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Credit: Ian Brodie

Waikato & Waitomo

These regions make up the heart of the rural North Island, punctuated with rolling hills, waterfalls and forests along with river and beach scenery. They also come complete with a full menu of offerings in the fun, naturally stunning and adventure categories.

New Zealand’s fourth biggest city by population - Hamilton - is the urban centre of it all with a wealth of museums, galleries, cafes, restaurants, riverside walks, parks, the stunning Hamilton Gardens and fun festivals such as the unique 5-day hot air balloon extravaganza known as 'Balloons Over Waikato'; in fact, all you might expect from a vibrant kiwi city and much more.

All this said, there are two especial draws in the Waikato and Waitomo which perhaps eclipse all else this region has to offer - Hobbiton and the Waitomo Caves. Tolkien and LOTR fans have flocked to the film set at Matamata since the first of the LOTR trilogy movies was aired and have kept coming ever since while the vast Waitomo Caves are perhaps the brightest jewel in an already sparkling crown. A natural wonderland for the adventurous, these magical and mystical caves attract both those who are looking for dry-feet exploration while marvelling at the glow worm light displays as well as those intent on getting their full-on adrenalin kicks.


Pretty and sleepy seaside villages are dotted up and down the coastal region while backpacker favourite Raglan stakes its claim as not just a New Zealand surf Mecca but one with a reputation world-wide among the wave-riding set. The hiking passionate are going to find plenty to keep them busy too while those who love to get in and among the natural world but don't especially want to take on long tramps are going to love the easy access to waterfalls, forests and the otherwise naturally stunning. Beaches, caves, Hobbits and extinct volcanoes - these regions have a little of everything.

Un-missable THINGS TO DO in the Waikato and Waitomo Regions

  1. Go hardcore adventuring or easy cruising in the spectacular glow worm-lit Waitomo Caves
  2. Marvel at the North Island's highest waterfall – Wairere Falls
  3. Mix it up with the surf crowd at Raglan
  4. Make your way under a natural rock bridge at Mangapohue
  5. Go kiwi spotting at the Maungatautari conservation island
  6. Take a visit to Hobbiton
  7. Explore the living museum known as Hamilton Gardens
  8. Take a hike among the extinct volcanoes of Pirongia Forest Park or a section of the Te Araroa Trail
  9. Bike the 'easiet bike trail in NZ' past Karangahake Gorge - one of the “14 wonders of New Zealand”. 
Waitomo Caves (Credit: Tourism Holdings)
Waitomo Caves (Credit: Tourism Holdings)

1. Waitomo Caves

Most of the time what is above ground in New Zealand tends to fall into categories ranging from lovely to mind-blowingly beautiful. However, this region has something in the extra-special category below ground too in the vast subterranean network known as the Waitomo Caves. Awe inspiring on all scales imaginable, this huge tourist draw is characterised with mighty caverns and underground rivers so substantial they are the means by which visitors are ferried by the boatload to explore this wonderland.

Floating serenely along the streams and rivers on inner tubes is also a popular way to go for many. The adventurous choose to come in by way of abseiling or rappelling and then splash, clamber, swim, dangle on ropes and squeeze their way through impossibly small spaces or black-water raft the underground waterways.

However, as lovely and exciting as all this is there is an added extra something which makes the Waitomo Caves the tremendously popular draw they are – glow worms. Whether you are clad in wetsuit and sloshing your way on foot or in the relative dryness of a tour boat the overwhelmingly enchanting sight of thousands upon thousands of glow worms shining around you and above you in a galaxy of tiny living lights is one which will stay with your forever.

Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism
Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism

2. Bridal Veil Waterfall and Wairere Falls

Just ¼ of an hour away from surf Mecca Raglan and after following an easy 10 minutes of bush walking, traversing bridges as you go, can be found the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls. The falls feel totally tucked away among verdant greenery and at 55 metres, the waterfall is impressively high with a pretty pool at its base. There are four different viewing platforms and should you want to get down to the base of the waterfall you can do so by way of steps.

 

Even more impressive and significantly higher – although slightly less easily accessed –  is the North Island's highest waterfall, Wairere Falls, located in the Kaimai-Mamaku Forest Park.. The water here cascades in a two-tiered stage onto rocks from a whopping 153 metres above. The walk to the first falls viewing spot takes around 45 minutes and is characterised along the way by forest, little bridges, the Wairere stream and giant mossy rocks. If you fancy a further 45 minutes from here you will be rewarded with some far reaching views over the plains of the region.

 

Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism
Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism

3. Raglan

You don't have to be a surfer or would-be surfer to enjoy Raglan but it certainly helps. This iconic, world-class spot acts as a magnet for surfers from all over the globe and probably more people come here to try their hand at wave riding than anywhere else in the country.

 

Everything surf related can be found, sometimes many times over – surf schools offering everything from hourly lessons to week long camps, board hire, surf shops, gear hire and so forth. The laid-back beach-living vibe which exudes from Raglan as a result of the surf-passionate has in itself become a draw especially for the young backpacker crowd.

