Discover: Three unfamiliar wine regions - Waikato, Bay of Plenty & Ōhau
The Waikato, Bay of Plenty and Ōhau share the distinction of being New Zealand’s smallest and least known wine regions but that’s just the beginning of their diverse flavours and attractions.
Scratch below the surface and the fertile green pastures and rolling hills of the Waikato region reveal hidden secrets - hobbit homes, underground caverns and a distinctive terroir.
Named for the mighty Waikato River, which flows all the way from Lake Taupō in the central North Island to empty into the Tasman Sea just south of Auckland, this productive farming region benefits from a gentle landscape and pleasant warm, moist climate.
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The Waikato is one of New Zealand’s original tourism destinations. When visitors first began coming here 130 years ago, it was to the famed glow-worm grottos of the Waitomo Caves, now it’s also the movie set home of hobbits, gorgeous gardens and cycling trails.
Today, Hamilton / Kirikiriroa - on the banks of the Waikato River - is a rapidly expanding city with a university and a bustling centre for commerce, agriculture, education and events. High quality regional produce fuels the city’s vibrant food scene so it’s never far to find a tasty bite in the many cafes, pubs and restaurants. Seek out award-winning cheeses, to-die-for ice-cream and sweets, great coffee and excellent bread and patisseries to match, and check out the farmers’ markets in Hamilton (Sundays), and the country towns of Cambridge (Saturdays) and Te Awamutu (Thursday evenings).
Small pockets of vineyards scattered amidst rolling farmland await discovery. The moderate climate combined with heavy loams over clay subsoils favours production of Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc styles.
Visitors to Hamilton usually find their way to Hamilton Gardens, a remarkable project that has transformed an unsightly old refuse site into the country’s most celebrated public gardens – 54 glorious hectares of themed gardens representing many different civilisations, beginning with a traditional Māori garden.
From Hamilton, it’s only a short trip to the region’s main tourist attractions. Just 50 minutes south-east of Hamilton is Matamata and another outstanding garden, better known as Hobbiton. Set in green pastures, this is the celebrated movie set of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit with its 44 hobbit holes and gardens, lake and Green Dragon Inn.
The famed Waitomo Caves, southwest of Hamilton, are the main entrance to a vast underground network of ancient limestone formations that rose from the ocean floor 30 million years ago. There is a whole range of eco adventures to experience the caves and the trillions of glow-worms that light this other-worldly landscape – by boat, walking, floating, rafting or even abseiling into the deep.
Outdoor adventurers will appreciate the wide variety of cycling trails along the banks of the Waikato River, and the world famous east coast surfing break near Raglan - a little seaside town with a cool Bohemian vibe.
Hamilton is conveniently situated on the main north-south highway, and about halfway between Auckland (1.5 hours’ drive) and Taupo (2 hours). Fly in from other North and South Island destinations, or stop off on the daily Northern Explorer scenic train that runs between Auckland and Wellington.
Don’t miss: Just 45 minutes' drive from Hamilton, the Hobbiton Movie Set is a must-do, not just for film fans. The Waitomo Caves, another unmissable Waikato highlight, are an hour from Hamilton.
Bay of Plenty
Plentiful amply sums up the Bay of Plenty, a coastal paradise with a year-round sunny climate, an ocean of seafood and rich volcanic soils where fruity goodness grows.
Sitting pretty on the east coast of the North Island, against the backdrop of the Pacific and an endless parade of sandy beaches and holiday resorts, the Bay of Plenty’s outstanding landscapes are designed for outdoors relaxation.
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Come summer, and Kiwis are out in force on holiday in the region that officially owns the title of New Zealand’s sunniest destination. The Pacific Coast Highway cruises alongside 177km of white sand beaches - from Waihi to ‘the Mount’ to Papamoa to Ohope, and everything in between, a who’s who of New Zealand’s best loved beaches, an outdoor playground that sets the scene for classic Kiwi beach holidays.
Tauranga (pop: 145,000) - New Zealand’s fifth largest and fastest growing city - is a sprawling cosmopolitan oasis almost completely surrounded by water. Tauranga means ‘place of rest or anchorage’ in Māori and while the safe harbour and sparkling views make it a great place to relax, there’s also plenty to keep visitors busy and active. The city has a lively hospitality scene, boutique shopping and is the setting off point for many tours and adventures.
