The Best Place to Go in Hamilton

Italian Garden

My family’s been to Hamilton lots since moving to New Zealand. It’s a nice city, despite the comments. (Kiwis think it’s boring. Young people call it Hamiltron, a nickname heaving with irony.)

UnicornThe Waikato River runs through it, there are a few nice restaurants, and it’s got a big, bronze statue of Richard O’Brien in full Rocky Horror costume, designed by Weta Workshop, because he used to live there. If that doesn’t make you want to visit Hamilton, here’s what used to be the official city slogan: Hamilton – more than you expect.

Seriously, though, you should visit.

The best place to go in ‘the Tron’ is the Hamilton Gardens. We go there every time. The gardens are impressive, varied and very beautiful. We rarely get round all of them in one go, but they’re free to enter, so you can go as often as you like.

There’s a lake you can walk around with a waterfall tumbling into it, a huge Victorian flower garden, a café and a giant chessboard, but they’re not the best bits. The best gardens are in the Paradise Collection.

There’s the Japanese garden, where you can sit in peaceful contemplation…

Japanese Pond 2

There’s the English garden, which really did make me feel at home…

English Garden

There’s the Chinese garden, where you can have a lovely picnic next to a pond…

Chinese 2

The American garden, where you can cool your feet with a pleasant paddle…

American

The Indian garden, where your senses are assaulted with vibrant colour…

Indian

And the Italian garden, which feels as romantic as Romeo and Juliet’s Verona…

Italian Fountain

And there are so many other gardens besides, with the Waikato River sailing past in the background. The only bad thing about the Hamilton Gardens is they can get really hot, so make sure you take a floppy hat.

Turtle Dragon

What Hobbiton’s Like

Bridge

Last weekend I had a dream come true: I visited Hobbiton. And it was better than I dreamed. I absolutely loved it.

My family had some reservations about going. We’re big Lord of the Rings fans, but the Hobbiton Movie Set, located on a farm in Matamata, has a reputation as a tourist trap. It’s quite expensive and, being the height of summer, we feared it would be heaving with visitors. We didn’t know how much of the set would be left, or if the experience would be worth it. As it turned out, we were blown away.

First Hobbit HoleThe set looks exactly as it does in Peter Jackson’s films.

Still, as we drove towards the site, we couldn’t help but giggle at a sign that read Tourist Farm. Then, when we got there, we were greeted by a curious sheep.

The set is a short bus ride away from the car park. As the bus driver explained, the original set was dismantled after the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but when it came to the filming of The Hobbit, the owners of the farm asked that the set be built to last. That decision made them rich.

The Fake Oak TreeThe first magical moment of the tour was when we rounded a hill and The Green Dragon came into view. It was like sliding back in time. The pub, the mill and the stone bridge could have been straight from the Middle Ages.

The next magical moment was when we stepped off the bus and walked between two stone walls into another world. There was Hobbiton. It was so colourful, not just the emerald grass, but every petal of every flower was remarkably vivid. The gardens were beautiful. And then there were the bright, circular front doors.

ChimneyEverything was ridiculously detailed. It looked lived in; a functioning village. There were vegetables in wheelbarrows, washing lines with hobbit clothes on, tools leaning against fences and candles in windows.

The commentary our guide provided was interesting and, actually, even though there were heaps of people there, it didn’t feel crowded. If anything, seeing other tour groups in the distance added to the feeling of the living village. I felt like I was back in England!

There was so much to look at, I probably missed a lot. With every step came a new delight. Most of the stuff didn’t even make it into the films, but no detail was overlooked. What those filmmakers did was insane – such as taking all the fruit off an apple tree and replacing it with plums, because that’s what was in Tolkien’s books.

Bilbo's GateOf course, the highlight of the tour is Bag End, the house of Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. It did not disappoint, right down to the no admittance except on party business sign on the gate. Standing there at the top, looking out over the fields with the famous party tree in the centre, you genuinely feel as though you’re part of the films.

The Mill 3Too soon, it was time to go back down the hill. We passed more hobbit holes, including Sam Gamgee’s house, and the site of the long-expected party. Then we crossed the stone bridge by the mill – there was a village notice board with all sorts on it!

The Green Dragon 3The final magical moment was when we entered The Green Dragon. It was the most gorgeous pub I’ve ever been in, a fantasy version of the very best old pubs in England, all dark wood and rafters and fireplaces. Every visitor gets a complimentary drink in a medieval-style beaker, a choice between cider, stout, ale and ginger beer. I had the cider and it was the best I’ve ever tasted!

The Dragon

The interior of The Green Dragon is just as detailed as the rest of the village. Hobbit coats are hung up by the door and above the food bar is an amazing carving of a dragon. There’s a book of cast signatures in a glass case. I noticed that Sir Ian McKellen had put a G rune next to his name, for Gandalf.

Bag End 2The pub and the party marquee next to it are available to hire for functions. I’m already dreaming of having my wedding there! The pub garden was exquisite.

