WORDS KSENIIA SPODYNEIKO / PHOTOS ALEX SPODYNEIKO
To start this one-day photo-opportunity hunt in the Waikato, we drove 10 km out of Hamilton to the Zealong Tea Estate.
Local tea lover Vincent Chen went to Asia 11 years ago and selected 1,500 cuttings to grow tea in New Zealand. After along stint in quarantine, only 130 of the strongest plants survived. These cuttings quickly turned Vincent’s small garden into an organic plantation of one million little sprouts.
Retaining their organic status is a big deal. They aren’t allowed to spray the grass anywhere on the estate, and they hire staff to get rid of the bugs, rather than using pesticides.
We were lucky to be guided around by the amazing Annalese Webber. Currently the administrator, she started her career as a waitress in Zealong’s restaurant, where she still performs traditional tea ceremonies. They are an absolute must when visiting. We enjoyed our high tea on the terrace, complete with a traditional, three-tiered cake stand and a beautiful view over the plantation.
When you visit, be sure to wander over to the small lookout nearby. Strike a pose, post, and get ready to wake up famous.
The colourful flowers of Hamilton Gardens are not to be missed.
Follow the walk through the grounds and experience gardens from round the world. Dive into the Italian Renaissance Garden for impressive geometry and symmetry. The Japanese Garden of Contemplation surprised with its picturesque pond. The Sustainable Backyard offers a touch of cosiness and nostalgia. And the authenticity of the Indian Char Bagh Garden can confuse even the most experienced travellers (the best perspective is from the corner to the left of the entrance).
In the second half of the walk, the Tudor Garden truly steals the show! It features an epic stone tower, beastly sculptures, and instantly recognisable green and white stripes (thank you, Jonathan Rhys Meyers for turning us into Tudor experts). Stay on the balcony to capture the fantasy atmosphere of the place with some great angles.
When it comes to food, it would seem Hamilton can do no wrong. There are vibrant restaurants everywhere. Overlooking the beautiful Waikato River is the popular Gothenburg, with its fancy tapas menu. Crispy potato gnocchi with blue cheese, walnuts andpear are a win-win: delicious and beautifully presented. By the way, this place is known for the best view over the river. You get the idea.
For a more casual lunch, head to Mexico or Iguana. Located right across from each other on Victoria Street, it’s not an easy choice to make. Soft shell tacos filled with achiote plancha pork belly and apple chutney, or a seasonal pizza with coffee-rubbed venison and smoked mozzarella on a plum sauce base? Both, please.
No matter what you choose for lunch, make sure you leave room for a dessert. Duck Island Ice Cream (300a Grey Street) is organic, made in store and is literally the best ice cream ever! I would swap my left arm for an extra scoop of the ‘maple, honeycomb and smoked almond’. And they have 17 other outstanding flavours. ‘Rhubarb Szechuan peppercorn’, anyone?
We spent the rest of the day admiring Zuru Nightglow. The annual hot air balloon show is part of the week-long Balloons Over Waikato festival. This event is huge – Zuru Nightglow alone is said to be attended by 80,000 people!
At 8 pm, enormous balloons – in shapes of hugging birds, cartoon helicopters, and rockets – start to glow, following the rhythm of popular hits. It’s all topped off with fireworks, which make for exciting Insta pics – they are as beautiful as they are hard to capture! You simply can’t beat thousands of people photobombing your pics.
But there is always a second chance for someone fascinated by the hot air balloons in Hamilton. They fly over the city every morning throughout the festival, and there is always next year!
Te Aroha Mineral Spas: Fed by the world’s only known hot soda water geyser, these spas offer private wooden tubs and relaxing beauty treatments at the foot of Mount Te Aroha.
The Base: The largest shopping centre in New Zealand is definitely worth a visit. Loved by beauty moguls for The Body Shop, Lush and L’Occitane – all in one place.
Waikato Museum: Dinosaurs, tourism posters, milk production – the Waikato Museum exhibitions are a fascinating record of our young history.