New Zealand’s longest river charges through the Waikato for 425 kilometres and for 16 of those, it makes its way through Hamilton, our biggest inland city.
Here, the river means a great deal. For centuries, it has been a physical and spiritual source of nourishment to Māori, (in 1993 the Waitangi Tribunal acknowledged that the river was a taonga of the tribes of Tainui and Ngāti Tūwharetoa), and anyone who has lived alongside it will attest to the fact they are connected to it in some way.
Hamiltonians like to discuss the river in all of its forms. It matters which side you live on and your wealth is immediately established if you say you live right next to it. We who drive across any of the city’s six bridges that link east to west, will check in on the river below and report our findings to people who are indoors, saying one of two things: 'river’s up' or 'river’s low'. This sums up everything a Hamiltonian needs to know about the weather.
Love it or hate it, the only name attributed to Hamilton that has stuck in recent times is the gently self-mocking title of Hamiltron, City of the Future, also known as The Tron. It was masterminded by student radio DJs in the late 90s after a competition was run to see who could come up with a decent name for the place. In popularity and usage, this slogan has surpassed Hamilhole (thank goodness), Cowtown, Bridge City, and any of the other uninspiring nicknames that have been assigned to the city.
Ask anyone from Hamilton and they will tell you one of the best things about living here is the proximity to other places. It’s true that the city sits in the middle of the north island and this makes day trips to beaches, the snow and our biggest city accessible, but it does Hamilton a disservice because there is a lot to enjoy about staying put.
With a population of around 157,000, Hamilton is a city that suits its placement within the Waikato. It doesn’t spoil the vibe with tall, bragging buildings. It’s not pretentious. The ease of travel around the greater Waikato is not hindered much when you get into town. Locals are known to complain about traffic that might mean it takes them 10 minutes to get home instead of five. The streets are mostly wide and the magnificent green synonymous with Waikato landscapes continues through the city, along its river paths, through its many parks and tree-lined streets. Life is easy here. The cafes are excellent. Dressing up for most means ditching your jandals for a pair of covered shoes and we might do this for visits to the best restaurant in town, Chim Choo Ree, though I’m sure jandals make their way through its doors on a regular basis.
In recent years, Hamilton has freed itself of the reputation for having a large number of bogan occupants and it is increasingly becoming known for its excellent food and drink. You are never more than a few minutes away from what is hand-on-heart the country’s best coffee that is sold at various excellent cafes throughout the city.
In Hamilton East, you could easily spend a morning down Lovegrove Lane (394 Grey Street) buying flowers at The Flower Crate, buying juice and fancy bread at Hearth, buying coffee at Grey Gardens and a lamington doused in cream and jam made by one of the café’s owners Amelia Hedge. Along Grey Street there are a heap of secondhand clothing stores and there’s a terrific branch of the well-loved Recycle Boutique chain that is packed full of excellent finds. On the corner of Grey St, ice cream heaven Duck Island is a compulsory visit.
There is no better way to spend a lunch hour in Hamilton City than to get down onto the path that lines both sides of the river and enjoy an easy stroll along it. Another option is to grab a coffee and a Mama’s donut and walk through the CBD where the ever-increasing street art has brightened the place up no end. Start at Michael Parekowhai's new Tongue of the Dog statue outside the Waikato Museum that couldn’t be a more vibrant entrance point to a city, and continue north to see colourful street art popping from the walls of many buildings. Stop in Garden Place and admire the bronze statue of Captain John Charles Fane Hamilton, the Naval Commander who led a detachment of the 43rd regiment over the palisades at the Battle of Gate Pā and whose name was adopted by the city in 1864.
Half of Hamilton’s residents are reported to be under 30. In the first weeks of term, University of Waikato and Wintec students overtake the CBD after the dinner crowd has retired for the night and the streets come alive. Students who live in the Halls of Residence take part in a toga party and make their way to town in large numbers, wearing nothing but sheets. Crowds also hit Hamilton for rugby games at the Waikato Stadium, where on the night of a Chiefs game, the ring of Mooloo bells sound through the city. If you’re in the CBD at night with a hankering for an excellent cocktail made by people who know what they are doing, head to Wonderhorse, a cool little bar that lives down an alleyway on Victoria Street. Try the blue cheese wontons while you’re at it. If beer is more your flavour, try one from Hamilton’s very own craft brewery Good George at four locations throughout the city.
If you’re after something of the arts and cultural variety, the city has a number of theatres (as well as a great movie theatre, The Lido), and on the edge of the CBD, The Meteor offers a range of exciting work year-round from both touring performing arts companies and local up and comers.
Finally, do not come here for a weekend without indulging in one of the many markets that take place all over the city, day and night. You could spend a weekend going from one to the next with your belly full of good things and arms full of treasure, greeted the whole time by friendly Waikato faces that are always up for a chat. It’s entirely possible that you’ll be so charmed by this underrated city that you won’t want to leave.