky, the Gold Coast, why not dare to be different and take the little ones to historic Huntly?

I recently proposed this destination to my family and it was greeted with grumbles and groans, but I talked them round. I even managed to persuade my dad and assorted other relatives to come too.

Perched on the banks of the Waikato River, Huntly has a quaint charm that's not immediately apparent when you bypass at speed. It stands to reason though, a town that can produce those national treasures the Topp twins, should have some serious spirit running through it.

Sited 93km south of Auckland on SH1, (or 35km north of Hamilton) Huntly has most famously been a mining town since the 1870s, so a good place to get your bearings is The Coal Fields Museum on Harlock Street, a mine of information.

The museum is housed in a dear old homestead (circa 1890) that was originally the local mine manager's home, and it's the perfect size for the kids' attention spans; mine too.

There's a fascinating and moving exhibit on the mines, The Nurse's Station is an installation about the town's medical lifeblood and upstairs you'll find re-creations of rooms from traditional miners' cottages. Like a mini Motat, the displays of ancient vacuum cleaners and bedpans most tickled my fancy, and the wee drawers that pulled out to reveal bugs, bile, body parts and bones entertained the younger visitors - who like nothing more than a good gross-out. An enormous (if incongruous) Lego sculpture had the boys in awe.

A hop, skip and a jump from the museum, a few minutes drive along Kimihia Rd, is Lake Hakanoa where the domain was perfect for letting off steam and refuelling with a picnic - pack your own or avail yourself of the plentiful bakeries, cakeries and coffee lounges on Huntly's main drag (on the other side of the tracks). Or go up-market with a sit-down lunch at The Odd Spoon Cafe (151 Main St).

Free parking in the town centre is yet another of Huntly's myriad charms. When we failed to pay and display, 5-year-old Theo was most concerned we might get a ticket.

If you time your visit to Huntly right, you can do the locomotion. On the first Sunday of each month, steam and diesel trains trundle along the tracks (a 5km round trip) at The Bush Railway on Rotowaro Rd. The cost of a ticket ($10) includes unlimited rides, (excepting the jigger) and souvenirs and snacks are available too.

If your party has any more puff, check out the Hakarimata Walk, access off Parker Rd, (five minutes south of Huntly) where you'll find an imposing stand of kauri trees plus other, assorted towering natives. The forest is accessed via a delightful 40-minute meander along well-maintained tracks and steps. There's also a range of longer walks for more energetic treks - up to eight hours if you're keen. The lush bush is a sight to behold and the abundant bird life chirped us on our way. A moderate level of fitness is required.

If time had allowed, we could also have enjoyed a self-guided graveyard tour, (pamphlets can be purchased at the museum) or the Huntly Markets on Friday mornings. There are several pony trek operators in the area, second-hand emporiums, a wild meat shop - but my lot were most eager to end their day south of the Bombays at Waingaro Hot Springs (signposted from Ngaruawahia).

They were exactly as I remembered from childhood -fabulous fun - and these days there are hydroslides, (including NZ's longest hot water slide), bumper boats, a trampoline, a tree hut and an animal park that includes deer - which made we think we must grab some venison from the Wild Meat shop on the way home. The pools are fed by thermal springs so, feeling like snow monkeys, we braved the chilly afternoon air to immerse ourselves in the healing waters.

If you do fancy a break off the beaten track, Huntly and its surrounds are enchanting and, despite initial scepticism from my family, we plan to descend again soon.

The Waikato Coalfields Museum: Is at 26 Harlock Place. Entrance by donation, suggested $2-$5.

Waingaro Hot Springs: Is on Waingaro Rd - follow the signs from Ngaruawahia. Phone 07-825 476. Open 9am-9.30pm. $11 Adults, $6 Children.

Bush Tramway Club: A steam railway with coal and logging locomotives at Pukeiro Junction. $10 adults, $5 children, pre-schoolers free.

Further information: Visit the i:site on Great South Rd, Huntly or take a virtual visit.

* For information on local walks, click here.