Waihī is, quite literally, built on and by hard work. Approximately 175km of mining tunnels burrow beneath the earth, following a pattern of quartz and chasing its glittering promise. Waihī markets itself as New Zealand’s Heart of Gold - and it’s true.
It was built by the goldmining industry, and mining remains the area’s largest employer. Blood, sweat and tears formed the foundation of the area; life was tough for the 6500 miners and their families who lived here during the gold rush of 1911.
That is almost 2000 more people than the present population and three times larger than Hamilton at the time. But Waihī has a lot more going for it than the extraction of gold. The town is surrounded by bush, beaches and beautiful landscapes, giving outdoorsy types an entire guidebook’s worth of walks, biking paths and hiking trails from which to choose.
Like many other small towns, new faces and returning families bring fresh ideas and new businesses. There’s rejuvenation in the air fuelled, in part, by the cycle trail and partially by proud locals being the gatekeepers and storytellers of the region’s history.
Waihī Beach is 11 minutes and 11km from Waihī and a quintessential New Zealand beach with sweeping white sand shores and a swell that swerves from millpond to monster depending on mood. Embracing the cruisy coastal attitude, the only dilemma beachgoers face is to swim then nap, or nap and then swim.
Ahh decisions… The name Waihī was bestowed on the beach first and the town later. Legend has it that a Māori traveller knelt to drink from a shallow creek, and when he made a hole in the earth, fresh water continued to rise and fill the hole.
Hence ‘Waihī’, or rising water. The name proved to be prophetic in the late 1800s when goldmining efforts at Waihī Beach were continually hindered by high water flooding the mines and protecting gold from the hungry eyes of prospectors.
Waihī Beach was originally an area of respite for miners plagued by respiratory issues caused by damp and dust. They were sent to the beach for rehabilitation, the success of which was dubious.
Some of their baches built at the northern end remain, though now dwarfed by larger, flashier neighbours. By the 1930s, the beach had become a popular tourism destination with dance halls and a movie theatre. It was a sunseeker’s paradise, and has remained so today, though much has also changed.
The cinema is no longer, but there are boutique stores, several cafés, an art gallery and a decent Four Square. Despite the rejuvenation and being only 2 hours from Auckland, 50 minutes from Tauranga and 90 minutes from Hamilton, the beach has kept its laid-back vibe.
The northern end of Waihī Beach is the most popular swimming location, with the Surf Club monitoring the swell during the summer season. Most of the stores are in the small village located on Wilson Road (turn right at the roundabout on Waihī Beach Road) but there’s also the village of Bowentown at the southern end of the beach. Bowentown, once a volcanic island and now joined to the mainland by a sandy arm, is a section of Waihī Beach rich with Māori history thought to date back to 1300.
There are four prominent pā sites near the shoreline and a large number of artefacts have been discovered along the beach, including greenstone and ancient burial grounds. One 1960s journal estimated 15,000 Māori once occupied the area - though that number is unable to be verified.
Once the 8km of Waihī Beach has been explored, head over the hill. Not so far away, Orokawa Bay is tucked around the northern headland and is accessible via a 1.3km walking track. The beach isn’t the safest swimming spot but it’s extremely pretty, with gnarled pōhutukawa trees, white sand and thundering waves.
Pack a picnic, or bring a good book - the beach is often deserted and is a good retreat from the buzzing summer atmosphere of Waihī Beach. The track isn’t difficult but can be muddy and steep in places and may not be accessible at high tide. The track entrance is signposted at the north end of Waihī Beach.
Waihī Beach Trig Walk
This fairly new walk is popular with exercise enthusiasts keen to clock up some steps - take that as a warning. There are quite a few stairs on this track, but the views are worth the panting and puffing. There are two options - a short loop track around the water reservoir, or the longer (3.5km) walk to the top of the hill. Turn left at the top of Pacific Road, off Beach Road; parking is in the water reservoir car park.
Hidden behind Waihī is a garden maze of delights, with something to admire at the end of every path - thick bush, a lily nursery, a secret fernery, a still lake, a trickling stream that burbles into a gentle waterfall.
The Waihī Waterlily Gardens were created from farmland in 1946, and farmers-turned-botanists Tom and Mabel Gordon imported their first waterlily in 1950. Now the gardens cover 6ha, with 30 varieties of waterlily growing across 30 ponds, and a café, wedding venue, accommodation and garden tours on site.
