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Grand and Mighty: A Tour of the Waikato in an Opel Grandland SRi

If the title of this article seems like a repetitive mess then let me take a moment to explain the method to my madness. The hero car of this article is the Opel Grandland and my road trip was set to take place in the Waikato region of New Zealand. Colloquially known as the ‘Mighty Waikato’.

There’s something else I need to clear up before I begin. Our regular readers might be wondering where they have seen a Cobalt Blue Grandland SRi before, specifically one with this number plate. Well, the eagle eyed among you will recognize this particular car from our video review earlier in the year, Dave also reviewed the same car here. But this isn’t a regular review. This time, I’m taking the Grandland SRi on a family road trip!

Photo of a Cobalt Blue Opel Grandland SRi on a driveway.
The Grandland had some driveway downtime before heading off for the road trip

The story goes that when I pitched the idea for this article to Opel New Zealand, Patrick and Noah were swiftly onboard with the Grandland being the perfect road trip vehicle to suit. And as we were heading into Christmas, I had to pick up the car a few days before we were due to set off.

Chatting with Patrick about the Grandland, I got a few tips about the car as well as an excellent restaurant recommendation as you will later on. But before we get on a road trip, that little thing called packing needs to happen first!

For any road trip, I have a small but functional list of essentials that I carry. A cap (the more car themed the better), a pair of sunglasses which were by Hackett London on this occasion, a timepiece of which my trusty Seiko 5 SRPC53 took the honour and car keys of course! The car in question as you will have gathered by now is the Opel Grandland SRi.

Once that’s done, we can move onto the less important stuff, namely packing. Check out the photo on the right which contains enough luggage for a family of four for a four day road trip as well as a beach bag and a chilly bin! Notice how everything fit rather easily in the boot of the Grandland, we had to throw in some umbrellas too because of course it’s summer in New Zealand!

Day One:

Day one rolled around and before we set off, I want to explain our thought process for planning this holiday. My family and I are fairly well travelled when it comes to New Zealand’s North Island. Visiting Taupo, Rotorua, Tauranga, Coromandel and Hawkes Bay, all of which require some sort of passage through this Waikato region but we have never stayed there. Thus, we finally decided to visit this region that we had always skipped through previously. As we also wanted to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city, the town of Cambridge was chosen as our home base for the duration of the holiday rather than the city of Hamilton.

Photo of a Cobalt Blue Opel Grandland SRi with a sign signifying Cambridge Town, Waikato, New Zealand.
Modelled off its English counterpart, Cambridge is a beautiful little town

With no flight to catch, we decided a late start would be preferable. After finishing our packing etc, we set off at 10AM. As the Waikato region and Cambridge is so close to Auckland, a straight drive to the place was the best approach. However, the roadworks along the way did mean that we sat down for lunch at 1PM rather than 12PM but no matter, that wasn’t going to spoil our meal!

Photo of a lunch meal at Good George Brewing Co, Cambridge, Waikato, New Zealand. Food items pictured are burgers, fries, and two glasses of cider.
As a burger connoisseur, I highly rate Good George’s “glorified sandwiches”

What a meal it was too! Upon entering the town, we settled on the first restaurant that came into view which was ‘Good George Brewing Co‘. The food menu includes Kiwi pub favourites like fish & chips, burgers and pizzas but all crafted with a unique combination of ingredients. My sister and I sampled the burgers, Cheeky Chook and Cowboy respectively while the parents enjoyed the Good Sample platter. Foodies be warned though because it was the most expensive restaurant bill we had during our time in Cambridge.

Still, the $29 burgers were well worth the money and came with a generous side of fries.

With lunch through, we headed to our accommodation for the length of this holiday which would be the quaint and convenient, Cambridge Mews Motel. Unlike many motels we have stayed at previously, this one was extremely memorable for its distinct architecture and scenic setting. The gardens, hedges and plants were all well cared for by the owners. Similarly, the rooms were clean, tidy and neat, ours even came with a spa bath!

