Hamilton is the jumping off point for some of the most famous attractions and sights in New Zealand. Here's a quick list of the highlights of the area.


“Home is now behind you, the world is ahead!” Set deep in the rolling hills on the Waikato, you’ll find the green pastures of the Shire, home to Frodo, Bilbo Baggins and some 10,000 sheep. No epic journey is necessary; all you have to do to get to Middle Earth is hop on a tour bus at the Hobbiton Movie Set, 501 Buckland Rd. Matamata (tel. 07/888-1505). The 4.8-hectare (12-acre) site was the actual set used in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films, and a tour of it allows you to walk inside hobbit holes and have a drink at the Green Dragon Inn. Evening tours include a banquet feast fit to feed a Hobbit, and on select weekends you can enjoy “second breakfast” at the Millhouse. The two-hour basic tours depart daily roughly every 10 minutes (with the last tour departing at 3:10pm) and cost NZ$89 adults, NZ$44 children 9 to 16 (under 9 free) NZ$225 for a family pass. Breakfast and banquets (bookings essential) cost extra. Arrive at the Shire’s Rest 15 minutes before your tour to pick up your ticket and board your bus.

Hobbiton may have the trademark, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on Tolkien film locations. On the small and low-key tours offered by Hairy Feet Waitomo, 1411 Mangaotaki Rd., Piopio, near Waitomo (tel. 07/877-8003), you can visit a private farm with spectacular limestone cliffs and see locations where key scenes from "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" were filmed. These include the spot where Gandalf gives Bilbo the sword known as “Sting.” The 90-minute tours run at 10am and 1pm and cost NZ$70 adults and NZ$40 children up to 14.

Waitomo (Caves, Caves and More Caves)

A little dot on the map, Waitomo is famous for just one thing: its vast network of ancient limestone caves, many of which are inhabited by glowworms. Endemic to New Zealand and parts of Australia, glowworms are the larvae of a fungus gnat, which produces a blue-green bioluminescence as part of its excrement. Yes, thousands of people have been travelling here since the 1880s to see what’s essentially glowing poo. (Sorry.) Granted, putting it like that makes it sound a bit less romantic, but trust me when I say it’s a phenomenon you don’t want to miss. You can learn more about it at the small museum within the Waitomo Caves Discovery Centre and i-SITE Visitor Info Centre.

Waitomo has three main “tourist caves”: the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, Aranui Cave, and Ruakuri Cave. All charge an entrance fee, but several much smaller glowworm caves exist at designated DOC sites nearby that you can access for free, including along the 30-minute Ruakuri Walk. Waitomo also isn’t your only chance to see glow worms in NZ; they can be found throughout the entire country, although usually in smaller numbers.

Waitomo Caves

With that being said, if you’re looking for the wow factor, shell out for a tour at the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, 39 Waitomo Village Rd. (tel. 07/878-8228). Of the three caves, it’s the star of the show. It’s touristy, no doubt, but it’s also undeniably impressive: A guided tour takes you through 250m (820 ft.) of spectacular underground scenery like the Cathedral, a cavern with such good acoustics that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (a Kiwi opera singer) and the Vienna Boys’ Choir have sung here. The tour includes a very short boat trip through the twinkly Glowworm Grotto (perfect for the 10-year-old in your party). One-hour tours depart every half hour starting at 9am, with the last tour leaving at 4pm. NZ$61 for adults, NZ$28 for children 4–14, and NZ$154 for a family pass. (Discounts are sometimes available on weekday tours; check the website for discount codes.)

Discover Waitomo also operates tours to Aranui Cave (which doesn’t have glow worms due to the absence of water but does have spectacular natural formations) and the Ruakuri Cave (where you can see glow worms up close). The latter was first discovered by Māori almost 500 years ago and today you can do NZ’s longest guided underground walking tour, which includes a descending down a massive spiral staircase.

That’s a lot of options, so here’s my advice: Combine a visit to the main Waitomo Glowworm Cave with a rafting adventure in the Ruakuri Cave. Best for those who want a rush of adrenaline, are physically agile, and don’t mind getting wet, the Legendary Black Water Rafting Company’s Black Labyrinth tour (bookable with Discover Waitomo) is a memorable three-hour caving and tubing adventure. Visitors jump off waterfalls backwards in the dark and float on their backs along an underground river lit only by glow worms in the Ruakuri Cave. Both morning and afternoon departures are available. It’s NZ$170 adults, NZ$130 for youth (the tour is for those aged 12 and older), and NZ$528 for a family. Weekday and shoulder season promo codes are also often available on Discover Waitomo’s website.

Visiting more than one cave is the best bang for your buck; when you choose a combo package for two or more caves, you’ll save 33 percent off the ticket prices. But you likely don’t want to see all three caves, as that will start to get boring and redundant.

But wait! There are more caves, and ones most visitors don’t know about. Waitomo Adventures, 1227 Waitomo Valley Rd. (tel. 07/878-7788) also offers a blackwater rafting tour (NZ$160) in the Tumu Tumu Cave, abseiling (starting from NZ$425) and even an underground escape room (NZ$15). Lowdown: lots of adrenaline and few crowds.

