Summer is finally here and we're all itching to get outside and explore. To celebrate the holidays, Tempo brings you a selection of daytripping ideas within two hours' drive of Hamilton, featuring some of the Waikato's best natural and man-made delights.
From ethereal limestone features and waterfalls hidden just off the main drag, to small-town museums that bring their town's story alive, we are surrounded by beauty and history. Just to give you a taste of this we focus on two wee towns that deserve a closer look: the spa resort of Te Aroha and the west coast village of Kawhia. For more ideas, see www.hamiltonwaikato.com.
GET A GOLDEN GLOW IN TE AROHA
Te Aroha is one of those little gems that you do not really want to tell people about for fear the crowds might ruin it.
This picturesque former spa and gold mining town sits at the foot of a 952-metre mountain in the Kaimai Range. Everywhere you look, it is full of turn-of-the-century buildings, a chiming clock tower and cutesy cafes and galleries.
The town boasts the world's only natural hot soda water geyser - imagine 28,000 litres erupting out of the ground every day.
The steaming hot jet of Mokena Geyser is fed into the Te Aroha Mineral Spas in Te Aroha Domain, which have been a tourist drawcard since 1883. If you have ever fancied "taking the waters" in a kauri bath tub, there is no better place to do it.
Afterwards, stroll in the domain, regarded as the country's best-preserved Edwardian public park. Elegant features include the No 7 Bathhouse and the No 8 Drinking Fountain, where you can sip the town's unique water.
The grand Cadman Bathhouse (1898) overlooking the croquet lawns now accommodates the museum, open seven days. The collection includes hydrotherapy equipment and old glass bottles of Lemon & Te Aroha; a one-time rival to Lemon & Paeroa. Two special exhibitions on until March 2013 are linked to former prime minister Richard Seddon.
The open-air leisure pools next door are great for younger children.
To see Mokena Geyser, follow the whiff of sulphur up a steep path in the domain. The geyser is the starting point for many bush walks past streams and waterfalls. One of the best is the Whakapipi track (1 hour 15 minutes), which leads to a lookout before climbing to the mountain summit with its spectacular views.
The town is part of the new Hauraki Rail Trail, a 93km cycle route linking Te Aroha to Paeroa and Thames via the Karangahake Gorge, that showcases the region's rich mining history.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in nearby Waiorongomai Valley, which offers fascinating walks that highlight relics of the 1880s gold mining era, such as the Piako County Tramway walk.
Summer is an ideal time to visit Te Aroha, as there is plenty going on. The domain's band rotunda will host free outdoor concerts on January 13 and February 10, then come along to "A Day in the Domain" on March 17, an annual extravaganza of food, music and crafts.
KAWHIA CASTS ITS SPELL
Get off the beaten path and head for Kawhia, a laid-back west coast fishing village at the end of State Highway 31.
Kawhia is often snubbed in favour of its more glamorous neighbour to the north, Raglan, where surfers rule the waves and everyone knows what a barista is.
But with its endless unspoilt beaches, quiet charms and long history of Maori settlement, a day trip to Kawhia reveals hidden depths.
This remote spot was the landing site of the ancestral Tainui waka around 1350. Two stone pillars mark the great waka's burial spot on Te Ahurei, the sacred hill above Maketu Marae. This area was also the former stronghold of the famous Ngati Toa chief Te Rauparaha, who is said to have composed his Ka Mate haka after eluding capture by another tribe. During the 1860s, King Tawhiao made the town a base for the Kingitanga Movement.
These days life in Kawhia unfolds at a far more relaxed pace. Kids leap off the wharf into the sea and fishermen return home with a good catch of kingfish, kahawai or snapper. Sometimes, orca whales cruise the harbour.
The black sands on Ocean Beach reveal their own secret as the tide washes out, when Te Puia Springs bubbles up. Grab a spade and dig your own hot water spa, without paying a cent for the privilege.
On New Year's Day, visitors to the annual Kawhia Regatta (established in 1910) enjoy the spectacle of local crews racing on the water in historic kauri whaleboats, built in the early 1880s, alongside modern replicas. One of the original whaleboats is the showpiece of the town's
charming waterfront museum, together with displays of ancient fossils, moa bones and the old telephone exchange.
While Kawhia could never be accused of being too trendy, the main street has several welcoming cafes, a crafts studio and the Arty Tarts Gallery, which exhibits work by local artists.
On February 2, do not miss the legendary Kawhia Kai Festival at Omiti Reserve, a celebration of traditional Maori food and culture. It offers a tantalising mix of kapa haka, Maori flax weaving, woodcarving and ta-moko artists. The real star is the amazing kai: paua, whitebait patties, smoked eel, mussel fritters, hangi, puha, spit-roasted pig and the Kawhia delicacy koki (shark liver pate).
You cannot leave Kawhia without getting out on the harbour for a guided heritage cruise on the Lady Kawhia, starting in January 2013. This two-hour cruise goes out to Te Waitere point, the site of a mission station founded in 1835. The first missionary family who lived here planted what is thought to be New Zealand's oldest living lemon tree - and it still bears fruit.
Kawhia also offers horse treks, the Te Kauri Park circuit bush walk (access off State Highway 31), quad biking, sand yachting, charter fishing, tame eel feeding at Eeldorado, a nine-hole golf course and fossil hunting at Puti Point.