Once through with our power naps, we would normally sit down for a dinnertime meal and movie but this wasn’t the case on the day. Earlier on in this article I did mention that our meal at Good George Co was pricey but considering none of us had much for dinner, perhaps it was the most value friendly meal of the trip! Our (not) dinnertime movie companion was ‘What’s Love got to do with it‘, a true story, rom-com style take on the world of arranged marriages. It’s certainly worth your time if you enjoy this genre of movies or are curious about the aforementioned relationship type, there’s plenty of British humour too if you needed another reason to watch it!

If you thought I was being boring with my choice of film, I then turned over the channels for some test cricket before turning in for the day. For the cricket nuts among you, it was the Boxing Day Test Series of Australia vs Pakistan followed by South Africa vs India Test Series.

Day Two:

After a restful night’s sleep, we sat down for a family meeting to do some planning for our holiday. In this region of New Zealand, one of the natural highlights is Lake Karapiro, a man-made lake formed in 1947, the primary purpose of which is a source of hydroelectric power as you will see below. These days, it also serves as a premier rowing venue for the nation’s top athletes. A fixture like this is quite hard to miss as you can imagine but with me at the wheel, nothing is impossible.

A sense of direction is not one of my finest skills in all honesty so some form of digital mapping system is always handy to have. Having set the Lake’s address into Google Maps, we then set off. The directions first took us to a small alcove on the banks of the lake from where we could see the lake and the dam as photographed below. However, something was amiss here.

Remember that Lake Karapiro is one of the largest attractions in this region so I found it rather uncanny that only one or two other families wanted to visit it on this summer day. Having deduced that an establishment of this size should have a historic signboard at the very least if not a cafe, we decided to let our curiosity lead the way. To help with our theory, we spotted what looked to be a floating water park diagonally across from where we were and figured that crossing the top of the dam would take us there.

Having done some more research, I figured that place was called Mighty River Domain. As the crow flies, it seemed near enough but once inputted into the GPS, it was an hour’s drive away. Once across the top of the dam, Google demanded we go right and so we did. This ended up taking us on an hour long loop to a spot that was about 500m to the left of where we had gone right. And the reason for this you might ask? Well, the Googles wasn’t aware the dam road was open (literally) and so began our round trip (literally once again).

It wasn’t all bad though as we drove along much of the Lake’s beautiful shoreline and enjoyed some excellent music courtesy of my 80s playlist. Side note, the Lakeside roads are excellent too!

Upon deciding that we had been adventurous enough for the day, our interest turned back to the town of Cambridge. At the centre of which stands a majestic old Town Hall, built in 1904 as too is much of the town’s architecture which stems from the same era. As beautiful as it is, this Hall sits across from the town’s World War 1 and World War 2 memorial.

A fitting monument of remembrance to those whom our freedom is indebted to, the monument details a list of many who gave their lives in the War effort. A staggering number considering Cambridge’s population during that period. The town centre also features another less sombre tribute to a trade that has put this town on the international map. That is the equestrian and racehorse circuits respectively where Cambridge bred talent has become well known.

Photo of Cambridge Museum taken from the street outside.
Cambridge Museum is small but packs a wealth of history inside

Something that’s a little less well-known and sits on the edge of town is the Cambridge Museum. This small but significant building sits on the far end of town and within its four walls contains a wealth of knowledge. The town itself was famed for its strong trade links, quality education and not so famed for its origins.

Speaking of roots, my family is not usually known to pine for food from our homeland while on holiday. We are quite happy to sample the local cuisine and all its taste sensations. However, we are also aware of travelling Kiwi-Indians who have scoured the likes of Paris for some Indian food! On this occasion though, my sister seemed to develop a want for trying what Cambridge’s take was on Indian cuisine. Having resorted to the physical maps this time after our tryst with Google earlier, we found an eatery in the nearby area of Leamington and set off.

Royal Cambridge Indian Restaurant was the name of the establishment and while it was set in a rather inconspicuous shopping centre, the food is well worth stopping for. We would recommend trying the kebabs as well as the Lamb Tak-a-Tak. Obviously no New Zealand Indian meal is complete without a butter chicken but I recommend that you forego that and side with the ‘Murgh Makhani’ instead which is a more authentic version of ‘butter chicken’.

