The Jakarta Post
Although I'd always thought of myself as someone who likes to learn new things and meet new people, I was rather skeptical about spending a summer in New Zealand. The first time I went to visit the land of the Kiwis was August 2014, and I must say it was one of the best winter experiences I’ve ever had.
When I took my second to New Zealand early this year on a press junket with Emirates, I was worried about heatwaves. I consulted my Instagram feed and found a friend who accompanied her son to settle him in at a university in Wellington, North Island. One of her photos showed my friend looking windswept, clad in an oversized sweater and wool tights. No need to worry about a heatwave, I thought, but what about Auckland?
So I asked a friend who is a chef in Auckland, who said the city was very warm, with temperatures reaching up to 31 degrees Celsius. “People wear T-shirts and shorts here,” he messaged on WhatsApp, although he later suggested that I pack a light sweater, cardigan and a few long-sleeved shirts.
The day prior to my departure, I decided to take a down jacket with me, as I was also scheduled to spend a couple days in Hamilton, also on the North Island. I couldn’t think of anyone I could ask about Hamilton, but I expected this city might be quite chilly.
Once again, I – who likes to learn new things and meet new people – found myself questioning the New Zealand tour. Why would anyone go to Hamilton? What was so special about the city? And were we going to visit Hobbiton? Could this trip get more touristy?
These questions ran through my head as I reminisced my previous bespoke trip to New Zealand, touring the wineries in Queenstown, staying at boutique hotels and going on an exclusive foodie tour in Queenstown and Auckland.
Long story short, I landed in Auckland on a Sunday morning, excited and refreshed despite the seven-hour flight from Bali – thanks to the Emirates business class seat that allowed me to sleep well in a flat position.
After surviving the long queue at immigration among many fit and young Latin American athletes (note: this is not a complaint), my group was driven straight to Hamilton.
The trip took about two hours, refreshing us further with a view of green pastures and some cattle that looked content. It was as sleepy as Sunday mornings could get, but Distinction Hamilton Hotel – where we were to stay – felt lively with international cycling athletes getting their breakfast, and I welcomed a second round of "mingling" with these athletes.
We "joined" the athletes at breakfast, and I was very happy with my perfectly poached egg, baked beans, mushroom sauce and mango smoothie that came in a milk bottle with a striped paper straw. If there is one thing I never doubt about New Zealand, it’s the country’s ability to provide good food.
Sunday in Hamilton
Starting shortly before lunch time, our Sunday in Hamilton rose to the peak of excitement with a visit to Hamilton Gardens. My pre-departure research on the garden didn’t come up with a satisfying result, but I realized that my skepticism was misplaced at my first glimpse.
Hamilton Gardens, built on a former waste disposal site, is drop-dead gorgeous. The couple of hours I had there was not enough to enjoy every garden in each category: Paradise, Productive, Fantasy, Cultivar and Landscape.
My exploration started with the Paradise collection, which includes Italian Renaissance, Indian Char Bagh and American Modernist gardens. The first two gardens feature a symmetrical design around water features, graced with a dense cover of colorful flowers and well-manicured greenery.
Slightly hidden passages in the Italian Renaissance garden take visitors to a balcony overlooking a fountain pool and another overlooking a small amphitheater.
Meanwhile, the colors and lines of the American Modernist garden, inspired by the late-20th century style of American West Coast outdoor living, reminding me somewhat of David Hockney paintings, combined with Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe mural.
Other gardens not to be missed are the Tudor, Tropical, Concept and Mansfield gardens in the Fantasy collection. The highlight of the Tudor garden are the sculptures that top green-and-white striped poles, including a dragon, a phoenix and a unicorn.
Mansfield garden is named after New Zealand author Katherine Mansfield, who wrote the short story “The Garden Party” in 1922. Among the attractive details of this garden is a marquee erected on a tennis court surrounded by a hedge of New Zealand's native karaka. Under the marquee is a long dining table laid with a full mock spread of food and drinks fit for a garden party, among them the sandwiches and cream puffs of James Godber, a prominent baker, confectioner and caterer in 20th century Wellington.
While eating lunch at the Hamilton Gardens Café that overlooks Turtle lake was really tempting, our group decided to head downtown for brunch at Scotts Epicurean on Victoria Street. It was 30 minutes to closing time when we arrived, but the award-winning café welcomed us warmly anyway. Every single one of us ordered the Scott’s burger, made with house-made beef patty, caramelized onion relish, Swiss cheese and a vividly colorful salad.
Struggling not to fall asleep after the fulfilling brunch, we moved on to the Waikato Museum, located a short walking distance from Scotts Epicurean. The museum has 13 galleries that holds more than 20 new exhibitions and 100 public events every year, including interactive programs.
In addition to local and regional narratives, the museum’s exhibits and collections also showcase works with global perspectives. The museum was hosting the "50 Greatest Photographs of National Geographic" exhibition and another, Katherine Mansfield-inspired “The Garden Party” exhibition during my visit. Viewing them felt like the right activity to follow my filling brunch, although we had to rush because the museum closes at 5 p.m. on Sundays.
