Te Aroha offers Waikato nearby escape

BOUTIQUE HIDEAWAY: Te Aroha Landing aims to provide high-end accommodation for independent travellers.
BOUTIQUE HIDEAWAY: Te Aroha Landing aims to provide high-end accommodation for independent travellers.

Te Aroha - probably not the first name that comes to mind when Waikato residents want a weekend away.

But the town aims to become New Zealand's number one boutique destination, according to my enthusiastic host Jillian O'Neill.

"You'll never find a McDonald's or a Warehouse."

She and husband Shaun - who chairs the local business association - saw an opportunity for an accommodation business when the Hauraki Rail Trail Cycleway started attracting tourists to Te Aroha.

The couple were part of the project team to lobby for it to come to the town, and then ended up opening Te Aroha Landing to cater for the demand.

Jillian calls it "high-end accommodation for independent travellers".

There's even self check-in with a code texted or emailed to guests.

I was in a river chalet, with a view of the nearby Waihou River that I enjoyed from inside, because I was in Te Aroha when the last of the storm hadn't left.

The chalet's a good size for one or two and more modern inside than I expected from the exterior.

There's bare-wood wall finish complemented by hits of red on cupboards and lampshades and balanced with some black.

Jillian describes Te Aroha as quirky, and that's reflected in one-of-a-kind pieces of furniture - local artist Adrian Worsley made the bed frame and a couple of other items from a Fonterra shipping container.

And guests staying longer than my one night would welcome the kitchen equipped with all the basics and the storage space.

But Te Aroha Landing offers more than a place to sleep.

"Just selling accommodation is really hard. If we sell an experience . . . people want to know what there is to do when they get here," Jillian says.

They have package deals with Hobbiton, can organise lunches and bike hire for the trail, book guests into the famous mineral spas - best done well in advance of arrival - or host executives for meetings and accommodation, to name a few.

Jillian is quite the advocate for Te Aroha as a nearby get-away.

"It's not a place that you really drive though . . . It's not on the way to anywhere. This is the destination."

It's my destination on a rainy day soon after the storms that ripped roofs off, and when the famous mountain is barely poking out through the clouds.

Jillian's adamant there's still plenty to do.

After a brief tour of the town, the first stop is Espresso Banco cafe - in the old bank on the main street.

If you can't decide between coffee and curios, this is the right place to be.

Racks of second-hand clothing and trinkets surround the entrance, ready to be riffled through, and the bluebarb pie is well worth a try.

Next comes a place where metal scraps are turned into dragons, motorbikes and peacocks - local artist Adrian Worsley's gallery in Rewi St.

Spanners, bike chains, springs and old frypans hang off every available space on the footpath outside his workshop.

"Everything out there I'll end up bringing in here and using," Adrian says. "Nothing gets wasted."

In his gallery there's a mouse riding a motorbike. The mouse's jacket was the inside of a washing machine, the bike's handlebars were milking machine cups and the petrol tank used to be a sink.

Adrian's been making these kinds of things for four years and says it's the best job he's ever had, even if it's hard to part with sculptures when they sell.

Then Jillian and I head up above Te Aroha Domain to check out the mineral spas, where punters can bathe in some of Te Aroha's famous warm, carbonated water.

Unfortunately solo bathing isn't allowed, so that rules me out.

Dinner is at Berlusconi on the main street, where I enjoy a pork belly pasta and marvel at how everyone seems to know everyone in Te Aroha.

It's like a club, but an inclusive one.

It's a town that likes Aucklanders too, Jillian says.

By the time dinner's over the rain has finally stopped.

The next morning dawns clear and I wish I had come a day later.

So I fit in breakfast at Ironique Cafe - also on the main street.

And there's even time to enjoy a wander past quirky and quaint older villas before I head away from the town under the mountain.

Libby Wilson stayed at Te Aroha Landing and dined at Berlusconi courtesy of Te Aroha Landing.