Auckland-based couple Rachael and Evan Pride’s enthusiasm for city life had slowly dimmed and the couple had just signed a lease in Tūākau when Rachael’s aunt invited her to visit the gardens where she worked. It was love, and in 2018, they took over from previous owners Bevan and Jenny McDuff.
The majority of the year has been spent knee deep in ponds, learning lily varieties and how to care for them, and becoming skilled at hosting weddings, in between renovating the café and keeping an eye on their young children.
The gardens are open to the public daily (entry via donation) and the café at weekends (closed during winter). The water lilies bloom from September to March, give or take, but the gardens are beautiful year-round. 441 Pukekauri Road, Waihī. (07) 214 8188, waterlily.co.nz
Waihī Beach Gallery
Andrew Graham is generally found in the Waihī Beach Art Gallery selling art, framing art, chatting about art or, when needed, making great coffee. It keeps him out of mischief, he says, but the truth runs a little deeper.
Andrew always knew Waihī Beach was the place to be, so when a small retail space became available, he began the plans for the gallery. It was a lucky twist of fate that saw the leased space double in size shortly before opening - lucky as the art sourced by curator Ana Couper barely fits as it is.
“She chooses pieces that jump out at her. All are from New Zealand-based artists making unique things, nothing mass produced.” Andrew believes that art should be for everyone, so there’s not only a range of price points, from cards to towering canvases, but the gallery offers lay-by and finance for art-lovers on a budget. 21 Wilson Road, Waihī Beach. 027 22 33 561, waihibeachgallery.com
Waihī Arts Centre and Museum
Visitors to the Waihī Arts Centre and Museum who love a little gore happily give the collection a thumbs up - or in this case, two severed thumbs up. Losing a thumb meant receiving £400 in compensation for desperate miners, who used the money to buy a home, pay off debts or invest their earnings back into the local pub.
Two such thumbs are on display at the museum, a reminder of just how tough the ‘golden’ days were. Another exhibit of note (and less disgusting) is a model showing the layers of mining tunnels and systems below the town.
It puts the scale of the operation that lies beneath into perspective - when the thin, cobweb-like veins are layered on perspex, it shows just how complex and extensive the Martha Mine system is.
There are also original jail cells (including one with padded walls) and vintage models of the town, plus an arts centre that displays local works. Come for the thumbs, stay for the charm. 54 Kenny Street, Waihī. (07) 863 8386, waihimuseum.co.nz
Spike's Bricks & Models
Stewart ‘Spike’ Milligan owns more than one million lego pieces. It’s little wonder then that his collection is housed not in an at-home man-cave or on a few shelves in the spare room, but in a multi-room building in the middle of Waihī.
This is Spike’s happy place, where he dedicates his days to sharing his staggering collection with the public. It was a love that blossomed late in life; dairy and beef farmer Spike purchased a Lego set for his then 4-year-old son, and had a bit of fun putting it together.
That model turned into another, and another, and then over 597 more. His 600-strong collection of creations encompasses the best of Legoland. There are planes, trains and automobiles, a Taj Mahal, a 4000-piece Big Ben and a 6500-piece Hogwarts, plus Lego remotecontrol cars for visitors to race.
It’s a mini-wonderland on a grand scale, and Spike is the infectiously enthusiastic ringleader. His collection has gained value over the years (“If you had invested in gold or Lego 10 years ago, Lego would have made you more”) but that’s not why he does it. He just loves Lego, plain and simple. 25 Haszard Street, Waihī. 027 451 5706, on Facebook.
Flatwhite, Waihī Beach
The Flatwhite takes the cake for best location in the region. A large renovation in 2015 saw the once-small café transformed into a beachfront dream. Find a seat next to the enormous windows and watch the surf roll in on Waihī Beach.
The wine list is extensive, the menu diverse and the pizzas large. Bookings are only available for dinner, but the Flatwhite is also open for breakfast and lunch. 21 Shaw Road, Waihī Beach. (07) 863 1346, flatwhite.co.nz
The Falls Retreat Bistro
The moment that Brad and Emma King saw the property, they knew they wanted to buy it. The then-Goose Farm Tearooms offered everything they’d dreamt of - room for their young family, a change of lifestyle, a restaurant for Brad, and accommodation.