Finding something to do in Hamilton on an early Sunday evening was a challenge, especially compared to Jakarta, where many areas are alive 24/7. After some serious googling, we decided to return to Hamilton Gardens for “Gourmet in the Gardens”, as none of the very few options seemed appealing.
Although downtown Hamilton was quiet, it turned out that many Hamilton residents had turned out at Gourmet in the Gardens, where there was a line of food trucks and a small stage for live music. Everyone seemed to be enjoying picnic with friends, family and pets of all sizes, sitting on blankets spread out on the grass or in folding picnic chairs, while others brought their own tents.
On observing the crowd of people lining up to buy food or enjoying quality family, I noticed with great interest that nobody was holding a smartphone or taking photos. In fact, my group was likely the only Indonesian group there, and also the only group wielding smartphones and cameras. However, the other picnic-goers didn’t seem to be bothered that we never let go of our smartphones – if they noticed at all.
Still feeling full after the brunch burger from Scotts Epicurean, I bought only a boysenberry ice cream from one of the food trucks. The boysenberry ice cream was made to order, and apart from its fresh taste, the ice cream seemed bottomless that it took a while to finish just one serving.
I wondered recently if the garden was still open, now that summer was over, and to my delight, I found that it is, with richly hued autumn leaves everywhere!
Monday in Waitomo and Matamata
Apparently, one of the reasons our accommodation was arranged in Hamilton was it was easier to get to the Hobbiton movie set in Matamata. On the way, we would pass through Waitomo to visit the glowworm caves.
Our first stop was Ruakuri Cave, which is famed for its limestone formations, waterfalls and of course, glowworms. We had to descend a spiral ramp to enter the cave. It was so dark that we could see nothing, but our guide gradually turned on the floor lights and we could finally see the spiraling downward path. We were also reminded not to touch the limestone, as the natural oils in our skin would blacken the limestone and stop its growth.
We marveled at how the stalactites and stalagmites had formed into such natural shapes of different sizes. They looked fresh and damp, with some slowly dripping liquid as they grew, showing that they were carefully protected from human touch.
Our trip inside the cave took us down narrow paths that meandered between tall cave walls, over underground rivers where other travelers were tubing, or along cave walls where glowworms were nestling quietly. The deeper we entered the cave, the colder it became, and the more grateful I was for the down jacket I wore.
While I wondered how it might feel to go cave tubing, I was also glad that I avoided getting wet on that cold day. I did, however, get my share of being close to the water in the next cave.
The glowworm cave in Waitomo has a rather spacious entrance chamber, which reminded me somewhat of the interior of a Gothic cathedral. The vast chamber is said to have good acoustics, and we might as well hold a dinner party there with a small orchestra. Our guide even convinced us to sing "Happy Birthday" to test the acoustics.
The highlight of the glowworm cave was a boat ride beneath the glowworm-laden stalactites. The entire ride was made in complete darkness, except for the muted light of the glowworms, that I fell asleep mid-ride.
Leaving Waitomo for Matamata, we drove past seemingly endless pastures with quaint farmhouses and cattle grazing peacefully, and then suddenly, the Hobbiton visitor center popped up on our left, like it was just another farmhouse. A couple of hours past lunch and starving, we hurried to the Shire’s Rest café. I ordered a portion of fish and chips that tasted like the best fish and chips I ever had, but this could have been because of the weather.
The famed Hobbiton movie set with its widely photographed Hobbit houses, is a bus ride away from Shire’s Rest. The bus service is arranged by the Hobbiton movie set, and has its own timetable. A guide is aboard each bus, which also screens a documentary video on the movie set during the ride to the Alexander family sheep farm where Hobbiton is located.
As touristy as I thought Hobbiton was, I was glad for the visit. Hobbiton is a meticulously made tourist attraction that is also run very properly, and it truly deserves the top honors it received in Business Excellence, Tourism Marketing Campaign and People’s Choice at the 2016 Tourism Industry Awards.
The Hobbiton movie set is organized so visitors can enjoy the scenery and take photos at ease. Visitors walk in guided groups to stop at several Hobbit holes, houses and other designated points. The guides coordinate with each other to make sure that one tour group does not interfere with another group at any point on the tour. Visitors are given a short time to take photos at certain Hobbit holes with the guide’s help.
During my visit, I saw a couple taking wedding photos in a long-train bridal gown and a suit, as well as an elderly couple touring on a golf cart, but these special arrangements did not at all inconvenience my experience because of the attraction's smooth organization.
The Hobbiton tour concluded at The Green Dragon Inn, where we could unwind and take a sip of cider or non-alcoholic ginger beer while exploring the inn's interior or gazing out over the lake. When the time came for us to return to the bus, I realized that I hadn’t taken long enough to enjoy the inn. I must have lingered too long at the huge beer barrel cart or the Shire’s notice board, which bore pieces of paper on a lost hammer, violin lessons, a vacancy for corn harvesters and others that brought J.R.R. Tolkien's world to life.
I eventually returned to the bus, but a little different from the person that anticipated the Hobbiton tour with skepticism: I plan to visit the Shire again.
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