Hamilton Gardens: The best free thing to do in NZ

Text and photos by Brook Sabin and Radha Engling for Stuff Travel

What have I stepped inside? I feel like I've travelled back to 16th Century Florence. Four marble lions circling a water fountain are the centrepiece of the grand courtyard in front of me. The sculptures are surrounded by perfectly symmetrical grids of flowers, that represent all the colours of the Renaissance.

Of course, thanks to Covid-19, I'm not in Italy. I'm in Hamilton.

We've all heard of the Hamilton Gardens, but like many, I’d never been. I firmly sat in the camp that a garden, surely, can't be that great.

I was wrong. It isn't great; it's magnificent. And best of all: it's free to visit.

Visiting Italy at Hamilton Gardens

The park has more than 20 meticulously curated gardens, hugging the edge of the Waikato River near the centre of town. I was in disbelief when I heard one million people visited every year, but now I'm here – I can see why.

The Surrealist Garden is the latest creation and is quickly proving one of the more popular. To enter, you walk through a corridor that looks like it's straight out of Alice in Wonderland. Optical illusions on the floor are a sign of what's to come.

You then find yourself in a fantasy land of giant mechanically moving trees; as if they have a personality and are trying to run free. After weaving through the forest, there's a large clearing home to a giant door and wheelbarrow. It feels like you’ve become a miniature human.

A surreal experience at Hamilton Gardens

After a few minutes in this parallel universe, we continue weaving our way around the labyrinth of gardens. We walk through a lush tropical garden – a significant accomplishment considering the Waikato is known for its chilly mornings during winter.

We wander across a bridge to see a peacock sculpture perched atop a terracotta wall. As I admire the attention to detail of the remarkably life-like bird, I let out a little gasp, as it suddenly moves its head and ruffles its feathers. It seems annoyed I’ve interrupted its morning sunbathe and promptly moves off. It's hard to tell what's real here. You get the feeling that’s the way they want it.

The 'Mansfield Garden' is an elaborate recreation of Katherine Mansfield's short story 'The Garden Party'. It’s reproduced in immaculate detail, right down to the 15 types of sandwiches that were at the party, researched with the help of an Emeritus Professor. Despite being made of resin and concrete, they look so good you could eat them.

Then there's the Japanese Contemplation Garden full of zen; a Concept Garden complete with a Huddleston Airship; and even a Tudor Garden with a giant ‘pudding house’ – once used by wealthy families to have their dessert while admiring their backyard.

Hmailton Gardens began development in the 1960s on the city's former rubbish dump, and today is the region's most popular tourist attraction.

It's one of New Zealand's greatest examples of a trash to treasure transformation.


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