No, we’re not joking. Zealong Tea’s 50 hectare tea plantation 13 minutes out of Hamilton has been quietly and successfully emerging since 1996, and although the public are welcomed there, and many international tourists do go, it remains one of this country’s most unknown and fascinating destination for Kiwis.
Zealong boasts an extraordinary history. It is the life-long pursuit of a single individual: Vincent Chen. Hailing from Taiwan, and still managing to get back to his home country to spend precious time with family, Vincent was first inspired to grow tea when he saw a Waikato camellia in flower in 1996. It was a lightbulb moment as Vincent realised that the tea plant (Camellia sinensis), is also a Camellia. Putting two and two together, he made the decision to explore tea growing opportunities in the Waikato. Little did he know what was in store for him!
New Zealand is well know for its stringent importing regulations, and plants feature high on their list of materials and substances which are carefully scrutinised before being permitted entry. For Vincent, this meant that no plant material bearing roots or soil could be brought into the country. The only way to establish his dreamed-of tea estate was to import Camellia sinensis cuttings (sections of stem) and then try to ‘strike’ them (grow them on to the point where, hopefully, they sprout roots).
As every gardener knows, some cuttings take (grow roots) and some don’t. After importing hundreds of cuttings from Taiwan, Vincent managed to strike just 130 plants. Happily, those few plants that did grow were the beginning of a line of Camellia sinensis that was starting to adapt to New Zealand conditions. The future was looking bright.
Today, Zealong Estate boasts 1.3 million tea bushes, all of them manicured with careful clipping to produce long rows which hug the gently undulating land of what was previously a farm. The estate runs on organic principals which is why is colourful bands of cheeky pukeko are completely tolerated as the fly to the top of the hip-high bushes and perch on them, hunting for insects to eat.
A visit to Zealong Estate is a very special experience – and a perfect gift to give a friend or family member. On our tours, we enjoyed learning about the history of tea by strolling along ‘The Tea Trail’ where elegant and endearing sculptures appear at intervals to illustrate everything ‘tea’ from growing, harvesting, transporting, and fermenting, and all to the background of the living artworks which are the tea bushes themselves.
The trail tour is followed by tea tasting where you would be most unwise to ask for milk! Think of sampling ‘fine wine’ and you have the essence of this special ritual. Don’t be afraid to try the green tea, either. While we Kiwis usually think of green tea as a bitter, undrinkable concoction, Zealong will change your mind forever.
If you want to take your concept of a tour up a notch, high tea is also served at Zealong – overlooking the bushes that ‘grew the brew’!