On the banks of the mighty Waikato River, Hamilton is a haven for weekend trippers hankering for a bite-size break.
It's been more than a decade since I visited the city - and boy did I notice the transformation. In a city that prides itself on its profusion of free admission activities, nothing beats the exceptional sights and delights at Hamilton Gardens, which bursts forth as a botanical, landscaping and culturally-themed architectural triumph.
This is no bog-standard botanical garden, but an ever-evolving development centred on the relationship between people and their gardens.
There are five garden collections to explore, but the tour de force is the Paradise Garden Collection, inspired by classic designs from all across the world. The highlights are the luscious Italian Renaissance, the symmetrical beauty of the Indian Char Bagh, the tranquillity of the Chinese and Japanese Gardens and the laid back charm of American Modernism (complete with Marilyn Monroe artwork).
Remarkably, this botanical sanctuary is free to visit.
In the heart of town, Waikato Museum offers visitors an engrossing insight into the history and culture of the region, with a strong accent on Tainui heritage. A trove of magnificent carvings, including full-size waka, are well worth perusing, in addition to the colonial history exhibitions, which vividly bring to life the challenges early settlers endured, culminating in the tumult of the Land Wars.
Admission to the permanent exhibitions is free, however, you can supplement your museum visit by paying the admission charge for the ever-changing temporary exhibitions.
Another family-friendly attraction that should be top of your list is Hamilton Zoo.
Showcasing more than 600 native and exotic residents, from red pandas and chimpanzees to giraffes and rhinoceroses, the wildlife wonderland also offers behind-the-scenes encounters and proudly boasts the biggest walk-through aviary in Australasia.
For adults only, try your luck at SkyCity's compact Hamilton venue, which features all of the major casino games, bingo and performances.
For the kids, you can treat them to tenpin bowling and laser tag - all under one roof.
A welcome, year-round family attraction in Hamilton is Waterworld, which features hydroslides, splash pads, a slew of pools and picnic areas.
When staying in Hamilton, my recommendation is the Novotel Hamilton Tainui. Superbly located on the riverbank in the central city, the hospitality is warm and welcoming, the artwork superb, the rooms are vibrantly-coloured and comfortable and the award-winning Restaurant on Alma serves up fabulously tasty Pacific and European fusion cuisine.
Despite being in dairy heartland, Hamilton's stature as a foodie's mecca is not to be sniffed at. The central city has platefuls of trendy eateries - indeed, the CBD is loaded with 170 cafes, bars and restaurants. But, for an indelible encounter with the region's signature producers, drive a short way out of town and your first stop should be Zealong Tea Estate.
This is NZ's only tea plantation, which specialises in oolong tea. Lovingly developed by a Taiwanese migrant, Zealong has been adeptly tailored to quench the thirst of the ever-increasing ranks of visitors.
In the space of an hour you will learn the story behind Zealong, witness how tea gets from bush to cup, participate in a traditional tea ceremony and bask in the glory of refreshing high tea at the Camellia Tea House, or on the sprawling balcony overlooking the plantation.
Another highly recommended attraction for locavores - folk who like to eat what grows locally - is Monavale Blueberries, which is NZ's largest certified organic orchard. Orchard tours are on-tap, pick your own fruit and browse the gourmet range of organic blueberry products.
Waikato has a bountiful clutch of farmers' markets. The pick of the them would be the Saturday morning market in Victoria Square, Cambridge, or Sunday morning's Hamilton market on River Rd. Load the car with a basket of market goodness and savour a freshly-packed riverside picnic.