 

Should surfing not be quite your thing but you still want to get active you can pick from rock climbing, abseiling, caving, stand-up paddle boarding (SUP), hikes into the lovely surrounding bush and waterfall spots, scenic tours, horse riding and kayaking. If not you can just enjoy idling the day away at one of the cafes, bars or restaurants in town. 

 


Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism
Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism

4. Mangapohe Natural Bridge

Even the laziest of those who like the naturally lovely but don’t like to make too much effort will appreciate the quick 5 minute stroll to get to the base of this 17 m high natural bridge arch. However, a little more effort – 20 minutes on a loop walk in fact – will reward you with the impressive sights found in this stunning limestone gorge as you pass under the arch and explore the stalactite-like rock formations and fossilised oysters embedded in the limestone all around you.

If you still have a hankering for Mother Nature marvels after this you will also find Marokopa Falls and Piripiri Cave in the same area.

 

5. Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust

Spotting a kiwi might feature on many a New Zealand visitor's wish-list but it isn't always that easy to catch a glimpse of these highly protected, shy nocturnal birds. It gets a lot easier thanks to places such as the Maungatautari 'island' which is actually a thriving wildlife sanctuary protected by a predator-proof fence. Besides the possibility of a kiwi spot on one of their guided night tours you might also encounter other endangered bird and insect species as well as being treated to glow worm displays. 

Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism
Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism

6. Matamata – Hobbiton

New Zealand is plastered liberally with LOTR and Hobbit filming locations but if you only have time to take in one during your time here then Matamata should probably be it. At this original set which featured in both trilogies, you can peek into a Hobbit hole – including Bilbo's 'Bag End' – or sup a pint at the Green Dragon Inn.

 

Following the airing of the original LOTR trilogy, the Matamata site was almost entirely taken apart and although folk still visited here it was something of a disappointing and even sad experience. However, rebuilt for The Hobbit trilogy, it was then decided to keep the set in its entirety to be bequeathed as a permanent tourist attraction and now even the imagination-challenged will have little trouble seeing hobbits scurrying to and fro in this magical little place.

 

Tours of the 'Shire' take place nearly every day where you'll be expertly guided through the large ten acre site and past over 40 hobbit holes - a must for any LOTR or Hobbit fan! 

Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism
Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism

7. Hamilton Gardens

If you hear the word 'garden' and associate it with something stuffy, formal and boring and which you will certainly give a wide berth to you might want to think again with the Hamilton Gardens. For starters – entry is free – always a hit with backpackers. And secondly, this is New Zealand – a country which does like to take an idea and quirk it until it is something entirely new and different – so it is with Hamilton Gardens.

This 54 hectare site vehemently states it is not a botanical garden but instead the means to showcase a concept more akin to a museum where 'each garden collection has historic integrity and provides a window into the story of civilisations, their arts, beliefs and lifestyles'. The result is a magical, beguiling and beautiful series of themed gardens full of plants, sculptures, bridges, water features, ponds and structures. The whole is divided into bite-sized chunks which fall under such intriguing titles as the Japanese Garden of Contemplation, the Fantasy Collection and Te Parapara – a Maori productive garden which demonstrates traditional practices, materials and storage methods which have been used since way back in time.


Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism
Image Credit: Hamilton & Waikato Tourism

8. Hiking 

There are heaps of trails and tracks in this region for walks, tramps and hikes of all kinds – from the strolling and sedentary nature rambles to the multi-day hardcore type. Hamilton i-SITE will have a host of leaflets and maps which will tell you where to go but there are a couple of popular choices.

The Te Araroa Trail is a mind-blowing 3000 km of walking track which runs from Cape Reinga to Bluff. In other words, the entire length of the country, taking in both North and South Island. Some hardy souls undertake the five month challenge to tick off the entire trail but most just pick their preferred chunk and commit anything from a few hours to a few days. The Waikato region has an 80 km portion of the Te Araroa Trail – with a Hamilton City River Walk section included - which can be enjoyed by both walkers and cyclists.

Another favourite in the Waikato is the Pirongia Forest Park which is a true labyrinth of criss-crossing options which might lead you to mountain tops, caves or river gorges of the highly scenic kind.

9. Biking

And if biking is more you're thing then there is the "easiest riding trail" in New Zealand in the area - the Hauraki Rail Trail. The trail is in close proximity to Hamilton, Auckland and Tauranga and is accessible from Thames, Paeroa, Te Aroha and Waihi/Waikino. The trail takes in some amazing scenery from the Pohutukawa trees on the Thames Coast, historic pioneering areas and finally the stunning Karangahake Gorge, which is one of the “14 wonders of New Zealand”. 

The 82km trail takes 3 days to complete - if you are so inclined - but of course you can easily just do a single section of the trail which will take a few hours up to to a day. For more info visit http://www.haurakirailtrail.co.nz/

Find out more...

Waitomo Caves - Take an enchanting under-ground tour
Waikato & Hamilton - Everything you need to know about the area!
Hamilton Gardens - Anything but boring and old-fashioned!
Te Aroroa Trail - Walk some or all of the 3000km trail
Hobbiton AKA Matamata - Looking for somewhere to stay in Middle Earth - here's the place to find it
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