Located two hours from Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island, Waitomo is one of the country’s oldest tourist attractions. While the local Maori had known about the limestone cave system for generations, it wasn’t until 1887 when they first introduced the luminous caves to outsiders. Amazed by the twinkling larvae, the site became a tourist attraction almost immediately and has been welcoming guests ever since.
The caves themselves are riddled with towering, dramatic rock formations found throughout the system. The real attraction aren’t the stalactites though, it’s the glowworms.
The cute sounding worms are actually a species of gnat that, in their larval stage, spin a thread that is used to catch prey, attracted by the glowing bug. The glow is caused by a waste product of the not-so-cute-anymore glowworm. As guides usually put it, “we’re looking at the snot and poo from a bunch of cannibalistic maggots.” I prefer the twinkling stars description.
Even though it’s been an attraction for more than a century, Waitomo is still a fun place to spend a day or longer, exploring the caves and nearby countryside.
Waitomo Glowworm Cave – As you drive along Waitomo Caves Road, continue past private companies claiming to be the official tour and instead stop at the real official center, marked by a large building and pedestrian bridge.
This is the starting point for the main tour that features thousands of glowworms radiating their bioluminescent light as expert guides provide informative and entertaining commentary on the historical and geological importance of the Caves. The tour concludes with a boat ride through Glowworm Grotto, offering the best look at the larvae.
The standard hour-long tour leaves every thirty minutes: NZD$46.00, child (4-14): NZD$21.00, although most people combine with other tours to take advantage of combo deals. No photos are allowed inside the cave due to environmental sustainability policies.
Lunch – The village in the Waitomo Caves area is small and dining options are somewhat limited, but there are a few good spots.
Glowworm Cave Visitor Centre – The main restaurant spans two levels with an à la carte menu of standard, but well made fare.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Cafe – Located in the Black Water center on Waitomo Caves Road, the cafe has a variety of ready to eat sandwiches and made to order entrees. The fish ‘n chips is a specialty.
Waitomo General Store – Quirky neighborhood store with a selection of locally made meats, cheeses and bread. Fun place for breakfast or to pick up a picnic lunch.
The Legendary Black Water Rafting Co. – After lunch, it’s time for some adventure and to see the glowworms in a more exciting setting. There are two options here, the Black Labyrinth and the Black Abyss. The Labyrinth is a three-hour rafting trip through intense cave rapids and waterfalls. It’s a great trip for the adventurous, but also provides amazing views of those bright larvae. The Abyss includes a rappelling portion to the trip and lasts almost five hours.
Accommodations – Since Waitomo is such a popular tourist town, there are plenty of lodging options from holiday parks to hotels. I’m sure most of them are fine, but I can only speak to where I stayed – Woodlyn Park.
To say that Woodlyn Park is a strange place is a massive understatement. Part farm stay and part theme park, Woodlyn Park includes a Train, Boat, Plane and even a Hobbit Hotel. With the exception of the Hobbit House, the transportation pieces are the real deal, retrofitted with hotel rooms to offer a very unique experience.
I stayed in the Hobbit House with great views of the surrounding farm. I had to get used to the sounds of cows mooing and cats meowing, but I enjoyed a great rest in the spacious quarters. It’s not the Four Seasons, but Woodlyn Park is a fun stay in a gorgeous part of the country.
Dinner – Without question, the best option for dinner is at the HuHu Cafe. Don’t let the name or the strange exterior keep you away, the restaurant itself is beautifully decorated and under the direction of Head Chef/Owner Andy Rawles, produces delicious, forward-thinking cuisine using locally sourced products.
One of the more quirky aspects is the meat selection. The restaurant buys a whole cow locally, then uses every bit of it until it’s time to get a new cow. The featured entrees change depending on what portion of the bovine the chef is highlighting that particular day.
I was a little dubious about the HuHu Cafe as I drove up, but the food was some of the best I enjoyed on my New Zealand trip. I opted for the goat cheese tart, beef sausages with mashed with a yummy sticky toffee pudding for dessert.
The best way to end your evening in Waitomo is to find a quiet area, overlooking the farms and pastures and just soak in the meaty smell of the earth and the cows dotting the landscape like toy figures. Even though there’s plenty to do to fill your time here, sometimes it’s best just to sit back and enjoy the solitude.