I’m very fond of tea in all its forms. (No tea bags in our house!) And I’d often driven past the Zealong tea plantation on the road to Gordonton, but never been there. So when my tea-loving friend Melissa proposed a visit, I was more than happy to agree.
On a wet winter day we walked up the quiet road to the teahouse. There was no glitzy entranceway. It felt like we were visiting someone’s country home.
But inside it was pretty busy – in a peaceful, graceful, tea-drinking way of course.
Zealong is New Zealand's only tea plantation. It was founded by Taiwanese migrant Vincent Chen. He observed that camellias grow well in the Waikato, and reasoned that this would be a good tea growing region as well. In 1996 he imported over 1500 tea cuttings (Camellia sinensis) from Asia. Following a long quarantine from the Ministry of Agriculture, he was left with only 130 plants. These have now been propagated into more than one million bushes, growing over 40 hectares on the Gordonton property.
Mr Chen obviously takes tea very seriously. “To make perfect tea, you cannot take shortcuts,” he says on the Zealong website.
Melissa, about to take tea. Note flourishing camellias in the background.
Certified organic tea
I think Mr Chen might be justified in his claim that Zealong is the world’s purest tea. The plantation has full BioGro organic certification and also ISO certification for the tea processing. All the tea is processed on the premises in Zealong’s own tea factory, supervised by tea masters, using a combination of modern technology and ancient skills.
Just part of the Zealong tea plantation, on a winter's day.
A divine cup of tea
There are five flavour tones: green tea, pure oolong, aromatic oolong, dark oolong and black tea.
Melissa picked the pure oolong, and I chose the aromatic oolong. Both were delicious and fragrant.
After we had been set up with cups of infusing tea and a kettle of hot water for refills, we decided to sample the High Tea. There are two versions: a Signature High Tea, which is somewhat Asian/ fusion in theme, and a Classic High Tea, which is a bit more “kiwi”. Both were gorgeous tiers of elegant little morsels. But I personally found the myriad of tiny pieces a bit overwhelming. It distracted me from the tea. There’s also a full lunch menu between 11am and 3pm.
Zealong is popular: on a mid-winter Wednesday lunchtime the teahouse was filled with a diverse range of ages, from young children to older people, both Asian and European New Zealanders. We didn't have a reservation, but they fitted us in.
You don't have to order food - you can just sit and drink several cups of tea for $9.
Zealong’s food is pricey. But their service is great, and the atmosphere is wonderfully tranquil. And the tea is utterly divine.
Zealong Tea Plantation
495 Gordonton Rd
Bookings are highly recommended. especially on the weekend.
Phone 07 853 3018 or 0800 ZEALONG
Restaurant open Tuesday to Sunday, 10am to 5pm
There are regular guided tours. Bookings essential – see the website for details.
You can buy Zealong tea at their retail shop, which is open 7 days, 9am to 5pm, or order online.