Commercial fishing is a major activity at the Port of Tauranga and, inland, this warm fertile region is a centre of horticulture, producing much of New Zealand’s kiwifruit crop, alongside other diverse fruit and produce, manuka honey, and dairy products. A handful of artisan wineries produce varietals ranging from Bordeaux reds and Syrah to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, and Sauvignon Blanc with grapes sourced from the region and further afield.
Eating local is a highlight for foodies in this region of plenty. Inspired by the ready supply of seafood and produce, the cafe and restaurant scene in Tauranga and nearby Mt Maunganui is endowed with discerning eateries and fine dining establishments serving international and Pacific fusion cuisine. Take a half- or full-day food tour of the Bay to meet producers, taste their wares at source and discover some of the best places to eat.
There are many ways to experience the spectacular scenery and natural wonders from wildlife spotting and encounters, including swimming with dolphins, to diving and big game fishing, learning to kayak, surf or paddle board. On shore, there are well formed trails for hiking and mountain-biking, scenic flights and kayaking by night into a secluded glow-worm chasm.
Visitors also enjoy exploring the 1000-year-old Māori heritage. Cultural experiences include the Mataatua Wharenui in Whakatane, an intricately carved Māori meeting house, gifted to Queen Victoria and exhibited around the world.
Tauranga is a scenic 2.5 hour drive or 35 minute flight from Auckland, and just an hour's drive from adventure and Māori culture hub Rotorua. Mild winters and some of the warmest, driest conditions in the country ensure this is a year-round destination.
Don’t miss: On Tauranga Harbour and 15 minutes' drive from the city, Mauao / Mount Maunganui (The Mount) is New Zealand's most popular beach town, and an ideal spot to peruse cafes and galleries. After a day in the sun, finish with a relaxing soak at Mount Maunganui’s hot saltwater pools, or enjoy a sunset walk to the top of the famous Mount.
New Zealand’s newest wine sub-region, Ōhau is a tiny country settlement in the lush Kāpiti/Horowhenua region, a temperate, fertile coastal corridor sandwiched between the sea and a mountain range and a growing reputation for fine drops.
Just north of the capital city, the hills, forests and beaches of this warm coastal area are a favourite weekend getaway for Wellingtonians. While it’s always been about the outdoor pursuits, there’s now new reason with award-winning wines to discover.
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The Kāpiti/Horowhenua coast has long served as Wellington’s market garden but in the 21st century a new wave of growers are setting a different table. The sheltered stony river terraces facing due west have proved an ideal proposition for new cultivations, firstly olive groves, then vineyards adding a Mediterranean touch to hills fringed with groves of nikau palms swaying in the ocean breezes.
Ōhau is New Zealand’s newest wine sub-region with, for now, just 40 hectares of plantings supplying a single winery. The only commercial vineyard in the Kāpiti/Horowhenua region, Ōhau Wines has been creating award-winning aromatic wines, notably Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, since 2009.
On the main north - south highway (SH1), Ōhau village sits between the country towns of Levin and Otaki. Visit on the third Saturday of the month when the Ohau Market comes alive with its community of farmers, artists and musicians and taste your way around the local produce, preserves and baking.
Long sandy beaches with impressive sand dunes and pounding surf offer good fishing and boating, and wide open spaces for walking, cycling, horse riding and even 4WD where it’s permitted.
On the southern end of the coast, Paraparaumu Beach Golf Club is a traditional links course located on the undulating dunes. Tiger Woods once played on this course which has featured in seven top 100s over the past couple of decades and hosted multiple New Zealand Golf Opens.
There are many trails for scenic walks and hiking in the hills. Wildlife sanctuary Kapiti Island dominates ocean vistas, while, on a good day, the views from the lookout on the Kohitere Trig walk stretch all the way to the South Island and the central North Island volcanoes. Further south, the Paekakariki Escarpment Track is another spectacular hill climb.
Wetland forests once covered the coastal lowlands and there are several sanctuaries on the remnants of ancient forested swamps. Wander the tracks around Lake Waiwiri in the Papaitonga Scenic Reserve near Levin, home to prolific native wildlife, or experience the nightly kiwi encounter at Ngā Manu Nature Reserve, near Waikanae.
Ōhau is on the main highway (State Highway 1), north of Wellington (1 hours’ drive) and just south of Levin (10 minutes). Fly into Wellington or Palmerston North (40 minutes to Levin).
Don’t miss: Just 40 minutes' drive from Ōhau is Paraparaumu and the departure point for boat trips to Kapiti Island. Join the resident Maori hosts at Kapiti Nature Tours for a day trip or stay in their comfortable glamping accommodation to experience some of New Zealand’s most beautiful and endangered species.