WAIKATO'S 20 BEST DAY TRIPS
1. Waikato Coalfields Museum, Huntly: Tells the story of early coalminers and their families, and major mining accidents, through a reconstructed mine tunnel, old equipment and personal items. Ph (07) 828 8128; coal.net.nz.
2. Morrin Museum, 41 Canada St, Morrinsville: A small museum focused on the district's farming, military and pioneering past, and the Maori Parliament. Includes an early pioneer cottage (1874) and a section of the elaborately carved waka Maungaturoto. Phone (07) 889 4190; morrinsvilleheritagecentre.org.nz.
3. Te Awamutu: The museum has an interactive gallery devoted to stars Neil and Tim Finn, an exhibition paying tribute to dogs and permanent displays on the New Zealand Land Wars and the Tainui people. Phone (07) 872 0085; tamuseum.org.nz. Then follow the 15-minute Pioneer Walk from the Sculpture Park, along a stream and through lovely rose gardens. See teawamutu.co.nz.
4. Mangapohue Natural Bridge: On Te Anga Rd, off SH3, west of Waitomo, discover this dramatic 17m-high natural limestone arch with a stalactite-studded ceiling; the remains of an ancient cave system. At night see glow worms and possibly bats. Nearby is Marokopa Tunnel and Piripiri Caves, which contain fossilised oysters. See doc.govt.nz.
5. Waterfalls: Gaze at the breathtaking 55m-high Bridal Veil Falls (Te Mata Rd near Raglan), the spectacular 153m-high Wairere Falls near Te Aroha (from Goodwin Rd carpark) and the gorgeous 35m-high Marokopa Falls (Te Anga Rd, near Waitomo). See doc.govt.nz and wonderwalkers.co.nz.
6. Maungatautari Ecological Island, Cambridge: A pest-proof barrier fence has helped create New Zealand's largest mainland wildlife sanctuary for kiwi, native birds, tuatara, giant weta and Hochstetter's frog. Try some of the easy walking tracks. 99 Tari Rd, Pukeatua. Phone (07) 823 7455; maungatrust.org.
7. Thames Goldmine Experience: Go underground at the country's only working 19th century goldmine, try gold panning and learn about miners' lives. Head to the Thames Goldrush Market Day on January 9. Phone (07) 863 9020; goldmine-experience.co.nz.
8. Otorohanga Kiwi House and Native Bird Park: Admire our shy national bird up close inside a nocturnal viewing house. There is also a huge walk-in dome aviary. Otorohanga's annual Kiwiana Festival is on March 3. Phone (07) 873 7391; kiwihouse.org.nz.
9. Te Waihou (Blue Spring) Walkway, Putaruru: Enjoy a dip in the famous Blue Springs on this scenic 4.7km walkway (access off Whites Rd, SH28) along the Waihou River. See doc.govt.nz.
10. Hakarimata Scenic Reserve bush walks, Ngaruawahia: Hug the Waikato's tallest kauri trees just 40 minutes' walk along the Kauri Loop Track (access off Brownlee Rd) and enjoy the views doc.govt.nz.
11. Karangahake Windows Walk: This spectacular one-hour loop walk in the Karangahake Gorge (SH2) passes through remnants of the Talisman and Crown mining operations and crosses a suspension bridge. Its four "windows" look down on the Ohinemuri River gorge below. See doc.govt.nz.
12. Miranda Shorebird Centre, Firth of Thames: Thousands of New Zealand shorebirds and Arctic wading birds feed on the shellbanks and tidal flats at Miranda all year round, especially from January to March. Phone (09) 232 2781; miranda-shorebird.org.nz.
13. Farm shows: Feed cute animals (alpacas to kunekune pigs), see sheep shearing, hand-milk a cow, ride a pony and saw a log. The kids will love it! Experiences available at Waitomo Big Bird B&B and Petting Farm, Bullswool Farm Park near Paeroa and Billy Black's Kiwi Culture Show in Waitomo.
14. Alphra Lavenders, Te Awamutu: Learn about lavender farming and the oil distillation process. Best to visit from November to January. Phone (07) 870 3217; lavendergreen.co.nz.
15. Gardens: Waitakaruru Arboretum and Sculpture Park in Tauwhare is a former quarry transformed into 17ha of landscaped gardens and trees, and a changing outdoor exhibition of contemporary sculptures. Phone (07) 824 0928, sculpturepark.co.nz.
16. Pa Harakeke Eco-Cultural Centre, Pureora: Interactive Maori eco and cultural tours. Learn about the traditional uses of harakeke flax fibre for weaving, fishing, medicine and skincare, and sample great kai. Phone (07) 929 8708; paharakeke.co.nz.
17. Wineries: Tour Waikato's finest boutique wineries: Ohinemuri Estate in the Karangahake Gorge, Tamahere's Woodfield Estate, Lane's End and Hilltop Vineyard; Rukuhia's Vilagrad Wines; Ohaupo's Mystery Creek Wines; and Garden Country Wines near Te Awamutu.
18. Paeroa: Hunt for treasures in Paeroa's fantastic antique shops. Then check out the Paeroa and District Museum, Paeroa Arts Centre and drive up to see Owaharoa Falls.
19. Waikato River Trails: Hire a bike and explore this challenging 100km walking/cycling route in the South Waikato through native bush, exotic forest, wetlands, farmland and hydro lake villages. Phone (07) 883 3720; waikatorivertrails.com.
20. Lake Karapiro: Enjoy a guided kayaking trip, where you will paddle into a hidden inlet with access to two waterfalls. Phone (07) 827 8286; theboatshed.net.nz.