Fab and free: best activities in Tauranga, Rotorua and Hamilton

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Our region is a bonanza of natural beauty and it makes sense to get outside with the family and enjoy. There are many free activities and we have pinpointed our five family favourites

Tauranga: Bike or walk through Waikareao Estuary from Fergusson Park

Waikareao means “sparkling waters of the new day” and when the sea breeze is at your back and the sun is beaming, this track is a diamond. The best thing about these tracks is their beauty. The second best thing is that they are pancake flat. Perfect for all fitness levels.

Complete the Waikareao Estuary loop by foot and it will take about two hours, but if you want to really make the most of the dazzling views, start from Fergusson Park in Matua.

The flat ride from Fergusson Park is both uplifting and easy with views over the water to Mauao and Matakana Island, and salty breezes that tingle the tip of your nose.

Once you reach the end of this harbour stretch, head into the estuary by crossing over the railway line and over Chapel Street via the pedestrian crossing to start the estuary leg from Maxwells Road.

From bikers with baby seats, to dogs walking their owners, you’ll see all ages enjoying the track. Through flax, reeds and mudflats, the boardwalk skirts over lapping tides and borders the backyards of the inner suburbs. It is easy access for anyone within cooee of central Tauranga, and is a must-do for all ages.

Tauranga: Waterfall magic

Tauranga is known for its wonderful harbour and beaches. Less known, but just as beautiful, are the wondrous waterfalls and streams that feed into the harbour. One of them is the Whataroa Waterfall tucked within the Otanewainuku Scenic Reserve. Walk through virgin native bush where towering rimu and graceful fern fronds will transport your child’s imagination back to the Jurassic times. Dinosaurs might not be lurking, but you don’t have to tell them that!

What you can tell them is this special bush reserve is where endangered native birds including brown kiwi, kokako, tomtit and robin are breeding.
The two-hour walk (round-trip) is fairly easy going – not many slopes to heave up, and children appreciate the chance to clamber over rotten logs along the path.

The Falls are the perfect place to cool down in summer. Winter is another matter however, and it’s best to dress up warmly for a big chill beneath the thick bush canopy.

Hamilton: Hamilton Gardens

Situated on State Highway 1, the Hamilton Gardens are easy to pass by, especially when you are in a hurry to get somewhere else. If, on the other hand, you have the time to stop off and allow the unfolding of a journey, a visit to these gardens will be one of surprise and delight.

Rather than a collection of landscaped plants, the gardens are actually a showcase of garden designs from different cultures throughout the world.

Entering the gardens is like stepping off a plane into exotic lands thousands of kilometres away. From the Char Bagh Indian gardens with tinkling fountains and chilli-hot colour combinations, to the Chinese, Japanese, Māori, English and Modernist Gardens, you don’t have to be a gardener to appreciate the scale, beauty and design diversity created from what was once a city dump.

Even the smallest child will find delight and awe with each new garden discovery. The gardens are a treasure trove because they are the living expression of other people’s cultures, and there is no better educational tool, for young and old, than a visit to these gardens.

Hamilton: Taitua Arboretum

If you find yourself nearer Dinsdale and need space to roam, check out the Taitua Arboretum. Created 40 years ago, the arboretum is a place where the family can play, picnic and walk.

Mature trees, shrubs and lakes can be found within the 22-hectare grounds and it is perfect for families wanting to escape the lure of our device-laden world.

The woodland boasts ancient trees, natives, redwoods, fruit and nut varieties, and a rainbow garden. Dogs on a leash are welcome, and tracks are suitable for wheelchairs, but not bicycles. Open seven days a week.

Rotorua: Lake Tikitapu

Lake Tikitapu is an icon of the Rotorua Lakes area and every summer it is swamped with water worshippers. Even the bleakest of winter days attracts a following – not so much for the swimming, but for the tracks that wind around its shores.

My 11-year old son has biked the track previously and promised me the ride was “flat as” and easy. Leisurely morning rides are the perfect exercise for me, but I should have been suspicious when I needed to click down the bike gears and engage in fierce up-hill pedaling to get to the start of the track.

A flurry of humps, bumps, tree roots and tight corners ensued for two thirds of the track. While the bush is gorgeous, if you are not bike fit and confident, I recommend a walk around the lake instead. Except for the beginning, it’s virtually flat, suits people with toddlers, and is a much more leisurely way to spend a morning.

The lure of hot chips from the Airstream Cafe is an added incentive to get you around the lake. The funky caravan/cafe conversion is tucked behind the trees across the parking lot and serves a pretty decent coffee too.

After a morning’s workout, you can enjoy the chance to relax with a steaming flat white, and marvel at the immeasurable beauty we have in this region – that’s just priceless.

Photos: Hamilton City Council, Mark Smith, Char Bagh Indian Gardens, Cindy McQuade, Alex Spodyneiko