Lady of the lake

From fly-fish­ing to fine food and wine, Taupo packs a punch

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - GAIL HEATH­WOOD GAIL HEATH­WOOD

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

Wairakei Ter­races

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