This weekend away in March was amazing! We ditched Auckland and had an epic three-day family adventure in Hamilton. Our itinerary was co-ordinated by Hamilton & Waikato tourism and was so good I’ve decided to share it step by step in case anyone wants full details on how to max out three days with your kids, in a super-fun city just 127km from Auckland, NZ.
We left Auckland around midday on Friday and had a great drive south to arrive in Hamilton at 2 pm.
After check-in at the Sudima Hotel, we walked across the street to the Waikato Museum. Let me tell you, Friday afternoon is the time to visit if you want a really peaceful, quiet experience. We spent almost a full hour just in the Exscite exhibit. Every activity is a kid magnet. The boys ran around in a frenzy at first, touching on every station within the first 15 minutes. They calmed down a little after that, took their time and really took it all in.
After visiting Milk Matters, For Us They Fell, Te Winika, Beyond the Cordon and the Bob Marley exhibit (all awesome), we left the museum and headed a couple of blocks along Victoria St to Bowl & Social. Situated in Sky City, we were totally unprepared for how cool a bowling alley could be!
We bowled one game with the boys (Even Nix loved it at 3.5yo) and enjoyed a really great meal overlooking the river. This is hipster heaven, but equally perfect for a family fun date or birthday party – there were three parties in action while we were there!
Part of the Balloons over Waikato calendar is the City Burn and Markets. The boys were a bit shattered so I left them with Dave and walked the single block to Garden Place in the city. What a fun family event! There were food vendors, market stalls, live music and of course the choreographed basket burn set to a really cool soundtrack. I loved this, it was quick and awesome and makes a fairly early night for the kids.
Day 2 – Super busy AWESOME day!
We enjoyed breakfast at the hotel and loaded up for the drive south (54min) to Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari. We had no idea what to expect, but if you LOVE getting your family out in the New Zealand native forest like we do, then this is a must-do on your next visit to the Waikato.
Surrounded by the world’s longest pest-proof fence, Sanctuary Mountain’s ancient forest offers a sanctuary for populations of many of our most endangered species – from birds to bats, frogs to reptiles, tuatara to giant weta.
We spent the morning on an amazing tour along one of the many trails and just soaked in the abundant native wildlife that is being so well protected here. Major highlights were seeing many Kaka plus Ethan and I did a solo mission to a freshwater pool and were wowed by the biggest Kura we have ever seen!
Tip: Don’t be off-put by less-than-perfect weather. We visited on a rainy, gloomy morning but the thick forest canopy did an excellent job of keeping us dry and happy.
Next on the itinerary was a trip to the famed Waitomo Glowworm caves. After an easy 47-minute drive south-west of Sanctuary Mountain, we were sitting down for lunch at Waitomo Homestead. Delicious cafe food, well-priced and a convenient spot to refuel before you begin your cave adventure.
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are an NZ institution. I first remember visiting with my parents when I was a little girl and loved bringing my own boys back here to experience the beauty of the underground caves and magical, twinkling glowworms. This is a beautifully run operation and something special but, as a kiwi, I couldn’t put my finger on what was missing and have only just figured it out as I sit here in Ubud completely surrounded by Balinese culture. It is a completely sterile operation, almost devoid of any Maori/NZ culture or history – it could conceivably be picked up and plonked anywhere in the world. I’m not sure international visitors would pick up on this but it seemed really odd to me.
The rain began to fall as we headed back to Hamilton and we were fading a little. We were seriously considering skipping the weekend’s main event, the Balloons Over Waikato Zuru Night Glow. Instead, we hardened up, charged it and were rewarded by the rain clearing and the most fabulous family night out in a long time. Held at the University of Waikato, this is an event worth travelling for. The food vendors provided ample choice (we chose some fab burritos), the music from The Jordan Luck Band was incredible, the hot air balloon light show set to an awesome soundtrack kept even Nixon in raptures and the fireworks finale was simply outstanding.
Put the Night Glow Event on your family calendar for 2018. It’s a seriously good night that I expect to become an annual tradition in our family.
We delayed the inevitable drive back to Auckland for as long as possible with our first visit to the famed Hamilton Gardens. Over the past few years I’ve been coveting pictures of the many varied landscapes within the gardens so was super keen to explore with the kids.
The space here is incredible, there are tourist buses aplenty (and rightly so) but you can easily find a spot to yourself and lay out a blanket and wile away an hour or two with a picnic.
Which is exactly what we did – after 2 separate plays at the beautiful Hamilton Gardens Destination Playground. Both boys, big and small, had such a wicked time here. Just like the wider gardens I feel like you may spot something new to do here every time you visit.
Phone ahead and let the professionals at The Hamilton Garden Cafe take care of lunch. We picked up our laden basket and blankets and settled down to the most delicious lunch under a tree in the Rose Garden. The food was ah-mazing, not exaggerating one bit. I dream of another picnic like this one lol
What a weekend Hamilton/Waikato! We enjoyed some incredible activities and visited some beautiful spots but we also saw twice as many things that are now on our to-do list for our next long weekend.
We stayed the weekend at Sudima Hotel in Hamilton City. We had a huge 2 bedroom suite with, pretty much a full kitchen, 2 large bedrooms and a balcony – a perfect, kid-friendly hotel right on ‘the strip’ in Hamilton and surrounded by amazing restaurants and things to do.
Tip – the street side room can be a bit noisy at night so pop the kids in the interior room and bring some earplugs if you’re a light sleeper like me.