If you’re starting a road trip from Auckland around the North Island of New Zealand, Hamilton will be the first main city on your way. The whole area around this town with Waitomo further South and Raglan on the West is beautiful and worth a visit, but it’s also very touristic and some activities are quite expensive. For example the entry to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves, the most popular of the many caves in the Waitomo district costs not less than 51$. That’s quite a lot if you’re travelling on a budget… If you don’t want to spend that much money, don’t worry because there are plenty of cool free things to do in the region – and it even includes glowworms! Here are my five favourites.
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1 Visit the Hamilton Gardens
You might think “what, just a garden? Aren’t there better things to do than visiting gardens when you’re in New Zealand?” and I wouldn’t blame you: that’s exactly what I thought when I was first told to visit the Hamilton Gardens. But trust me, it’s not “just another garden”, it’s a very cool, huge and beautiful area and you’ll be surprised by how long you might stay there.
The gardens have many different sections (see the map here) and they are constantly evolving; when I visited them signs were promoting new areas opening soon. Some of these sections recreate a specific type of garden from different places around the world, with a very high attention to details. You’ll walk successively through India, China, Italy, Japan and many more, including also a traditional Maori area. A real delight and an explosion of colours!
2 Take pictures of the Bridal Veil Falls
Next to the road between Hamilton and Raglan, don’t miss the short detour leading to the Bridal Veil Falls. It’s a short walk to this very spectacular 55m high waterfall. There are a few different and easily accessible lookouts, one directly above the falls, another half way on the side and the last one all the way down in front of them. Many alternatives for the perfect picture!
3 Observe the surfers in Raglan
Raglan on the West Coast of the North Island is considered as the surfing capital of New Zealand. People come from very far away to enjoy its perfect waves. If you’re not surfing yourself, it’s still a really nice place to visit. The beach is beautiful, you can enjoy a very scenic view from different points on top of the cliffs and watching the surfers catching the waves is a cool and impressive sight. Also the nice and relaxed atmosphere here is perfect for holidays, as it’s often the case in this kind of places around the world, like Byron Bay in Australia for example. Thumbs up for Raglan!
Even if it’s a place where experimented surfers like to come, Raglan is also good for beginners: have a look at the website of Green Wave Surf School if you’re interested in taking a lesson… but it won’t be for free!
4 Drive down Te Anga Road
Te Anga Road is a very scenic drive, with many things to see. It starts where Waitomo Caves Road ends. Just after you passed the entrance of Waitomo Glowworm Caves (admire the architecture of the building by the way) keep driving until the next roundabout and go straight on: that’s where the road begins.
The first place to stop on this beautiful and very winding road is the Mangapohue Natural Bridge, about 25kms after the roundabout. Starting from the little car park next to the road, a 20 minute loop will lead you to (and through!) a huge natural arch. While walking back to your vehicle you can also see some fossilised oysters trapped in the rocks.
4kms further, take a torch and go down to explore Piripiri Cave. It’s quite small and probably not as spectacular as the Waitomo Caves but it’s free and still a cool place to visit.
Last but not least, very soon after the cave don’t miss the Marokopa Falls. It takes about 10 minutes by foot to get to the lookout and what a sight when you reach it! Probably my favourite waterfall of New Zealand.
5 Watch glowworms on the Ruakuri bush walk
Remember the roundabout I was mentioning just before? Instead of going straight towards Te Anga Road, turn left this time in the direction of Aranui and Ruakuri Caves. You would have to pay to visit both of them, but that’s also where you’ll find the Ruakuri bush walk, and this one is free.
Park on the Aranui Cave carpark and find the signs indicating the trail (a 1km loop). It’s nice to walk it during the day: it will lead you through different caves and along a river with a few really good lookouts.
It’s already good during the day, but wait for the night: this nice place gets absolutely magical. Invisible when the sun is out, thousands of glowworms shine in the dark, in the bush and on the rocks next to the river. The best place to see them is next to the wooden bridge, very close to the beginning of the track (there’s no need to go any further, there are less glowworms). Bring a torch to light your way (be careful not pointing it directly at the glowworms though), turn it off once you’re at the bridge and enjoy this amazing show. Even better: you might be on your own as this place seems to be forgotten by other tourists. It was a perfect moment for me that I will never forget!
Do you know any other cool and free or cheap activities around Hamilton, Raglan and Waitomo? Share them in the comments!