The only disappointment of the tour was that we felt a bit rushed in the pub, but it would have gotten too crowded if they hadn’t moved us on. Besides, as my dad said, “I always feel rushed when asked to leave a pub.”

Second Hobbit HoleSo it was back on the bus and to the gift shop, which has a pretty good café above it. We bought a couple of fridge magnets, (the signs of The Prancing Pony and The Green Dragon,) and the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.

What a day! If you were wondering whether or not to visit Hobbiton when travelling around New Zealand then wonder no more. It’s wonderful. If you’re a Lord of the Rings fan, an Anglophile, a history nerd, or just someone who loves gardens, Hobbiton is definitely for you.

The Party Tree

For more Lord of the Rings locations, see 10 Places Hobbits Have Been.

Scarecrow 2

Shopping in Downtown Tauranga

Red Square, Tauranga

Tauranga is the Bournemouth of New Zealand. Affectionately known as God’s Waiting Room, it’s the place where old white people go to die. Before they shuffle off, though, they can play lawn bowls, tend their gardens and relax upon the abundance of nearby beaches, enjoying the most hours of sunshine in New Zealand. (A distinction Tauranga hotly contests with Nelson.)

Young people complain that there’s nothing for them to do in Tauranga, but that’s rubbish. I love Tauranga. My favourite thing to do is go shopping in the city centre – well, town centre, really; Tauranga’s a tiny city.

sculptureIt’s a great place to shop – far better than the centre of Auckland in my opinion, unless you’re looking for teenage/twenty-something clothing; there isn’t much of that, admittedly, when compared with the range of clothing available for middle-aged women, though I’ve never had a problem finding what I want. It’s the non-clothes shops I like: the knickknack shops, the bookshops and the gift shops. They’re simply more unique than the equivalent shops in Auckland, and they’re all located in one convenient little area.

It’s true that there aren’t as nearly many bookshops as there used to be, (and I lament their loss in a previous post, Killing the Thing We Love: The Demise of New Zealand’s Bookshops,) but more knickknack shops are popping up all the time. And only some of them are twee to point of being sickening.

Shopping in downtown Tauranga is fun and extremely pleasant – for women, at least. The streets are all good-looking and there are cafes galore.

I would like to make special mention of the Chantilly Cream Vintage Tea Shop, though. It’s lovely, all decked out like your posh grandmother’s living room for high tea and scones. For all its traditional charm, the range of different teas it has encourages you to try something new, such as a chocolate-flavoured tea, or perhaps vanilla and citrus. The teas come in beautiful cups, and each teapot has its own unique cosy. It has a sense of ceremony about its tea that other cafes just don’t, and its food is very good too. The menu is limited, but each item on it is scrumptious and arrives in a timely fashion. The staff are nice, the atmosphere is friendly, and there are tins of tea available for you to buy as gifts. Well worth a visit.

Downtown Tauranga 031But downtown Tauranga isn’t all tea and trinkets. There’s a free-to-enter art gallery, two cinemas, a theatre, a library, and a whole array of fashionable bars and restaurants. These are located along one long seafront street called the Strand.

Walking along the Strand on a sunny day is brilliant. There are fountains, gardens and a wonderful playground, all overlooking the Tauranga Harbour. You can go on cruises around the harbour, including ones that take you out to see dolphins.

As it happens, my two favourite Tauranga restaurants aren’t actually on the Strand. The sumptuously decorated Collar and Thai lies above the shops on Devonport Road, next to the Rialto cinema. Every dish there is just exquisite and the staff are delightful. The Café Versailles is on the neighbouring Grey Street, and is quite simply the best French restaurant I’ve come across in my life. (Admittedly I haven’t yet been to France.) If you want a heart-warming atmosphere and mind-blowing food, this is the place.

Seriously, if you’re travelling around New Zealand, don’t just pass through Tauranga on your way to Mount Maunganui. Spend a day sampling the delights of Tauranga’s CBD.

Tip for campervanners: NZ campervan rentals can camp for FREE right in the centre of Tauranga. Head for Memorial Park, Marine Park, Fergusson Park or Greerton Park. (Memorial Park has a pool, crazy golf, an awesome playground and a miniature train you can ride on!)

For more places to go in Tauranga, see my Top 10 Things to Do in Tauranga list.

Downtown Tauranga 022

Finding Wonderland: Te Puna Quarry Park

sculpturecropped

Just outside Tauranga, off State Highway 2, lies somewhere I wish I’d been a long time ago.

I wasn’t expecting much when I went with my family last week, but Te Puna Quarry Park surprised me in the best way possible. It’s a place of both tranquillity and intrigue; of beauty and of fun. It would have been wonderful to have gone there as a kid, but, aside from the fact that I lived in England when I was a kid, the place didn’t exist back then.

Well, it existed, but it was a disused quarry. Then, in the mid-nineties, the Te Puna Quarry Park Society began work on transforming the scarred hillside into a slice of Eden. It opened to the public in 2000 and has been growing lovelier ever since.

signcropped

At the entrance to the car park

The first thing you see when you drive into the car park is a huge, rusted piece of machinery that looks like a work of art: a digger that children can clamber into and pretend to operate. We didn’t have any children with us, but for a moment I thought my dad was going to climb up into the cab. There’s also a small sensory garden in the car park, but it’s quite underwhelming – the cool stuff comes later.

