This pretty oak-filled town of 11,000 is the bright star of the Australasian bloodstock industry - sort of a miniature Kentucky, if you like. Its old homes and rolling green fields make it a delightful spot for a day visit from Hamilton, or a stopover on your journey south. In the last 2 years it has become more lively, and it deserves at least a 1-night stopover.
If you fancy "A Night at the Trots," head to the Cambridge Raceway, Taylor Street (tel. 07/827-5506; www.cambridgeraceway.co.nz), for the thrill and excitement of live harness and greyhound racing.
The town is also a treasure-trove of antiques. Antiques fairs are in September and April, and the Cambridge Information Centre has a good brochure that lists the best antiques dealers in Hamilton and Cambridge. If you're in the mood for a stroll, pick up the Heritage Trail brochure, which details heritage sites in town.
Nearby Lake Karapiro - 8km (5 miles) from town - is also a pleasant outing for boating, sailing, water-skiing, swimming, and rowing. If you're lucky, you might even spy one of New Zealand's Olympic rowing champions in training. Cambridge is home to the gold medal-winning Evers-Swindell twins, Georgina and Caroline.
Waitomo: Experiencing the Caves
The busy little pocket of tourist activity that is Waitomo is the exception in the otherwise quiet, cow-filled south Waikato pasture. The tiny village owes its existence to the remarkable limestone caves 70km (43 miles) south of Hamilton.
You can get to the area via the Waitomo Shuttle (tel. 0800/808-279 in NZ, or 07/873-8214), which connects to InterCity and Newmans coach services and Tranz Scenic trains in nearby Otorohanga. Waitomo Wanderer Scenic Shuttle (tel. 0508/926-337 in NZ, or 07/873-6108; www.waitomotours.co.nz) offers daily service between the caves and Rotorua. Kiwi Experience and Magic Travellers also run to the area. If you're driving from the north, take State Highway 1 south to State Highway 3, just south of Otorohanga, and turn west at the signpost for Waitomo Caves.
The Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre & i-SITE Visitor Information Centre, 21 Waitomo Caves Rd., Waitomo (tel. 0800/474-839 in NZ, or 07/878-7640; www.waitomodiscovery.org), is open daily. Admission to the museum is NZ$5 for adults and free for children. You can save a lot of time by booking most of your underground activities right here.
The caves are what make Waitomo a visitor destination, and the best among them are the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, 39 Waitomo Caves Rd. (tel. 0800/456-922 in NZ, or 07/878-8227; www.waitomo.com), which opens daily at 9am. They've opened a brand new visitor center with spectacular Maori carvings that includes an exhibition center, theater, restaurant, cafe, and gift shop. The caves' most impressive feature is "The Cathedral" ★★★, which rises 14m (46 ft.) and is an acoustically perfect auditorium that has been the site of performances by the Vienna Boys' Choir and Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. Your tour takes you through 250m (820 ft.) of stunning underground scenery, culminating in the glowworm caves. A cafe and shop complex are also on-site.
If you have time, include Aranui Cave - 15 minutes down the road - which doesn't have glowworms, but does have the most spectacular natural formations; you're allowed to take photographs here. Tickets for both are sold at the Waitomo Glowworm Cave ticket office.
Tours in the Glowworm Cave include a magical boat ride through the Glowworm Grotto. These leave daily every half-hour from 9am to 5pm, and hourly in the Aranui Cave from 10am to 3pm. A two-cave combination ticket costs NZ$75 adults, NZ$35 children ages 4 to 14, and NZ$175 for a family. The best time to visit the Glowworm Grotto is mid- to late afternoon, when the crowds are smaller. Bring a sweater because it's cooler underground, and wear strong footwear for walking. The caves are easily accessible to those with reasonable mobility and there are good handrails and pathways. Don't forget to ask about their various combo cave deals.
After being closed to the public for 15 years, Ruakuri reopened in 2005. Laced with myth and legend, Ruakuri ("den of dogs") was first discovered by Maori almost 500 years ago. It takes its name from the pack of wild dogs that lived in the cave entrance. Tours of the cave now depart from the Ruakuri Information Centre, at the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company, 585 Waitomo Caves Rd. (tel. 0800/782-5874; www.ruakuri.co.nz), daily (except Dec 25) at 9am, 10:30am, 11:30am, 12:30pm, 1:30pm, 2:30pm, and 3:30pm. Admission is NZ$75 adults, NZ$35 children ages 5 to 14.
Waitomo Adventures, 654 Waitomo Caves Rd. (tel. 0800/924-866 in NZ or 07/878-7788; www.waitomo.co.nz), is the other major player here. They have a wide range of underground daredevil adventures that include abseiling, rafting, swimming, and climbing. Most require a reasonable level of fitness and have a minimum age of 10, 12, or 15 years. Prices range from around $155 to NZ$425 and they offer several combo deals. Spellbound Glowworm & Cave Tours, Spellbound Tower, Waitomo Caves Rd. (beside Huhu Café; tel. 0800/773-552 in NZ; www.glowworm.co.nz), have unbelievable glowworm concentrations and they're not as busy as the main Waitomo Caves. You head into the backcountry and the 3 1/4-hour tour includes two cave visits and short scenic walks. Wear comfortable shoes and take a camera. The tours costs about NZ$75 for adults, and NZ$30 for kids under 14.
If you'd rather stay aboveground, consider tackling the new Dundle Hill Walk (tel. 0800/924-866 in NZ, or 07/878-7788; fax 07/878-6266; www.waitomowalk.com). During this 2-day, clearly marked, self-guided walk through native bush, forest, and farmland, you'll walk about 12km (7 1/2 miles) a day and stay at Dundle Hill hut. It requires moderate fitness and costs around NZ$75 adults, NZ$35 kids 15 and under.
You don't have to go far from Hamilton in any direction to find some unexpected treats. Taitua Arboretum, Taitua Rd., Whatawhata (tel. 07/847-5847), is a stunning collection of mature trees (over 1,500 species) planted more than 3 decades ago by John and Bunny Mortimer. Admission is free and it's open daily from 8am until half an hour before sunset. Te Aroha Mineral Spa Bath House, Domain Gardens, Boundary St., Te Aroha (tel. 07/884-9918; www.tearohapools.co.nz), is a replica 1900-style bath house built in 2006, using the waters of a natural soda spa spring. The town has been a soothing stop for weary travelers for over a century and the new spa continues that tradition. It's open daily, 11am to 9pm Monday through Thursday, and 10:30am to 10pm Friday through Sunday. A private spa costs NZ$18 for adults and NZ$11 for children 14 and under. They also have leisure pools (tel. 07/884-4499) with an admission fee of NZ$6 adults, NZ$4 children under 14. Hobbiton Movie Set & Farm Tours, 501 Buckland Rd., Matamata (tel. 07/888-9913; www.hobbitontours.com), combines a tour of a 506 hectare (1,250-acre) sheep farm with the piece of farmland that was transformed into The Shire from Middle Earth, used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It costs NZ$70 for adults, NZ$33 students, and NZ$6 children under 15. And the seaside town of Raglan (www.raglan.org.nz), is well worth a visit. It's a prime surfing spot, and has a large community of artists and some lovely cafes. To get there, leave Hamilton on State Highway 23. It's about a 45-minute drive.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.