Flanking the mighty Waikato River, which flows through the heart of the North Island, this prosperous farming region has had an international reputation as a tourism destination for at least 125 years. First it was the underground lights of glow-worm caverns in the famed Waitomo Caves; now it’s the home of hobbits, as featured in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies.
Long before Europeans were on the trail through the Waikato, Māori lived in this historically and culturally significant land. Many Waikato Māori trace their ancestry back 800 years, to the arrival of the Tainui waka (canoe), and before the arrival of Europeans the area was well populated with Māori pa (fortified villages) and an important centre of Māori commerce.
As British settlers flooded into New Zealand during the mid-1800s, Māori tribes united to choose a Māori king and form the Kingitanga (King Movement). The first king was Waikato chief Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, whose descendants continue to assume the role of king or queen and live at Turangawaewae, near the small town of Ngaruawahia.
On the northern bank of the Waikato River, Ngaruawahia is one of the Waikato's oldest settlements, and Turangawaewae marae is New Zealand's only royal residence. Watching over Ngaruawahia, Mount Taupiri's sacred slopes contain the Waikato’s most significant burial ground, where past Māori kings and the Māori Queen are buried.
Art and culture
Hamilton city, on the banks of the Waikato and halfway between Auckland and Rotorua or Taupo, is New Zealand’s fourth-largest city. The busy university town has a vibrant café and restaurant scene, which caters for major sporting, entertainment and agricultural events such as the Fieldays – the southern hemisphere's largest agricultural show. Hamilton also has a reputation as a business hub for creativity and innovation.
Hamilton Gardens covers 58 hectares (143 acres) of gardens, arranged in themes and collections and showcasing a wide variety of flora and garden styles from around the world.
Nature and wildlife
Two Middle Earth film locations have helped put the Waikato region’s dramatic landscapes on the tourist map.
Hobbiton – the village featured in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit film trilogies – is one of New Zealand’s most popular tourism attractions. The Hobbiton Movie Set, created on the rolling green hills of a Waikato farm for The Lord of the Rings, has become one of New Zealand’s most popular tourist destinations. It was rebuilt in permanent materials for the filming of The Hobbit trilogy.
Down the road near Piopio, the Hairy Feet Scenic Film Location Tour presents the towering limestone cliffs and primeval forest featured in several scenes from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.
Waitomo Caves are an ancient wonderland of stalactites, stalagmites, deep caverns and underground streams bathed in the ethereal light of millions of glow-worms. Named by early Māori explorers, Waitomo translates as wai (water) and tomo (hole).
The caves, which celebrated 125 years of guiding in 2014, are one of New Zealand's original and best-known tourist attractions. From peaceful guided walks to extreme black-water rafting adventures, there are several ways to explore this subterranean playground.
Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari is a significant conservation project that involves restoring a 3,400 hectare (8,400 acre) reserve to the way it was in ancient times. Protected by a 47 kilometre (29 mile) pest-proof fence, endangered native species such as kiwi, kaka and takahe are thriving in their natural environment. The reserve has walking tracks, a forest canopy tower, daily kaka feeding and night tours.
Adventure / outdoors
The region's native forests and parklands offer a range of easy day walks and multi-day hikes. The walkways in Mt Pirongia Forest Park pass through native bush filled with native New Zealand birds.
With a wide range of mountain biking trails – from downhill rides through forest to meandering alongside winding rivers – the Waikato is a popular mountain bike and cycle destination for riders of all fitness and skill levels.
The deep-flowing waters of the Waikato River are a fly-fishing haven and the setting for leisurely boat or kayak excursions. Hot air ballooning offers a different perspective on the region's green countryside and meandering waterways.
Raglan, a coastal town with a relaxed bohemian vibe, has one of New Zealand’s most famous surf beaches. Just 45 minutes west of Hamilton, the black sand beaches and world-famous left-hand surf break at Manu Bay – one of the longest in the world – attract surfers from all over the world.
Kawhia harbour is famed for its fishing and dramatic west coast beaches. At Te Puia hot pools on Ocean Beach, beachgoers can dig natural spas where hot spring waters bubble to the surface of the black sand.
And by the way...
Waikato River, at 425 kilometres (264 miles), is New Zealand's longest river.
Hamilton is New Zealand’s largest inland city.
Te Aroha Mineral Spa has the world’s only mineral hot soda springs.
New Zealand’s highest cave abseil descends more than 100 metres (328 feet) in the Waitomo Caves.
Raglan’s left-hand surf break featured in the 1966 surf classic documentary The Endless Summer.