Easing his bones in natural hot springs and filling up with a hearty meal in an old colonial hotel is Phil Parker's idea of a great weekend in Waikato.
Just east of Tirau is the historic Okoroire Hotel - in its day, it was one of the finest in New Zealand. It was built in 1889 of native timber in the Victorian style with sash windows and verandas, and became famous for its level of comfort and service, as well as the healing qualities of Okoroire's hot springs, and the beauty of the surrounding countryside. Tourists and travellers would arrive by train and coach from Auckland, relax for a few days - soak in the pools, and then continue suitably serenely, one assumes, onwards to Rotorua and Taupo.
Now it is a case of faded glory, but efforts are continuing to upgrade the facilities. The Rhodes family have owned the pub for more than 40 years and have resisted offers to sell to developers who planned to level the historic buildings and build a huge resort complex. They themselves are planning to build a new wedding venue soon.
At present, the original small hotel rooms have been tastefully renovated in colonial style and each has an ensuite. A set of 1970s motel type units is where our group stayed and they're not really up to the same standard, considering that the tariff is the same ($160 a night). They have some retro appeal, in the cookie-cutter style with old concrete block walls and natural timber ceilings, with original 70s drapes and odd features, like the tiny fan heater right by the bed, which has a timer/thermostat so it cuts out every 15 minutes or so. The power point is located so far from the fixed mirror that the dry-ee struggles to use the hair dryer. But newly appointed ensuites are the high point.
On the plus side, in the old hotel proper there is a cosy lounge with a large gas fireplace, comfy armchairs and a renovated colonial dining room. The tariff includes a hearty country breakfast, starting with cereal, fresh fruit salad, tea/coffee, toast and jam. Then it's a choice of french toast, pancakes and berries, mixed grill, etc.
The dinner menu has lamb shanks, porterhouse steak, chicken curry, fresh fish and standard pub desserts like sticky pudding and cheesecake. Lunch and snack options are available at other times.
The original natural hot springs are still there, a short walk away from the hotel (take a torch at night time). They're pretty basic - two concrete pools, one large one (about 8m x 4m), plus a smaller one. They are fenced in and private, but open to the air and surrounded by overhanging ferns and native trees. Hot water bubbles up from a soft, sandy bottom.
A recent feature at Okoroire is The Bike Shed - according to its website: "...the biggest disorganised motorbike club in New Zealand". Membership is free, and hobbyist biker members meet at the Okoroire Hotel to enjoy riding the empty Waikato backroads. '
There is a designated covered facility at the rear of the public bar, where there is a gas fire.
Members enjoy discounted rates at the hotel and there are special offers available. Manager Hugh Rhodes sees it as a good way of generating interest in the pub.
For active souls there is a 9-hole golf course, bush walks, natural hot pools, petanque, croquet, and volleyball, but I opted for sloth, indolence, napping, shopping in Tirau and drinking in the middle of the day.
All up it's pretty good for a two-night stay.
Old world atmosphere, friendly staff, a hearty country menu and a bit of peace and quiet.
Jam packed itinerary for all tastes
A 9-hole par 35 golf course, bush walks, tennis, the hot pools, petanque, croquet, and volleyball are all on offer at the Okoroire Hotel.
The more adventurous can fish for trout, or go pig and deer hunting in the nearby Kaimai and Mamaku Ranges.
The Tirau area has lots of options ... indoors and out.
There are a number of good boutique clothing and jewellery stores, as well as a store featuring one of the largest selections of grandfather clocks in New Zealand. There's also plenty of good coffee and cafe fare to be had in the main street. Plan your trip and you can visit the Tirau markets, which run on the third Sunday of every month from 9am to 2pm at 29 Main Rd. It's a country style market selling local produce, art and crafts and pottery. Parking is available in Station Rd (heading south, left past the market).
If you like watersports, head to Lake Karapiro, north of Tirau. This is a popular place for people who enjoy waterskiing and boating, but you can also take a picnic and enjoy the tranquil setting.
Oraka Deer Park, just five minutes' drive from Tirau on Bayly Rd and signposted from State Highway 27, offers educational and entertaining tours as well as accommodation, a restaurant and a shop selling deer products. Ph 07 883-1382.
Walkers will enjoy the Te Waihou Walkway, a picturesque 4.7km track to the Blue Spring. Allow 90 minutes each way. Access is from Whites Rd (5km from Tirau). It is open year-round and is generally easy walking although there are a couple of short steep sections and some stiles to cross.
Where to stay: The Okoroire Hotel, Somerville Rd, Tirau, ph (07) 883 4876.
How to get there: Follow SH1 to Tirau and turn off at Okoroire Rd. Follow it for 6.5km till you see the huge macrocarpa stumps and turn right down Somerville Rd - the hotel is about 50m away. Alternatively, take SHW2 through Matamata and follow the signs on SHW27 to Tirau. Room rate is $160 per night including full cooked breakfast.