Wending your way through the soothing bucolic embrace of lush emerald pastures and tranquil rolling hills, the mighty Waikato is tailor-made for quick and easy roadies. With an embarrassing spoil of characterful towns and villages pepper-potting the countryside, the biggest conundrum is sizing up where to spend your time. From the Kiwiana frivolity of Otorohanga to the horsey-town sensibilities of prim and proper Cambridge or manicured Matamata, Waikato's appealing platter of towns and villages exude their own sense of place, pride and personality.
These are towns that you no longer drive through, but drive to. Short on time, I plumped for a quick foray with a few choice specimens including Tirau, which has assumed the moniker of 'Corrugated-Iron Capital of the World.' Much of that can be sheeted home, excuse the pun, to Steven Clothier, better known as the Tin Man of Tirau, who continues creating the most daring of artistic installations from corrugated iron. Starting with a pair of tin snips and hand riveter, Steven made 'The Dog' in Tirau in 1998, which houses the local i-Site and public toilets.
A giant sheep was later added to keep the dog company and last year a ginormous ram's head hunkered down next to them, completing this holy trinity of corrugated sculpture. Steven and his design-savvy wife, Sheryn, have gone global, regularly commissioned to create public and private installations across New Zealand and the world. 180 years ago, corrugated iron was invented to produce cheap roofs and water tanks for the colonies. Steven's Kiwi-can-do zeal has transformed the possibilities. www.corrugatedcreations.co.nz
Another quirky novelty in town is the Castle Pamela, Tirau's crenelated answer to the Taj Mahal. Kelvin Baker built this castle in homage of his wife, Pamela, 17 years ago. It's home to Australasia's largest toy collection and includes a plethora of rare gems from the 19th century, along with dolls and train collections. It only opens during school and public holidays. www.thecastle.co.nz
Nine kilometres out of town, Te Waihou Walkway is a stunning, a 4.7 kilometre trail through farmland, flanked by crystal clear streams. Taking three hours return, It's the source of the famous and mouth-wateringly gorgeous Blue Spring, which supplies roughly 70 per cent of our bottled water. The wraparound beauty is so ethereal, it's like stumbling into an impressionist painting.
If you were ever in need of a crash course in all things Kiwiana, the self-styled Kiwiana capital of New Zealand, Otorohanga is where to head. Step out on the Ed Hillary Walkway, which leads you through 26 beautifully crafted exhibits, showcasing all manner of aspects of popular Kiwi culture. From Bonus Bonds and Aunt Daisy to Kiwi Slang and No. 8 Wire, the displays are very entertaining.
Add to that the street murals and the 14 iconic Kiwiana cut-outs that festoon the main street's lamp posts, like the Buzzy Bee, Jandals, Paua and Pavlova. Please there's more Steven Clothier corrugated creations to admire – including a giant Kiwi and a pukeko, in the heart of town. Need replenishing? Pop into the infectiously named Thirsty Weta, a hospitality landmark in the town centre.
The charming manager of my overnight accommodation in Pirongia, Linnie, implored me to pop into a certain retailer, when I mentioned to her that I was heading to Otorohanga. "Haddad's is a must”, she urged. From what I can tell, this long-time menswear store on the flowering basket-laden main street is a revered Waikato institution. And not much has changed since Karam and John Haddad opened their store in 1965.
The brothers still sport their trademark wool felt hats and wear measuring tapes around their necks, armed and ready to discharge their ultra-attentive, old fashioned brand of customer service. They could write the book on trading nous and customer focus – if they had the time. But they're far too busy for that. I had the pleasure of being royally greeted by Karam. (John was apparently attending to an urgent roofing issue at his home, ahead of Cyclone Cook.)
Within minutes, it became abundantly clear why people travel for miles to shop at Haddad's. The store resembles a veritable emporium of bargain priced clothing, as if a passing cargo ship had disgorged its contents within its walls. Guided around the expansive store which is absolutely bursting with stock, Karam enthusiastically pointed out some star specimens in the bargain stakes, as his floor show swung into high gear. "See our Levi jeans? We haven't put the price up on Levis since GST was introduced thirty years ago."
The price-busting continued all over the shop, from the Swanndri, Swazi and Driza-Bone range to their custom-made merino socks, Jockey underwear and Farah dress jackets. Karam says the prime reason they are able to slash their prices so dramatically is because they own their store and aren't at the mercy of exorbitant rental demands. They guarantee the best quality merchandise at the lowest possible price, all year round.
Watching the charismatic Karam in full service mode made me wonder if the measuring tapes are really required, or are they just a prop. He had the knack of picking a customer’s size with precision, purely by sight. Haddad’s is the personification of destination shopping. This retail legend has to be seen to be believed.
Where to stay? The Waikato countryside is blessed with some sterling boutique farm-stays. A star specimen is Amberfields B&B, just out of Pirongia, in a tranquil farm setting. Deservedly showered with accolades for its deluxe home comforts, complimentary snacks and dreamy accommodation, it comes with free Wi-Fi and free on-site parking. Some rooms offer a patio or kitchenette, while Linnie will set you up for the day with a decadent cooked breakfast including eggs, bacon and tomatoes, homemade granola, oven baked croissants, fresh fruit and home baked bread.
I spent a night here through Booking.com, who offer a diverse range of properties, with 627 available in Waikato alone, spanning hotels, villas, campsites, resorts, boats and homestays. You don’t have to pay until you stay, it’s effortless to change reservations and there’s a free 24-hour cancellation policy. With my recent travels, Booking.com offered first-rate customer service and responded super quickly to my questions. www.booking.com
Treat yourself to a bumper self-drive escape. Thrifty Car Rental offers hot deals, swift service and an excellent fleet in handy locations, including Hamilton, Auckland, Rotorua, Taupo and Tauranga. Become a Blue Chip member for exclusive deals and lightning-fast pick-ups. AA Members can save up to 30 per cent off the all-inclusive rental rates. www.thrifty.co.nz
Mike Yardley is our Travel Correspondent on Jack Tame Saturday Mornings.