Picture perfect, rural New Zealand plays out before your eyes on a drive throughout NZ's Waikato Region. Lush, green, rolling hills and majestic forests shape the landscape of this agricultural heart of the North Island.
The mighty Waikato River (NZ's longest) meanders some 400 kilometres from Lake Taupo to the Tasman Sea just south of Auckland and helps to hydrate this lush region. Intensely green hills dotted with cattle, sheep and deer stretch out before your eyes - yet chances are, this isn't why you've come to Waikato. Odds favor you visiting the Waikato Region to experience subterranean thrills in Waitomo.
Adrenaline seekers flock to Waitomo to experience the underground caves and water systems which run beneath the green Waikato hills. Black-water rafting, as it's known, is bound to get the heart beating as are the caving, abseiling and starry glow-worm seeking adventures all on offer. If you'd prefer to stay above ground, look no further than the chilled out village of Raglan - home to some of the world's best surfing.
Don't forget to get your accommodation booked before your trip. Check out Wotif for the best deals on Waikato accommodation.
Destination Waikato: Getting There
Waikato's major centre is the University town of Hamilton. This well manicured city sits about 140 kms or a 1.5 hours drive away from Auckland. Hamilton is on the main route North or South, so odds favor you at the very lest driving through town.
Though this is a major stop on most bus routes, to get to out of the way spots you'll require your own wheels. As an agricultural hub of New Zealand, you'll stand to have pretty good luck with your thumb out alongside the road if you're keen to give hitching the old college try.
Destination Waikato: Orientation
Moving North to South, the main population centres in Waikato are:
Hamilton - Hamilton is Waikato's major centre and New Zealand's largest inland city. "The Tron" as it's affectionally known around New Zealand is a well manicured and lively city, though chances are you won't hang out here for more than the odd night if you happen to be keen for a break on the road to or from Auckland (140kms north). Hamilton is home to a number of younger NZers thanks to the University in town. As a result, The Tron has a vibrant cafe scene during the day and a lively pub and club scene come nightfall. If you have a day to kill in The Tron, enjoy a walk around the 50-hectare Hamilton Gardens and their conservation zoo or walk along, cruise down or kayak along the mighty Waikato River which bisects the town.
Raglan - New Zealand's iconic surf village is 48kms or about an hours drive West of Hamilton. More on Raglan below.
Waitomo - Waitomo and its hundreds of caves are 85 kms or about an hours drive South of Hamilton. More on Waitomo below.
Destination Waikato: Hot Spots
This region of New Zealand offers an intriguing mix of activities and attractions to keep you busy and entertained. From cafes, to glow worms, to sheep, to Lord of the Rings to surfing, there is something here for every style of traveller. Be sure to check out any or all of these spots during your time traveling in Waikato.
Surfs Up in Funky Raglan
A short hour away from Hamilton and situated on the Tasman Sea, you'll find the laid-back town of Raglan. This iconic NZ surf village seems to be stuck in the 1970s, and that's absolutely fine with us. Whether you have relaxation or adventure on your mind, Raglan is bound to leave you content. It's one of those charming towns that will inevitably result in you shuffling your itinerary so you can extend your stay just a wee bit longer.
The town of Raglan itself offers low key shops, friendly and funky cafes and hip galleries all situated on a beautiful harbour. Whilst the village itself is enough to keep you happy, it's not what has put Raglan on the world map. Raglan is a surf town. You'll know this when you stroll down the main street with its surf shops, tanned and long haired surfers, and barefoot people everywhere you look. Raglan is home to some of the best surfing in New Zealand and the world's longest left hand break.
So whether you're a lifelong surfer or a novice, you've absolutely got to try catching a wave in Raglan.
A number of operators in town and on the beach hire boards or arrange surf classes - some of the best in NZ. Raglan's beaches are all found just west of town - some cater to beginner surfers, other to advanced whilst some are ideal for a leisurly swim.
- Rangipu Beach - This beach, 6 kms west of Raglan, is popular with windsurfers and kite surfers.
- Ngarunui Beach - Seven kms of Raglan, this beach is ideal for those learning to surf. Its black sand beach will be sure to leave you smiling.
