Hamilton, New Zealand, walking tours: See the world's biggest organic tea farm

Our guide Boramey sits in front of an array of white porcelain cups, dishes and pots, pouring intently from one to another. This tea ceremony involves five variants of oolong tea: green, pure, aromatic, dark, and black. It's called a wet ceremony, and so it is – lots of liquid sloshing around as it's poured in graceful arcs by our guide, finally ending in cups for us to sip.

When we're not entranced by the rhythm of the ceremony, we glance over Boramey's shoulder to the fields of tea bushes beyond, a pretty sight from our elevated position on the terrace of this graceful teahouse.

You could be forgiven for assuming we're somewhere in Asia, but we're not – this is Hamilton, New Zealand, and the farm we are visiting is called Zealong. It's not just Aotearoa's only tea farm, it's the world's biggest organic one. The entire crop is descended from just 130 plants imported by the company's founder, Vincent Chen.

The tea ceremony is preceded by a walking tour which leads from the farm's sleek modern shop and visitor centre, highlighting the history of tea via several strategically placed statues.

On our gentle stroll we pass such worthies as Harold Neilsen, who helped Chen transform the property from a dairy farm; Captain James Cook, who named the manuka the "tea-tree"; the Chinese emperor Shennong, who legend has it first brewed the beverage; and Lu Yu, the so-called Sage of Tea who wrote about its production.

After the ceremony our guide leaves us to our high tea, involving a choice of seven teas and a selection of dainty edibles served on cake stands. This has been more than a pleasant day out – it's been thoroughly genteel.

The same elegant adjective can be applied to our next stop, the Hamilton Gardens. This is not a botanical garden in the traditional sense, but a collection of gardens from a variety of civilisations.

It's a brilliant concept, continually engaging the senses. First we enter the all-green Japanese garden, which leads to a Zen garden of neatly raked stones. A nearby English flower garden is based on the style popularised by the Arts & Crafts movement.

Further on is the Chinese Scholars' Garden, with lots of opposites in its design: light and dark, rough and smooth, open and closed. It opens onto a courtyard with a mosaic of lotus images.

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Elsewhere in the complex, the Char Bagh Garden evokes 17th century India via beautiful bright flower beds divided by water features and a decorative fountain and an Italian Renaissance garden is neatly arranged in 12 segments hinting at the 12 apostles.

A final highlight is Te Parapara, a traditional Maori garden producing a crop of kumara, with its centrepiece an elaborate carved and decorated timber storehouse raised on stilts.

It's been a charming day exploring the tea and gardens of Hamilton; after which we've been invited to drop into Good George to enjoy a beer. The name of this Hamilton craft brewery comes from its premises, a former church known as St George's. On this occasion, it would seem impolite to resist temptation.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

zealong.com

hamiltongardens.co.nz

newzealand.com

FLY + RAIL

Air New Zealand flies to Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au

Hamilton is 2.5 hours from Auckland aboard the Northern Explorer train. See greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

STAY

Novotel Hamilton Tainui is a convenient option in the city centre, with rooms from NZ$170 a night. See all.accor.com

DRINK & EAT

Good George Dining Hall, see goodgeorge.co.nz

TOUR

Zealong's Discover Tea tour costs NZ$49, with high tea NZ$89. See zealong.com

Hamilton Gardens are free to enter, guided tours available for NZ$20. See hamiltongardens.co.nz

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Tourism New Zealand.

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