Day Three

After last night’s spice feast for our taste buds, we figured this morning should please the sweeter palettes among us. The perfect way to do that of course was to go berry picking, specifically blueberry picking! Once again, the road to our destination was one with plenty of banked corners and straights, the perfect mix for spirited driving. Normally I’d be a bit peeved at the thought of tackling these roads in an SUV but the Grandland offers a side of fun with its practicality, allowing me to enjoy the drive as well!

Monavale Blueberries was our berry picking location of choice. Visitors planning to do the ‘PYO’ (pick your own) should report to the cafe rather than the workers shed (ask me how I know) and from there, you are handed a 1kg container and packed off. Mind you, the more zealous blueberry fans can take kilograms worth of containers along, it’s really up to the individual and what their appetite for blueberries is. As you will have observed on the right, the blueberry plants stretch for miles but as the plants are grown in a planned manner, the staff direct you towards designated rows for amateur pickers like ourselves.

Once you’ve had a pickin’ good time, the onsite cafe is a good stop to replenish with everything in the cabinet featuring some form of blueberries. Compotes, jams and chutneys are also available to purchase from the shop! Speaking of purchasing, we were about to make a big one.

Sanctuary Mountain Maungatautari was next on our list, about a 40 minute (rather enjoyable) drive out of Cambridge. The reserve features a state of the art pest fence spanning its perimeter, the installation of which has meant that endemic NZ species of birds, wildlife and flora have thrived. Entry fee for an an adult is $28 per person which can amount to a sizable sum for a family of four so make sure you dedicate at least a whole morning if not more to doing the mapped walks. Guided tours are also available but for those who prefer a self-directed approach, there are plenty of informative signposts along the way to help.

The most notable installation though would have to be the viewing tower which allows a 360 degree view of the surrounding area and canopy. I am petrified of heights but gingerly made it up to the top so can confirm its breathtaking beauty. Though perhaps I was also out of breath from being frightened. Either way, my stomach was telling me it was time to head back for some lunch and so we did.

Photo of a lunch meal at Alpino Ristorante, Cambridge, Waikato, New Zealand.
Alpino Ristorante plated up gorgeous Italian food, bellisima!

As visible above and recommended by Patrick, our lunch destination was the famed Alpino Ristorante in Cambridge. It’s a local attraction at this point so booking is a must. Though they will also hold your table for 20 minutes past booking time. We sat down for lunch after 2pm which means the mains were off the menu and we were relegated to choosing between the sharing plates and pizzas.

Our meal was a mixture of a pizza as can be seen above and a selection of smaller sharing plates of which we chose the garlic pizza bread, friend mozzarella and meatballs. And my word, were we impressed! This was quite possibly the best Italian meal I have eaten in New Zealand and those of you that know me personally will know that the prior statement carries some weight! The ‘Tartufo’ pizza also deserves a special mention, everything from the dough to the Italian truffled ham was so finely made, a scrumptious meal all in all.

Obviously, we couldn’t resist capping this off with a spot of tiramisu which was equally up to the very high mark that Alpino has now set for my discerning Italian palette.

Photo of Lake Te Koo Utu in Cambridge, Waikato, New Zealand.
Lake Te Koo Utu is an oasis in the middle of Cambridge

One of the easiest ways to gauge the quality of food you’ve just eaten is how it makes you feel afterwards. Alpino excelled in this respect, despite using traditionally carbohydrate heavy ingredients and olive oil, it didn’t make me want to hit the bed immediately. My appetite had been satisfied but not my thirst for adventure so we decided to set out compass for the large park in the middle of Cambridge.

The park is called Lake Te Koo Utu Reserve and features a beautiful vantage point of Lake Te Koo Utu from the Victoria Street entrance. We decided to head down to the lakeside for a walk rather than taking one of the forest trails. The Lake itself was full to the brim and featured a very doable loop track that offered vistas of the lotus flowers and more. I presumed there were fish in the Lake judging by its size and also the fact that there was a family fishing from the shores. Turns out that I don’t exactly have an eye for fish but luckily, I am far better at the art of car spotting.

Cambridge served up enough in the motoring department to keep a car nerd like me occupied as visible from the spots above. Turns out that the Opel was also keeping the town folk busy as I had a few of people approach me enquiring about the brand with the Cobalt Blue colour being the noteworthy drawcard!

