The roads running down the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island aren’t so often travelled by overseas visitors.
It’s their loss. This is a place of gorgeous rolling farmland pock-marked by cloud-catching mountains and spectacular cave systems. There are also plenty of pubs, cafes and restaurants along the way to sample some of New Zealand’s best produce.
In partnership with Tourism New Zealand, here’s a road-tripper’s guide for travelling from Hamilton to Taranaki – what to eat, drink and where to stay, and what to check out along the way. Consider it daydream fuel.
You’ll find this fabulous neighbourhood cafe set back from the Waikato River on a poky corner in East Hamilton. Celebrated for its lengthy, locally sourced brunch and lunch menus (a braised Awhi Farms beef shin melt was recently a finalist in the Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover), Hayes also serves Auckland’s Atomic Coffee Roasters, local craft beer on tap and by the bottle, and a tight New Zealand-leaning wine list. But just the digs themselves make a pleasant place to spend some time: a warm communal space of timber, plaster, steel, glass and crisp tiling, brought to life with a neat green, orange and white paint job. Consider this your local while in town.
An all-day diner with a terrace overlooking the Waikato River, Mr Pickles is a cornerstone of Riverside Lane, a new mixed-use Hamilton development with a suite of retail, cafes, bars and restaurants. The menu is forever changing but you might eat small plates of charcuterie and cheese or larger serves of market-fish curry, fresh clams from Cloudy Bay, or an all-plant gnocchi made with Waikato mushrooms. For drinks, there’s a bunch of New Zealand wines, a short selection of tap beer and tinnies, and a keenly priced cocktail list. The site is a modern looker – all concrete and parquet-style tiled floors and winsome globe lights. Arrive in the afternoon but don’t be afraid to graze on into the night.
Housed in an old Salvation Army Corps building, Social Kitchen is an unexpectedly swanky bar and bistro that features unadorned concrete walls, tufted turquoise leather banquettes and plenty of neon. That’s perhaps a statement of intent for a menu that unabashedly leans into its meat. It comes in all variations: sliced into carpaccio and slathered with horseradish; smoked, pulled then stuffed into empanadas; squeezed into sausages and served with beer mustard. There’s even barbequed lamb heart if you’re feeling brave. Just as tasty are sides of butter-braised cabbage with crispy pancetta, and roasted Roebuck Farm baby carrots with sun-dried tomato yoghurt. For drinks, it’s a clutch of classic cocktails, sauvignon blanc and pinot on-tap, and a tight list of bubbles.
Mike’s Brewery Bistro
Mike’s Brewery Bistro in New Plymouth is legendary – not just because it’s been making ahead-of-its-time microbrews since 1989, but because the man himself still works the bar on Devon Street East, right in the centre of town. He’s busy pouring 28 craft beers – some are the brewery’s own, others from guests. Despite its reputation, the brewpub itself is endearingly no-fuss. There are comfortable couches and long tables, perfect for sharing a brew with strangers. The drinks are backed by an all-day menu serving beer-friendly snacks such as chicken tenders and Wagyu brisket, and a mains menu that includes High Country salmon with coconut cream, lemongrass and lime sauce, and a lamb-shank pot pie served with winter vegetables.
Chateau Tongariro Hotel
A Miyizaki movie made real, Chateau Tongariro is a work of kauri carpentry and prisoner’s brick that could just as easily be a Californian Gothic Revival castle. Built in 1928, the building stands slap-bang in the middle of the world-heritage Tongariro National Park, where three sacred volcanoes – Tongariro, Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe – loom over the hotel. There’s a storied boom-and-bust tale behind the chateau but these days it’s a luxury destination with an in-house cinema and a silver-service restaurant, capacious lounges and high tea. There’s a huge variety of accommodation available, ranging from economy rooms right up to the grand 100-square-metre Te Heuheu Suite. It’s the perfect place to retire after a long summer trek in the park or a ski at the nearby Whakapapa ski field.
What at first glance looks like a classic small-town corner pub is, in fact, a boutique inn. The State Hotel has 15 studio rooms, recently renovated in rich fabrics, a mix of modern and period furniture, and prints by Kiwi artist Michele Bryant. The renovation extended to the ground floor, where State Pasta now flips house-made bowls of ravioli, stortini and agnolotti, and Joe’s Garage serves coffee and a menu that offers cafe standards in the morning before shifting into burgers and pizza in the afternoon. Otherwise, you’re in the middle of the city here: Social Kitchen, Mike’s Brewery Bistro and Shining Peak Brewing are all just a short walk away.
Part of a wider network of more than 300 caves carved by the movement of an underground river through limestone rock, Waitomo is a New Zealand national treasure. There are three caves to explore: the enormous Ruakuri Cave; the Aranui Cave, known for its otherworldly pale brown, pink and white stalactites and stalagmites; and the world-famous Glowworm Caves – a silent boat ride through this darkened glowworm grotto has been a Kiwi tourist attraction for more than 130 years. The best way to tackle it is with a multi-cave combo ticket, on which you can visit two or three caves at a discounted rate.
Forgotten World Adventures
It took 32 years to lay the rails from Stratford to Taumarunui. The workers, using pick-axes, dug its 24 tunnels through mountains for a dollar a day. Despite the toil, the completed rail line was only used for 50 years before being mothballed. Enterprising Waikato councillor and farmer Ian Balme has now repurposed the railway as a visionary tourism project: he built a fleet of specially designed personal railway carts to traverse the entire line. Travellers can choose from a half-day, full-day or two-day tour, the last of which covers the entire 142-kilometre rail line from Taumarunui to Stratford. Along the way, you’ll cross all 98 bridges and see the remnants of the original settlements along the line, and stay overnight in the quaint Republic of Whangamomona. There’s talk of reopening the line to dairy and log traffic, so maybe knock this off while you can.
Egmont National Park
The parkland reserve that encompasses the picture-book Mount Taranaki, Egmont is a place of lush waterfalls, rainforests, mossy swamps, and tall rimu and kamahi trees. The park has an extensive network of walking tracks, ranging from a 15-minute stroll along the Kamahi Track to the three-day Pouakai Circuit, which takes in the towering columns of the Dieffenbach Cliffs, the mighty Bells Falls and the high-altitude Ahukawakawa Swamp. You can climb to the peak of Taranaki to check out its almost perfectly symmetrical volcanic cone, but allow between six and 10 hours return to knock it off and gear up appropriately – only experienced snow and ice climbers should tackle it during winter. You can also ski on the mountain’s eastern slopes during the colder months.
Refer to the New Zealand Department of Conservation website for more information, and updates on trail maintenance and weather.
This story is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Tourism New Zealand.