Lady of the lake
From fly-fishing to fine food and wine, Taupo packs a punch
FROM Rotorua airport in New Zealand’s North Island, I’ve just driven south to Turangi, the southernmost town on Lake Taupo. It’s a two-hour journey and apparently I’ve semicircumnavigated the equivalent area of Singapore, minus the crowds and skyscrapers.
Low-rise towns and villages nestle beside crystal waters with a backdrop of knobbly grey andesite mountains; the occasional puff of steam misting the horizon tells me I’m in prime geothermal country. Turangi, on the Tongariro River, is trout fishing heaven and the entry point to the World Heritage-listed Tongariro National Park and Kaimanawa and Pureora forest parks, all of which makes for great tramping and hiking country.
Taupo’s a one-bank town best put in perspective by a visit to the Tongariro National Trout Centre, a five-minute drive south. Flyfishing has long lured enthusiasts from across the world including, in 1927, the then duke and duchess of York, in due course to ascend the British throne.
Catering to such eminences is reflected in the high standard of lodge accommodation through the Taupo region. Luxury and dining-in are very desirable after long days outdoors, and a landscape writ large has spawned a plethora of adventure sports, so fresh-faced backpackers chase adrenalin in droves. But there are less intrepid thrills to be had, including helicopter and seaplane excursions that swoop over Lake Taupo and Huka Falls, or up to still-simmering volcanoes, wine estates and alpine hideaways.
When Taupo hosts the Welsh, Irish and South African teams in September for the Rugby World Cup, youthful players and fans will find many diversions. Those more moderately inclined will be equally delighted by this pristine lakeland with its thermal wonders. Best trout fishing: If your joints are a bit creaky but you still long to chase rainbows and browns in transparent back-country waters, consider Brent Pirie’s Old Farts and Old Tarts tour from April to October (helicopter transport; absolutely everything provided). Or email your profile to Pirie and he’ll try to find you like-minded persons to share costs. He will also be your gillie in more accessible rivers, but as one’s centre of gravity is destabilised by huge boots and fast-moving water, beware immersion.
Boat fishing on the lake is a less risky, year-round option and operator Chris Jolly has a fully equipped fleet. Between reeling them in, cruise to Milne Bay to see the 6m Maori carvings on the cliff face. A temporary fishing licence is required and be sure to eat your catch (bag limit is three a day; alternatively, catch and release). Selling trout is illegal, so it’s never found on restaurant menus. More: flyfishtaupo.com; chrisjolly.co.nz. Best bushwalk and talk: My guide, Ngahuia — a kaitaiki, or guardian, of the realm of forest god Tane Mahuta — is a gifted storyteller. As we pace towards Lake Rotopounamu near Turangi, alert for the deep-throated gurgle of tui birds, Maori history comes alive. I am appointed the chef, another in our small party the doctor, and we become the temporary keepers of the secrets of native food and medicines.
It’s just a three-hour introduction to a rich culture but Ngahuia also does guided overnight walks that extend to the spectacular 19.4km Tongariro Alpine Crossing. More: pureorawalks.com. Best lunch: L’Arte Cafe, Galley and Mosaic Garden is a local favourite in Taupo but its unusual IN Turangi, River Birches is the perfect lodge to come home to, or perhaps never leave. There’s a separate, self-contained threebedroom cottage plus three guestrooms in the main lodge, all with private garden views, discreetly separated from each other and the main living and dining area, where pre-dinner drinks are served by the fire in winter and on the deck in summer.
Ensuites are large and superbly appointed, with big tub setting also draws visiting crowds. Before tucking into the fish pie or lamb with the house onion jam (and, I suggest, a glass of Omaka Springs pinot gris), pop into clay artist Judi Brennan’s garden and shop. Her outdoor living room, created entirely in mosaic, is a paean to imaginative patience.
The family-owned cafe also stocks local produce such as Omori olive oil in portable sizes. More: larte.co.nz.
Another Taupo midday treat is the tasting lunch at Huka Falls Resort. It’s a package offered by Helistar with a bird’s-eye view of Huka Falls and all the geothermal activity. After sampling seven wines in the cellar, lunch on the deck takes on a certain bonhomie and the return whirly-bird ride and hand-milled soaps and lotions from the Suan Plu Cooperative in Bangkok, a fairtrade project supported by lodge owners Jason and Rebeca Bleibtreu. Host Anthea Tidswell is charming, knowledgeable and an excellent chef; her muesli (breakfast is inclusive) uses walnuts from the garden, and dinner (try lamb backstrap crusted in dukkah) and lunch inlodge or a picnic are yours for the asking. More: riverbirches.co.nz. could feel particularly, whirly. More: helistar.co.nz. Best golf: Of the six courses in the region, four are in Taupo. Wairakei Golf Course was last year voted NZ’s No 1 by professionals and golf travel specialists. With the recent unveiling of a 9m-high Maori sculpture, it has also become an official wildlife sanctuary. A purpose-designed fence now excludes predators, providing a safe environment for native birds and eventually, it’s hoped, release of endangered kiwi and brown teal.
