By Carmen Huter
Location in the heart of New Zealand’s North Island
Ko Tongariro te Maunga
Tongariro is the Mountain
Ko Taupo te Moana
Taupo is the Lake
Ko Tuwharetoa te Iwi
Tuwharetoa is the Tribe
Ko Te Heuheu te Tangata
Te Heuheu is the people
[an acknowledgement of the Tuwharetoa people, their land, Iwi and the Paramount Chief – Sir Tumu Te Heuheu.]
The most potent volcanic eruption ever recorded took place in 186AD. Only a few minutes thereafter, Aotearoa’s North Island was entirely coated in thick, toxic ash. Following the event, a freshwater lake – the biggest in Australasia – was formed. A lake as large as Singapore and as deep as a 39 story building (159m, that is). A lake with the name of Lake Taupo.
Having returned to the region many, many times again in the past 12 months, I thought it’s only appropriate I take the time to create a Taupo travel guide. One with all the essentials and an extra sprinkling of insider knowledge. You ready? Let’s explore!
Great Lake Bike Trail A 71km, grade 3, mountain biking and walking adventure, linked by a boat shuttle at various sections. One of the best biking trails in the country!
Maori Rock Carvings at Mine Bay In recognition of Ngatoro-i-rangi, who was considered a visionary Maori navigator, students began to carve in 1978. The result was a sublime piece of art which took four summers to complete. Only accessible by water, see the rock carvings either by kayak (choose Taupo Kayaking Adventures) or boat (Sail Barbary).
Waipahihi Botanical Reserve Serene gardens with lake views. Gates are open daily until dusk, situated at the top of Shepherd Road.
Huka Falls Believe it or not the Huka Falls are the most visited and photographed natural attraction in New Zealand. For that extra thrill, take a plunge with Hukafalls Jet or the more relaxed River Cruise.
Skydiving Few know that Taupo is home New Zealand’s largest commercial skydive drop zone. Add a birds eye perspective on the region’s volcanic landscape, and you’ve got yourself a perfect day out. Click here to choose a provider.
Wairakei Terraces Culture meets relaxation. Come for the Maori cultural performances, a replica Maori village and a traditional hangi feast, and end the day in the silica terraces and hot pools.
Tongariro National Park New Zealand’s first national park, a dual World Heritage Area and Frodo’s territory all in one, Tongariro National Park sees its fair share [some would say an incredible amount] of visitors.
The 19.4km long Tongariro Alpine Crossing is widely agreed to be one of the country’s best day hikes. Come prepared; prepared for masses of people, stormy weather, a challenging hike, and, you guessed it, out of this world scenery. Rest well, gear up and start before dawn. Tongariro National Park is dominated by the three volcanoes of Mount Ruapehu [2797m], Mount Ngauruhoe [Mt Doom; 2291m] and Mount Tongariro [1968m]. The latter two can be explored along the Tongariro Alpine Crossing.
The lesser travelled Mount Ruapehu down the road is just as picturesque. In summer, take the chair lifts up to the country’s highest cafe and make your way to the crater lake on, no surprises here, the North Island’s highest mountain. It’s easy to get lost, so this is one of the rare occasions I do recommend to hire a guide for. In winter, The nearby village Whakapapa is located within the park. All walking and hiking track transport arrangements (drop offs and pick ups) within the Tongariro National Park must be made before departure.
Mangakino There are no jaw-dropping hikes or Lord of the Ring scenes along the shores of peaceful Lake Maraetai. What is found regularly, though, is a feeling of serenity. And once you’re after some more adrenaline, head over to the Timber Trail; a mountain bike trail with some of the highest and longest suspension bridges in New Zealand.
Pureora Forest Park Hidden between Great Lake Taupo and Te Kuiti, come here to get amongst nature with the help of dozens of walking tracks (from 10 minutes to 3 days).
Kaimanawa Forest Park Locally, the Kaimanawa Forest Park south-east of Great Lake Taupo is best known for its beautiful breed of horse – the Kaimanawa horse – that runs wild throughout. On the tourist agenda, things look a little different. The Lord of the Rings trilogy saw the filming of the Black Gate of Mordor right here (in the middle of nowhere; I mean the middle of Middle Earth). Outdoor enthusiasts also like to go on heli-biking or hunting adventures. Finally, chances are you will run into a group of soldiers while there. Don’t fear. Thanks to the unforgiving terrain, the New Zealand Army conducts training exercises east and west of the Desert Road.
Wanderlust, March 8 – 11 This festival is the main reason I continue to travel back to Great Lake Taupo. Wanderlust is a beautiful cacophony of yoga, music and wellbeing. A play between physical strength, connection and spiritual enlightenment. I first went in February 2016. The following year, a whole group of my friends came along, with more already lined up for next year; it’s that good! Stay on-site at the Waireki Resort, camp or glamp in one of their Lotus Belle Tents. Click here to see my write up before the even in Feb ’16.
Taupo Winter Festival Mt Ruapehu is Aotearoa’s largest skifield. Logically, locals know how to celebrate winter. Come along from July 3 to July 16.
Ironman NZ Held yearly on the first weekend of March.
Taupo Summer Concert Click here to keep an eye out for next year’s line up.
[all vegan friendly]
Bodyfuel Beautifully true to its name. Fuel up for a day of adventures on 67 Tongariro Street.
The Taupo Market is held every Saturday from 10 am – 1 pm at the Riverside Park on Redoubt Street. Come for fresh produce, local arts and other culinary and creative delights.
Raw Balance A deli in Oruanui Street, specialising in scrumptious raw (read: everything-free, but SO tasty) takeaway foods.
Master of Indian Restaurant Curry heaven on 47 Ruapehu Street.
The Bistro The best [vegan] fine dining option in town; to be exact, on 17 Tamamutu Street.
Victoria’s Cafe Brunching plans? Go to 127 Tongariro Street. Done.
Whakaipo Lodge The Supreme Winner of the 2016 NZ Bed & Breakfast Excellence Awards and a personal favourite. Click here to read my review from September 2016.
Pillars Retreat Self-contained luxury done to perfection.
Tauhara Sunrise Lodge The beds are divine, but an early rise for the sun is mandatory; at least once.
Get There and Away
The Great Lake Taupo region is within a two-hour drive of Waitomo Caves to the west, Hamilton to the north, Tauranga to the east and the Ruapehu District to the south. Auckland is a 3.5h drive north, and Air New Zealand flies in a couple of times a day.
When to Go
Ski in winter. Hike, bike and swim in summer. Any time is a good time!
Click here to see my Taupo Photo Diary.
Freedom campers, listen up! Reid’s Farm, Whakamaru Domain, Whakamaru Recreation Reserve and Mangakino Recreation Reserve are excellent for campers. The DOC-run Huka-Aratiatia Amenity Area, the Five Mile Bay Recreation Reserve as well as Ferry Road all require self-contained vehicles.