- Manu Bay - Another 1 km west of Ngarunui Beach you'll find Manu Bay, the beach that made Raglan famous. Manu bay is said to have the longest lef-hand break in the world thanks to the angle at which the ocean swell meets the coastine.
We reckon you'll love Raglan and you'll end up looking for ways to either return or extend your stay and consequently the time in your jandals (or if you go as the locals, barefoot).
Mountain Bike the Waikato River Trail
One of New Zealand's Great Rides, the Waikato River Trail is a 100km mountain bike ride. The trail extends 100km along New Zealand’s longest river, the “Mighty Waikato,” and takes in five lakes, four hydro dams and a number of small towns and villages along the way. This is a fantastic way to connect with the heart of the Waikato and experience the best of the region’s forests.
Unless you're extremely bike fit, you'll want to spend at least two days exploring the trail. A number of operators in the region offer transportation, bike hire and accommodation.
Subterranean Sights in Waitomo
Waitomo is quite simply a must-do on the NZ adventure activities pilgrimage; it's an icon NZ experience that can't be replicated anywhere else in the world. Dotted about the Waitomo countryside are numerous shafts dropping into underground cave systems and underground rivers. Throughout the Waitomo District, there are more than 300 mapped limestone caves.
These caves have been being explored for decades; yet in typical Kiwi fashion, the list has grown over the years past simply exploring the caves on guided walks. Today, you can abseil, raft and tube throughout these subterranean wonders.
Running of the Sheep in Te Kuiti
New Zealand claims to be famous for many things and while some of these are worthwhile claims to fame (World’s Best Sauvignon Blancs - Marlborough), some of these aren’t (Home of the World’s Biggest Carrot – Ohakune). Te Kuiti in south Waikato greets you on arrival with a billboard claiming its spot in the world.
Te Kuiti is, The Sheep Shearing Capital of the World.
Yes, you read that correctly. Each year in late March or early April, the Te Kuiti Muster takes over the town. Sheep shearing championships, sheep races, live bands and plenty of fresh lamb combine to make for one hell of a rural New Zealand festival. The highlight of the festival is the running of the sheep. Whilst Pamplona has the running of the bulls, Te Kuiti has the running of the sheep. The main street in Te Kuiti is blocked off to prepare for the running of over 2,000 sheep - as you might expect, it's a hilarious sight.
It's a fantastic New Zealand experience and if you're near Te Kuiti in late March or early April, it's an absolute must.
Get Your LOTR Fix: Hobbiton
If you visit the small town of Matamata in Waikato, you'll be there for one of two reasons. You might potentially have a thing for horses; if this is the case, you've come the right place as Matamata is famous (if this is the right word?) for its thoroughbred stud farms. Yet odds favor you visiting Matamata for another reason - a reason that has in many ways helped to put New Zealand on the world map.
Peter Jackson used a nearby farm in his epic trilogy Lord of the Rings as the setting for creating Hobbiton. Since then, literally thousands of LOTR fans have made the pilgrimage to Matamata to explore this famous Hobbit village. Just enough remains of the set for you to use your imagination to remember what it would have looked liked during filming.
Destination Waikato: Final Thoughts & Recommendations
Only in a country like New Zealand could a seemingly quiet, laid back and farming focused region offer some thrill-inducing adventures that will become a highlight of your trip to New Zealand. While you'll leave Waikato with a strong remembrance of the thrills of the Waitomo Caves, we expect you'll leave with a strong connection to the lush, rolling green hills that dot Waikato's landscape too. It's New Zealand's agricultural heartland, and as is true in many farming communities the world over, Waikato is home to some of New Zealand's friendliest locals.
By way of specific advice, be sure to shop around when looking for a company to take your breath away in Waitomo. There are no shortage of operators and you can expect they will all be keen for your business.
We mentioned this a couple times already, but plan on spending more time than anticipated in Raglan. It's hands down one of our favorite spots in New Zealand and a pretty special place to watch the sunset. Check out Raglan Backpackers for your accommodation - minutes away from Raglan's harbour, the Raglan Backpackers offers cozy accommodation complimented by a spa pool, a sunny garden and free kayaks, bikes and surfboards to use during your stay.