Chances are you've heard the jokes about Hamilton. "Not even the river stops for a look," sneering Aucklanders will tell you. "The airport can get away with charging a departure fee because everyone's so keen to get out," say Wellingtonians. To some, it's just a "cow town" (unlike most of the country, Waikato is known for animals that moo not baa). That's all pretty unfair. Landlocked it may be, but Hamilton is the closest cricketing port of call to many of the North Island's gems, both rugged and beautiful, thrill-seeking and tranquil. If you have a day or two to spare, or perhaps are travelling to or from Hamilton, check out some of these wonderful spots:
Waitomo Caves (1 hour by car)
These caves are quite extraordinary. Millions of stalactites, delicate glowing strands - the glowworm Arachnocampa luminosa - decorate every inch of the roof. Some 30 million years old, the caves were first explored by Maoris in 1887 and today all the guides are local Waitomo folk. They'll take you round on a raft, past the Tomo - a 16m vertical shaft where an ancient waterfall plunged - and the Cathedral, where you'll alight to enter a vast limestone cavern that looks like Gaudi's Sagrada Familia upside down. On my visit, a group of American tourists insisted on singing a rendition of "Amazing Grace". I rolled my eyes, but so perfect were the acoustics in the grotto that, far from ruining the moment, it was the day's highlight.
If you're the adventurous type, try black-water rafting through the caves. There are three packages of varying degrees of daring: Abyss, Labyrinth and Odyssey. I did Abyss, the toughest (I'm told). On goes a drysuit (that's thicker than a wetsuit, you know) and minutes later, you're abseiling 35m down a tiny shaft. Hours on, you emerge into Waitomo woodland having tubed along a subterranean river, squeezed through holes, climbed up and sped down waterfalls and flown on a zipwire in pitch darkness. Upon return to terra firma, you're greeted by a warm shower, hot soup and crusty bread. Marvellous.
Hobbiton (40 mins by car)
Here's a magical little spot. It's still a working sheep farm and the drive in (it's worth stopping in Cambridge en route from Hamilton, by the way), with views across the Kaimai Ranges, is spectacular. Indulge your inner geek on a tour through the Shire: You'll take in Bag End, 43 other hobbit holes, the Party Tree and the Mill before ending up in the Green Dragon for a tankard of Hobbiton's own beer, cider or wine. You can also arrange a feast at the pub. So spectacular is the food - every meat imaginable and rich puddings - you're left wondering how the hobbits gobbled up six meals every day and remained so minute. The guides are full of wonderful, nerdy anecdotes, the best of which involves Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson approaching the farmer, one Mr Alexander, about using his land for a film, only to be told to "bugger off and come back in an hour". Turns out he was watching rugby on the TV and didn't want to be disturbed! Fifteen years and six flicks later, that's all history.
Raglan (40 mins by car)
My visit came in midwinter but Raglan is one of those rare, wonderful places where summer never seems to end. Appropriately, the beaches here featured in the iconic '60s surfing doc Endless Summer. Raglan's a little like Byron Bay, but better. Like Byron, turquoise water, silky sandy beaches and wild bush walks are de rigeur but Raglan's diddier, more intimate, and you don't have to deal with hoards of backpackers "finding themselves" either. There's a great coffee scene, plenty of cute places to grab a bite and shops and galleries aplenty. But if you're feeling active, this is a surfing mecca: Raglan boasts the world's longest left-hand break at Manu Bay and plenty of other great spots to catch a wave. There are also great walks: be sure to visit Bridal Veils falls on the way in from Hamilton. Wonderful waterfalls are two-a-penny in New Zealand but this one is seriously cool. It's well off the beaten track, spurts out of a tiny hole and falls 55m into a lush lagoon. Don't leave Raglan without sampling the "fush and chups" (complete with Kiwi intonation). Big claim, but the best I've had.
The Coromandel Peninsula (55 mins by car to Paeroa, 1 hour 10 mins to Waihi, 2hr 20 to Whitianga)
Hamilton sits under an hour from the Peninsula's southern tip. Waihi's excellent surf is just up the road, but for the best bits, drive further north. It's a popular holiday spot, all craggy coastline, velvety conifers and creamy sands. Trust me, the absence of phone signal and the scratchiness of the car radio are good signs: you're in the boondocks now.
The Peninsula's jewel is Whitianga, home to Mercury Bay, where Captain Cook (James, not Alastair) took his first steps on Kiwi soil in 1769. Marvel from land or sea at the stunning rocks in Cathedral Cove and on Shakespeare's Cliff, named by Cook because it resembles the Bard's nose. Check out freaky Hot Water Beach, dig yourself a pool and enjoy the hot water (up to 67 C!) with steam billowing from the sand around you. Beware, though, it's busy in summer.
If you like your hot springs slightly quieter, hide away at the Lost Spring spa. Get a massage and wallow in the geothermal pools: paradise. I'd recommend staying a night or two. Try one or both of these brilliant B&Bs: Within the Bays at Whitianga or Sunlover Retreat in Tairua. Both are intimate, family-run joints with delicious breakfasts, beautiful bedrooms boasting sea views, and if you're lucky, you might even spot an orca.
Rotorua (1 hour 20 by car)
Rotorua is arguably the most Kiwi place in New Zealand. There's a big, merry Maori population and plenty of the town's tourism leans on that: you can do Maori experience evenings where you learn the haka and tuck into a feast. You can also head to Ohinemutu, a functioning Maori village. Rotorua also serves up some typically adventurous - thrill-seekers will love the luge - and quirky (the Rotorua Museum, bath houses and Government Gardens are resplendent colonial architecture) Kiwi fare.
But none of this will be what catches your eye, or so I should say, your nose. Nope, the thing that'll grab you is the smell. Rotorua is one of the most geothermally active parts of New Zealand and thus absolutely stinks of sulphur. It's not all bad, though. There are bubbling pools of mud all over the place, smelly steam billowing from the ground and huge geothermal parks located around town, some of which even have natural erupting geysers and mud pools that you can bathe in. Check out Wai-O-Tapu or Hell's Gate. If you want to sample a spot in the Bay of Plenty that is slightly less smelly and more beachy, head to Tauranga.
Taupo (1 hour 50 by car)
Taupo is perfect for an overnight stop when travelling between Napier and Hamilton (the World Cup schedule allows). Lake Taupo - the largest freshwater lake in the southern hemisphere, the size of Singapore - is simply spectacular and there are many wonderful hikes, climbs and cycles in the vicinity. If you like a challenge on your own two feet, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing is a whole day trek through Mordor that checks out movie star Mt Doom. If you're looking for something a little more sedate, there's heaps of good trout fishing and some spectacular golf courses: Try Wairakei, set within a geothermal park, or the Jack Nicklaus-designed Kinloch. Taupo is full of cool coffee shops and eateries. For something a bit random, head to the restaurant at Prawn Park by Huka Falls.
But this is the adventure capital of the North Island, so let's set that pulse racing. Get things going by hopping aboard the Huka Falls Jet, which gets you up close and personal with New Zealand's most-visited tourist attraction, all accompanied by some suitably morbid Kiwi humour from your driver. The falls are spectacular from below and the jet is a hair-raising, spine-tingling ride. There's plenty more besides: bungee-jumping, kayaking, skiing (sadly the cricket and ski seasons don't coincide) - but Taupo is the place to skydive: more than 30,000 are done there every year. I jumped out of a pink plane at 15,000ft with Skydive Taupo (who pick you up in a limo, oddly) and, on the clearest of days, it was spectacular: both east and west coasts were visible on the descent.