Or try the Spellbound Glowworm and Cave Tour, 334 Boddies Rd. (tel. 0800/773-552 in NZ or 07/878-7622), which boasts such an unbelievable display by glow worms that renowned British naturalist Sir David Attenborough decided to feature them in two BBC documentaries. This is tour is less touristy and more personalized (with smaller groups) than the ones above. It includes a short drive into the hinterland, two cave visits, short scenic walks and coffee/tea. It runs daily starting at 10am or 3:30pm and costs NZ$70 for adults and NZ$24 for kids 14 and under.


With its sprawling oak trees, antique shops, historic churches, and cute main square, it’s easy to understand why Cambridge has won both “most beautiful large town in New Zealand” and “New Zealand’s most beautiful street.” As the center of the Australasian thoroughbred horse industry, it’s also a serious equestrian center; in the surrounding paddocks on the outskirts of town, keep an eye out for sleek, expensive racehorses. If you'd like to see some of the region’s equine athletes in action, time your visit to coincide with a night when there’s harness racing at the Cambridge Raceway, Taylor St. (tel. 07/827-5506). There are about 30 to 70 race dates a year.

The region is also home to one of the most transcendent (and I don’t use that word lightly) experiences in NZ. On a sunset tour with Riverside Adventures’ Twilight Glow Worm Kayak (tel. 0800/287-448 in NZ or 0277/287-448), you’ll paddle over the submerged Horahora power station, before heading through a river gorge and past “glowworm city” (a spot on the riverbanks where the creatures congregate) —the latter taking place in complete darkness and silence. The four-hour tour costs NZ$125 for ages 8 and up, with a family pass available for NZ$420. This family-owned business also offers bike rentals and tours along the Waikato River Trails, a 65-mile path that winds along beside the river. The grade two and three trail follows old bush tramways from logging days and includes eight large suspension bridges.

Also nearby is Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari (tel. 07/870-5180), a fully fenced predator-free wildlife preserve. It’s one of dozens of such sanctuaries around the country, which protect endangered and endemic wildlife from stoats, possums and rats. But though it isn’t the glossiest, it is one of the most accessible—and one the largest of its kind in the world. Its 3,400 hectares (8,400 acres) are home to native species including kiwis, tuataras (an ancient reptile), and giant wētā (a type of flightless crickets). Visitor passes cost NZ$22, but the volunteer-led tours (starting at NZ$37) improve your chances of seeing the native birds and lizards. (For kiwis, book the private night tour for up to four people, which costs NZ$303.) The visitor center is open from 9am to 4pm daily.


Raglan is one of those surfing towns that act as a vortex. You know the type: people intend to just stay a night and somehow are still there years, or even decades, later. (Consider this fair warning.) It’s an undeniably pleasant place with a number of surf schools, boutique clothing shops, and alternative cafes. If your itinerary is too tight for a lifetime stay (or even just an overnight one), visiting the seaside town can be done as daytrip from Hamilton or Cambridge. It’s only a 45-minute drive from Hamilton on SH23 but budget an extra hour for a side trip to the spectacular, 180-foot Wairēinga/Bridal Veil Falls ★★. Turn left at the signed turnoff at Te Mata Rd., which later turns into Kawhia Rd, and follow it for 4km (2.5 miles) until you reach the carpark. There’s a wheelchair accessible viewing platform at the top, but if you’ve got a bit of energy to burn, the viewing platforms at the bottom offer the best views.

Once you reach Raglan, it’s borderline mandatory to take a surf lesson or at least rent a board. There are a handful of companies that offer both, but we like the family-friendly Raglan Surfing School, 5A Bankart St. (tel. 07/825-7873) which offers group (NZ$84) and private (from NZ$129) lessons at Ngarunui Beach, the town’s busy main beach off Wainui Rd. That’s also where you’ll find the surf school’s trailer, where you can rent wetsuits, surf boards and body boards by the hour. (A board and wetsuit will run you NZ$25 for two hours. Rentals of six hours or overnight cost NZ$45.) Finally, don’t leave town without grabbing a coffee from Raglan Roast (see “Where to Eat” below) or browsing the boutiques and galleries lining Bow St. and Wainui Rd.

About an hour south of Raglan is one of New Zealand’s best-kept secrets: Kawhia Hot Water Beach. It’s offers the same experience as Coromandel’s famed Hot Water Beach but without the crowds. If you arrive two hours on either side of low tide, the hot waters of the Te Puia Hot Springs bubble up to the surface, allowing you to dig your own hot tub in the black sand. Most bring their own spade or borrow one from a local campgrounds, but I’ve found that using my hands is sufficient; you don’t need to dig very deep. You’ll find the beach at the end of Ocean Beach Rd., where there’s a parking lot and set of toilets.
An indoor experience worth stopping for can be found east in the Waikato, at the Te Aroha Mineral Spas Te Aroha Domain (tel. 07/884-8717). Situated in a restored Edwardian bathhouse, the spa offers private mineral hot tubs (from NZ$22 per adult and NZ$11 per child for 30 minutes) and massage and beauty treatments (from NZ$60).  

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.