As you enter the park proper, you are confronted with an interesting sculpture of a face basking in the sunlight. (Or, I suppose, if it was a rainy day, the face would seem to be welcoming the cool droplets on her skin.) Behind the face is a shaded picnic area, before it a stretch of grass to play on, dotted with trees and a statue of a famous New Zealand icon: Buzzy Bee. To the face’s left, paths wind off into flowers and trees.

A view of Mount Maunganui through an interesting piece of artwork

A view of Mount Maunganui through an interesting piece of artwork

It’s like a labyrinth, (or, I should say, a maze, as technically labyrinths consist of a single path with obstacles along the way, but the word ‘labyrinth’ does sound rather more magical than ‘maze’.) It’s difficult to choose which path to take. In fact, you’ll be lucky to explore all of Te Puna Quarry Park in one visit: there are so many offshoots to get lost in.

Basically, it’s like Alice’s Wonderland. That was my immediate impression at least. Later, I thought it reminded me of a less impressive, but no less charming, version of The Forbidden Corner, a fantastical garden park in North Yorkshire that we went to when I was nine – just before we moved to New Zealand.

"Only in New Zealand"

“Only in New Zealand”

Te Puna Quarry Park is full of quirky pieces of artwork. Right at the beginning of our adventure, we came across a little bridge that had a load of old boots tied to it. My grandpa, who was visiting us from England, looked at it and shook his head in amusement. “Only in New Zealand,” he said.

In some parts of the park, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were deep in the New Zealand bush, but you’re soon out in the sunshine again, turning a corner to find yourself in a herb garden or a bonsai garden, a tropical garden or a butterfly garden. There are ponds and stonewalls, waterfalls and statues – it’s utterly enchanting.

You can even go abseiling down a cliff.

Like a fairytale

Like a fairytale

As you walk around, many sounds will mix themselves into the heady atmosphere: the crunch of the pathways, the shrill chorus of the cicadas, the warbling of the native birds and, every now and then, the deep, clear clang of a bell echoing around the quarry. If you can find it, there is an old bell that you can strike – and no one who walks past it can resist. The clanging adds a strange air of excitement to park; like you’re being roused to something, but you’re not sure what. A procession of fairies, perhaps?

A lovely place to sit

A lovely place to sit

Spending time at Te Puna Quarry Park is an experience for all the senses: the sounds, the colours, the smells of the flowers, the textures of the trails and the art that you can interact with… I even associate the taste of the frozen yoghurt I got at the fresh vegetable market just up the road from the quarry with that fantastic day out. (You’ll definitely fancy an ice cream when you leave, as it’s very hot in the quarry, so get yourself to the vegetable market I mentioned – it’s back towards Tauranga and does real fruit ice cream and frozen yoghurt, mixed before your eyes.)

Some colourful artwork

Some colourful artwork

Perhaps the best part of walking around the quarry is the view, which gets better and better the higher you climb. You can look out over Tauranga and Mount Maunganui, right out into the Bay of Plenty. I spent a long time just sitting and staring at that view. Pictures really can’t capture it. Mine couldn’t, anyway.

Then there’s the dragon.

I stumbled upon it when I got separated from my family: in the shade of a tree was the base of a stone tower with a very medieval-looking wooden door built into it, and with steps wrapped around it, and wrapped around the steps was a large, stone dragon.

Wicked.

The enchanting "tower"

The enchanting “tower”

I walked up the steps, noticing a metal slide curving down around the other side of the tower. Oh, how I wished I was child in that moment. The dragon wasn’t really that impressive, but to a child it would have been awesome. At the top of the steps was a wishing well and a couple of fantasy towers made from old pipes.

The dragon

The dragon

I knew my family would be looking for me, and I knew that, knowing me, they wouldn’t fail to look where the dragon was, so I settled myself down in the shade of a tree by the dragon’s head and began to write. (I take a notebook with me everywhere I go.)

After a while, a group of little kids approached the dragon and proceeded to swarm all over it. I didn’t begrudge them that in the slightest. One little boy looked at me and said, “It isn’t a real dragon. It isn’t alive.”

A statue somewhere in the quarry

A statue somewhere in the quarry

“It’s asleep,” I said. “A wizard turned it to stone a thousand years ago. It just needs another wizard to come along and wake it up.”

The boy regarded me for a moment as though I was a very strange person, and turned away to climb up the dragon’s back.

My family found me soon after that and we went to get ice cream.

Te Puna Quarry Park is free to enter, and it’s really close to a nice holiday park, which is good for people taking a New Zealand campervan hire tour in the area. I’d say definitely go, especially if you’ve got kids, but make sure you wear sturdy shoes and sunscreen, and take a hat and a bottle of water with you.

For more places to go in Tauranga, see my Top 10 Things to Do in Tauranga list.

A relic from the old quarry days

A relic from the old quarry days