Day Four

After a holiday as action packed and at times chaotic as the one we just had, some time to slow down and reflect wouldn’t go amiss. About an hour’s drive from Cambridge lay the Tyburn Monastery Ngakuru, set in a beautiful spot on the outskirts of Rotorua. The route to this sanctuary of peace was a glee filled one, packed with engaging corners, long straights and pretty scenery. This was the perfect way to test the Grandland’s dynamic abilities, not to mention allowing its three pot turbo stretch its legs!

Day four was the second rainy day we had on our trip so there was the added challenge of poor visibility at times along with wet roads. Again, the Grandland excelled with its Intellilux headlights being well used as we got deeper into the forest.

Photo of a Cobalt Blue Opel Grandland SRi at Tyburn Monastery, Rotorua, New Zealand.
Tyburn Monastery is an institution of serenity and peace

Yes, Tyburn is a bit of a drive but the destination itself is even more rewarding than the journey. Set in a tranquil location, overlooking Lake Ohakuri which is the largest artificial lake in the region. The Monastery features beautiful gardens, walks, guest accommodation, a 102 year old Chapel which was rebuilt in 1987 and then moved to its current home in 2009! The Nuns that run the place are very hospitable and cook meals for those staying in the accommodation as well as making soaps and other products from ingredients that are grown on the property.

For those both religious and non-religious, this is a place that can be appreciated by all. Tyburn offers a genuine chance to disconnect from the noise and notifications while providing a place to nurture the soul. Having refilled my ‘cup’, the belly was beginning to tell me it required fuel too!

As we would be heading back through Cambridge on our way home to Auckland, we decided to make our lunch stop in the town. Having often driven past the historic roundabout where Alpha Street Kitchen & Bar is located, we had wanted to stop for lunch a few times but the restaurant was closed through the Christmas season. Not today though!

This time we were in luck and were certainly rewarded for the gamble. Cambridge served up many things during our brief stay in the town and excellent food was arguably one of its biggest strengths, Alpha Street being one of them. With a menu spanning several cultures and types of food, my sister and I settled on pairing a bowl of ‘Karaage chicken’ with a generous side of fries. The parents went for a ‘Beer battered Fish & Chips’ and a ‘Beetroot Ravioli’. As you will note from the photos, the mains were generous and well presented but then came the desserts which upgraded the visual appeal of the food even more so. Being the chocolate lover, I opted for the ‘Warm Whittaker’s Chocolate Pudding’ while we also ordered the ‘ Roasted White Chocolate Pannacotta.’

Rear three quarters view of a Cobalt Blue Opel Grandland SRi at Sanctuary Mountain.
Grandland was the ideal partner for a road trip through the ‘Mighty Waikato’

That’s a perfect segue to describe Cambridge. Yes, it’s a town with strong visual appeal, there are plenty of beautiful tree lined streets, historical buildings and more natural beauty. Underneath it all, lies a town filled with some standout restaurants, friendly people and a highly convenient home base for those wanting to visit the wider Waikato region.

If you find yourself driving through this part of the world, you need to at least stop in Cambridge, or maybe not, because you might find yourself struggling to leave!

Photo of the digital gauge cluster on an Opel Grandland SRi.
Even fully laden, fuel efficiency was a strength of the Grandland

The Verdict

With the description of Cambridge done, what about the car then? Our trusty Cobalt Blue Opel Grandland SRi was a superb pairing for our road trip. It offered space for the whole family and our luggage as well as keeping us entertained via its infotainment and speaker system. The Grandland kept me as the driver in check with its safety systems and adaptive cruise control while ensuring no one got car sick thanks to its large windows and powerful air conditioning.

My time with the Opel Grandland spanned 12 days and some 1200 kilometres, during which I was approached by seven people enquiring about the brand and countless more who would have consulted the website upon seeing the badge. It undoubtedly deserves the interest for as it proved on this road trip, it is a car that’s right at home in our great Southern lands!

Thanks for reading! For more Lifestyle & Experiences, visit Tarmac Life.

Car courtesy of Opel New Zealand and ADR. Words and pictures by Matthew D’Souza.

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