Tess Nichol is pleasantly surprised to find generous cheesemakers, proud beermakers and inspiring gardens in Hamilton.

Hamilton. The Tron. Once billed as the "City of the Future".

Over the years, other slogans have been tried — "Hamilton, where it's happening" and the sheepishly unassuming "Hamilton, more than you expect".

It's one of our biggest cities, but Hamilton's reputation precedes it, and not in a good way.

So, how deserved is Hamilton's reputation for being, not to put too fine a point on it, a bit of a hole.


After 48 hours there, I feel confident saying the stories of Hamilton's dearth have been greatly exaggerated.

My friend and I spent two nights in Hamilton's Clarion Suites Ambassador, the superior end of accommodation offered at the Ambassador Hotel.

The ArtPost gallery in Hamilton.
The ArtPost gallery in Hamilton.

The place comes with an excellent $5 happy-hour deal, lovely staff and a hot tub made of actual wood. Great stuff.

We check in on Saturday afternoon, weary after our arduous two-hour drive from Auckland. The spacious suite is a welcome sight.

A kitchenette featuring a mini stove, oven, dishwasher and breakfast bar, complete with stools, is ideal for someone stopping by for a week on business.

But our attention was caught by the two very comfy twin beds nestled down the other end of the apartment, near a window which unfortunately only offers views of the BP forecourt next door.

Luckily there's a flat-screen TV to watch instead, from the comfort of bed.

First item on our itinerary is FermentFest, a Waikato District beer-and-cheese event at SkyCity.


We set off at a gentle pace, walking through town and along the banks of the mighty Waikato River. At first, the walk seems to confirm my snobbish prejudices. Where are all the people?

It's a Saturday afternoon and not a single shop is open, including a few cafes that look like they'd actually be pretty hip if we had the chance to go in.

But when we take the stairs up from the bottom of SkyCity's carpark and enter the foyer where FermentFest is held, a whole new world is revealed.

People — people everywhere!

This is the cool thing about Hamilton — it may be operating on a smaller scale than Auckland, but what is going on is buzzing and vibrant.

FermentFest features a bunch of local cheese and beermakers offering samples of their products.

There's more cheese than you can shake a stick at and the friendly cheesemakers didn't even get cross when we went back for our third sample of soft goat's cheese without buying any.

Milling around are a lot of young families — the kinds where the dads have manicured beards and the mums have lots of cool-looking tattoos — and a fair few clusters of artsy-types too.

Good George brewery and bar in Hamilton.
Good George brewery and bar in Hamilton.

A couple of beer tastings put me and my pal in the mood for a full-size brew and we nip to the Taphouse for a couple of pints.

On tap is a seasonal spicy saison for Spring and it goes down a treat.

The brewers, Good George, are based just a few minutes' drive down the road in Frankton, operating out of a reconstructed church since setting up Hamilton's first locally owned craft brewery in 2012.

The founders are proudly Hamilton born and bred, which even our brewery guide admits "isn't something you hear all that often".

Good George is all about bringing the beauty of craft beer to the locals, and on that front they're doing a bloody good job.

We get the full tour of the site, which has grown from its infancy of brewing about three batches a week to pumping out as many as three a day, which are fermented, bottled and finally shipped around the country to supermarkets and craft beer bars.

Aaron, our guide, seems to sum up Good George's philosophy: good people who love beer, making a good product with a good attitude.

Enthusiastic and knowledgeable, he takes us through a six-flavour tasting paddle.

Their IPA and pilsner are smooth and not too hoppy and their famous black doris plum cider is begging to be taken to the beach on a scorching summer day.

Drinks are followed by an enormous steak dinner so delicious I'm still mourning the smoked potato mash I left uneaten on my plate.

A number of craft beer bars can be spotted along Hamilton's main streets, plenty of which would rival Wellington's best for a lovely spot to while away a sunny afternoon.

Away from the beers, there are more wholesome experiences to be had in Hamilton.

On Sunday, we make the 10-minute drive to the city's famous gardens, despite menacing grey clouds overhead. Sure enough, just as we arrive the skies open up and fat drops drench us from head to toe. It does nothing to dampen our spirits though.

These gardens! I would seriously contemplate making a trip back just to see more of them. We explore a series of "themed" gardens based on different gardening practices from around the world.

Dashing through puddles to the Japanese garden, we find a serene (and covered) viewing platform looking out into a pond. The Italian garden has an elaborate lion statue fountain and the Indian garden an immense Taj Mahal-like sheltered structure. Each is cleverly hidden from the other by hedge walls, so it's like stepping into a new world every time.

We're like little kids, rushing from one to the next and squealing with excitement at what we find.

I don't even mind when we return to the car, sodden, and I discover an umbrella sitting innocently on the back seat.

Monday morning we hit the road again, stopping by several excellent op shops on our way out of town.

One in particular, Remains to be Scene, is a vintage shopper's dream. Top quality ceramics, furniture and pre-loved clothes fill two large rooms. Bargains are everywhere.

I buy some treasures and carefully put them in the back seat feeling very pleased with myself.

The old slogan proved right. Hamilton, you had plenty more than I expected.

Hamilton City at night. Photo / Mike Walen, KeyImagery Photography
Hamilton City at night. Photo / Mike Walen, KeyImagery Photography



The Clarion Suites Ambassador

is centrally located on Ulster St.

Further details:
Find out more about the people behind FermentFest.

Good George brewery and bar is on Somerset St, in Frankton.

For terrific op-shopping, take a look at Remains to be Scene on Anglesea St.