Hamilton Gardens must be one of the most beautiful and best planned gardens I have ever visited. We stopped by on our trip from the north of New Zealand to the famous glow-worm caves of Waitomo. After hours on the road and days of rain, we all were looking forward to a refreshing walk in the park with the pale sun hesitantly peaking through the thick cloud cover for the first time in days.
In my view, there is something utterly soothing about gardens. The manmade attempt of taming nature, of bringing order to the chaos, of controlling outcomes and directing the senses. It appeals to my inner self which is longing for structure, planning and orderliness. So much beauty, carefully placed, in perfect harmony with each other and the environment. The buzzing bees, the colourful butterflies, the chirping of the birds. For me, a walk in the park is not just refreshing, it is indeed invigorating.
The Fantasy Collection
Hamilton Gardens is very structured and determined to lead visitors through a multi-sensory garden experience. This is not just a vast area of parklands, of towering trees and thick shrubs, selectively interrupted by flower beds and benches. Hamilton Gardens is all of that, but it is also so much more.
Besides the spreading lawns, the woodlands, the valley walks, the cemetery, the pavilions and the nursery, there is a true gem at its centre.
Adjoining the slowly flowing Waikato River is a flight of smaller gardens, the Fantasy Collection, each one of them fully enclosed and self-contained.
Walls, fences and hedges surround these smaller gardens, that are connecting seamlessly into each other while each one of them is also taking the visitor back to a central courtyard, like petals on a blossom.
These are fantastic little creations, powerful examples of garden design. Compact and intense as they are, their limited size allows the landscaping designers and gardeners to take care of every single detail of the gardens.
Leaving the family behind with ice-creams on a sunny bench, I start to explore this cluster of gardens one at a time. The first one that I walk through, the Tropical Garden, stuns me the second I enter the space. The garden is enclosed by rather daunting flamingo coloured walls, setting of the colourful tropical flowers just perfectly.
In the middle is a trickling stream which adds to the tropical feel of the space. Lush foliage stretching all the way to the bottom of the small valley, with thick leaves reaching with all their might down to the refreshing water.
A playful wooden bridge, painted in a green no less daring than the flamingo walls, stretches across this little waterway. It leads me to the next garden, past other visitors who enjoy the unique photo opportunity on this small bridge.
Other gardens are equally stunning and creative. What really strikes me is the way how borders, frames and doors are used to connect the spaces. A door at Hamilton Gardens is not just a door. It is complimentary to the master design. A gap in a hedge is not just a gap, it is a play of lines and shapes that invite you to explore further and to open your senses.
One and and on it goes. The Tudor Garden, a replica and careful reconstruction of some of the many gardens that got lost during the English Civil War. Mythological creatures – the griffin, the unicorn, the satyr – guarding the strict geometric patterns, with green and white stripes on posts and rails dominating the colours in this medieval hedge maze. A small castle in one corner adding some structural dimensions to this English garden.
Maori Garden Culture
Less orderly yet not less fascinating is the Te Parapara Garden which I come to visit next. This is the only traditional Maori productive garden in New Zealand. The most striking feature are the wooden figures with their frightening faces, ready to strike at any minute.
In true Maori fashion they bear faces with eyes wide open and massive tongues hanging out. They guard this garden which is a wonderful showcase of traditional Maori food production and storage techniques.
Wooden buildings and altars, decorated with intricate carvings invite me to explore more of the Maori culture. A culture that survived thanks to ancient knowledge that has been passed down from generation to generation over centuries.
Our visit to the Hamilton Gardens is brief but fruitful, a welcome break from the road. There is way more to see here than I was able to grasp on this mild summer afternoon. You can easily lose yourself in the different styles and epochs that are displayed here. The Italian Renaissance Gardens, for example, will take you to Tuscany in no time at all, and the Modernist Garden must be perfect for aspiring photographers.
So big you need a map
Hamilton Gardens is so big in size, it is a good idea to print out a map before you visit. Signs with maps are rare and quite confusing, and it helps to be able to check your position along the way as the enclosed gardens can turn into a confusing maze.
Planning a road trip around New Zealand’s North Island, too? Hamilton Gardens are wonderful place to stop – they are family-friendly and free so you don’t even have to book ahead. Plus, the location of the gardens is perfect if you want to combine the visit with any of the following other attractions: Auckland, the Waitomo glow-worm caves, Hobbiton, and Rotorua.