Pheasants and fallow deer are being hand-reared on the site so they’ll learn not to fear wayward balls and golfers; in time, they’ll be allowed to roam free on the course. Hopefully they won’t distract golfers on the fiendish 1st
well, ACACIA Cliffs Lodge is set high into lakeside cliffs just five minutes from the Taupo town centre. Rimless glass balconies adjoin floor-to-ceiling glass walls in the three lakeview super-king rooms; you are, gloriously, monarch of all you survey. When they rebuilt the property, Rick and Linda Whitlock left nothing but the original giant timber poles, now the clever anchors for contemporary design and luxurious decor. The fourth hole, with 11 bunkers to navigate from tee to green. More: wairakeigolfcourse.co.nz. Best spa treat: Taupo Hot Springs and Living Waters Day Spa are within the DeBretts resort complex, which offers various levels of accommodation. Soak in the three tiled public pools — hot, medium and coolish — or opt for more exclusive absorption of healthgiving minerals in the private pools. Then choose from a long list of treatments. My firming fullbody mud wrap and massage leave me very clean and detoxed, not to say ready for bed at 5pm. Renovations start soon, which will be no mean undertaking after its 24 years as a Taupo institution. More: taupodebretts.com. Best cultural experience:
The garden room has the only tub, but showers in other guestrooms are expansive and glass louvres allow filtered green views.
Passionate chef Rick makes sumptuous breakfasts, included in the tariff; dinner is by arrangement, featuring local produce. A bushwalk past grazing sheep (black-faced Tom loves attention) leads down to Lake Taupo for swimming or boat pick-ups. More: acaciacliffslodge.co.nz. original Wairakei Terraces, destroyed by the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886, were once considered the eighth wonder of the world. Their recreation in Taupo, by diverting silica-rich waterflow from the abutting Wairakei Geothermal Power Station and letting it spill over manmade terraces, is an evolving artwork of glittering pink, white and blue crystals and restores the Te Kiri O Hinekai ( food for the skin of a woman) stream and pools.
After a guided tour of the terraces’ Maori village, or before an evening of authentic song, dance and traditional hangi feast, soak in the pools and indulge in Maori therapies at the recently opened spa. More: wairakeiterraces.co.nz. Best wine cellar: Don’t miss Scenic Cellars in Taupo; its underground cellar houses more than 3000 labels from across the world. Tastings are via the clever Italian Enomatic system: purchase an Enocard, pop it into the slot of choice (there are 32 wines at any given time) and a spout delivers the 25ml drop. The amount you spend, and therefore drink, depends on the price of each taste.
The integrated cafe makes it easy to eat while you sample, and the cellar hosts annual long-table dinners. More: sceniccellars.co.nz. Best lakeside dining: At Oreti resort in Turangi, the self-contained apartments have excellent lake and mountain views. But it’s the restaurant — built of delicately scented macrocarpa cypress and set high, overlooking a huge piewedge of lake — that’s the jewel in the resort’s crown. Have dinner on the deck and try the house specialties: prawns wrapped in filo with aioli and sweet chilli, and hotsmoked Marlborough salmon with crayfish volute and pikopiko, or curly-tipped native fern spears. More: oretivillage.co.nz.
In Taupo, the Millennium Hotel group’s aptly named Edgewater Restaurant sits at lake level and through its glass front, bobbing boats are steps away. My venison, though farmed, is perfectly cooked and the sommelier has exceptional knowledge of NZ wines, available by the glass. More: millenniumhotels.co.nz. Best geothermal sights: Orakei Korako is a worthwhile detour off the main State Highway 5 at Lake Ohakuri, 25 minutes from Taupo or 45 minutes from Rotorua. It’s accessed by a boat service that runs in accordance with visitor arrivals; once there, a boardwalk makes the going easy. The sheer number of geysers, hot springs, mud pools, silica formations and the Ruatapu Cave, which drops down more than 36m to a hot pool, make it probably the best thermal region in NZ. More: orakeikorako.co.nz. Best take-home gifts: Taupo town has some excellent boutiques (most open at 10am) and the range carried by Susan Wallace of Cassis, in the Suncourt Centre, will surely yield riches. For beautiful glass objects, visit Lynden Over’s Lava Glass gallery, five minutes north of Taupo. More: cassis.co.nz; lavaglass.co.nz. Gail Heathwood was a guest of Destination Great Lake Taupo
The pristine waters of New Zealand’s Taupo region have long attracted fly-fishing enthusiasts from near and far
Pre-dinner drinks are served by the fire at River Birches
Wairakei was last year voted the best golf course in NZ
Acacia Cliffs has contemporary design and luxurious decor