It almost all worked out. “But there’s no lifestyle now”, laughs Emma, “we never thought it would reach the level it has.” Under Brad’s award-winning expertise, the Falls Retreat Bistro has become one of the region’s most revered eateries, and not only because of the dishes crafted in the kitchen.
The team is also recognised for its environmental efforts and paddockto-plate ethos. “Brad has a special gift, and great food shouldn’t be exclusive. The bistro is warm and friendly and dogs and children are more than welcome.
Good dishes are created from good ingredients, and we grow what we deliver on the plate.” The veggie garden isn’t only for the benefit of the diners, the Kings also hold workshops on cooking and fermenting for the wider community, whom they credit in part for their success. “The community has been so supportive, and is full of creative people and ideas.
We run Barter at the Bistro - locals bring in any excess produce and we exchange it for a meal. We love being able to serve them dishes made from their gardens.” The bistro is open for lunch and dinner Wednesday to Sunday.
The menu changes with the seasons and reflects the best seasonal produce, and diners can choose from a light meal to a full dining experience, or enjoy one of The Falls’ famous wood-fired pizzas. The bistro islocated just up the hill from the Owharoa Falls and the Victoria Battery, making it an excellent stop for Rail Trail riders. 25 Waitawheta Road, Waihī. (07) 863 8770, fallsretreat.co.nz
Chez Moi, The Swiss Chocolate Shop
Tucked away at the back of the Waihī Beach shops is a petite chocolate-scented store. Like the truffles handmade inside, Chez Moi is small and perfectly formed, created with love and best shared with friends (that’s a lie, don’t share the truffles).
Ines Pins is Swiss, but fell in love with Waihī Beach during a backpacking holiday. After many return visits, it made sense to simply stay, and so she did. The trained baker, pastry chef and chocolatier opened Chez Moi in 2016, much to the delight of locals - she quickly won over the small community by using passers-by as chocolate taste-testers.
Ines makes everything herself, including the wrapping paper for her chocolate blocks and the light fixture in the store. Her chocolate comes from Callebaut in Belgium, but the magic happens in her little shop.
That’s where she turns chocolate into miniature masterpieces - delicate roses in truffle-filled flower pots, planes, trains and automobiles, baby carriages and Christmas trees. Her truffles are crafted with only the best seasonal produce (hazelnuts from Athenree, fresh figs, local limes) and Lewis Road Creamery cream. Unit 1/29 Wilson Road, Waihī Beach. 027 372 4093, chezmoichocolate.com
The Secret Garden
Give or take a few kilometres, there’s approximately 7000km between Bali and Waihī Beach. If that distance is daunting, the Secret Garden is here to provide a little tropical sanctuary without boarding a plane or packing a suitcase. Owner Jayne Jolly has turned one the village’s original baches into a multifaceted Balineseinspired store, eatery and garden.
Start at Shipshape - a homeware and clothing boutique with a range of New Zealand designers and thoughtfully sourced brands. With bags in hand, head inside the garden to The Pod, which serves takeaway Allpress coffee, smoothies and freshly baked goods (ask about the Portuguese egg tarts).
Tables are tucked away in the tropical garden, with large palms hiding other shopping nooks. During summer there is live music and small events. 17 Wilson Road, Waihī Beach. (07) 863 5155, secretgardenwaihibeach.co.nz
Waihī Beach Top 10 Holiday Park
Just minutes’ walk from Orokawa Scenic reserve, the Waihī Beach Top 10 is set on five acres of native gardens. Accommodation options include powered sites through to motel units. And while it looks and sounds like a campground, there are a few key differences that set this site apart.
If underfloor heating in the toilet blocks isn’t enough, how about a heated swimming pool? Kids playroom with air hockey? Beachfront campsites? There are strong environmental practices being implemented here, including watersaving strategies. 15 Beach Road, Waihī Beach. 0800 924 448, waihibeachtop10.co.nz
Bowentown Beach Holiday Park & Campground
With a beachfront location as good as this, it would be easy for the Bowentown Beach Holiday Park to rest up and let the views do the hard work. Not so - there’s a lot going on at this long-running campground, with campsites galore, motel rooms, selfcontained cabins and even a couple of Kombi vans.
Located on the edge of the Bowentown Domain, the additional playground of Anzac Bay is around the corner as is the excellent view from the top of the pā at Bowentown Heads. 510 Seaforth Road, Waihī Beach. (07) 863 5381, bowentown.co.nz