Herald on Sunday
SUNSHINE ON A CLOUDY DAY
Came for the lake and got nothing but rain? Maggie Wicks discovers how to warm up in Taupō.
Everybody has a trigger point. Mine is in my butt cheek, buried beneath two or three layers of muscle. With an elbow to this spot, the masseuse does her worst. “This might hurt,” she says softly, as she beats the sore spots out of me. It’s always the quiet ones.
At Wairakei Terraces, a 10-minute drive out of Taupō, humans sit like snow monkeys in the geothermal water, steam rising around them. The warmth of the water slows them down, and lowers their voices. Couples cling to each other’s backs and drag each other around in slow motion through the pools; others perch on the edges of the pools, submerging then re-emerging their limbs to regulate their body temperature.
With three pools of varying temperature, the Wairakei complex is like a Goldilocks series of porridge bowls where everyone can find the one that is just right for them. The water flows in at more than 40C, over natural silica terraces, and gradually cools as it travels downstream. Around us there is native bush and fantails, and lots of slow quiet humans, slowly turning pink.
I came to Taupō for a day, to re-acquaint myself with our most famous lake, to take in the views, to wander and explore.
I arrived in the rain. There was no lake view, no mountains to be seen. The clouds sat low and unbudging, as did the lake level — the driver says this is the first rainy day in two months, so it’s welcome.
But the squalls and constant rain don’t stop the kids at the sailing club, who are tacking back and forth out there with their candy-coloured sails. It doesn’t stop the challengers at the lakeside Hole in One, who swing their clubs gamely, then crack up as they miss the ball entirely, or at least the pontoon they’re aiming for. They reckon there’s a hole in one every two weeks, but it’s too wet for me to hang around waiting.
“This was nothing but dirt, pumice, dust and broom,” says the driver. He came here as a 6-year-old in the early 1950s, when the road we’re driving, lined with million-dollar properties, was empty. Their million-dollar views don’t exist today — we can barely see the lake past the squalls. And so I seek warmth. And I find it everywhere. After grabbing a coffee at Cafe Baku ,Ihead to the water. Even under the cover of low clouds and endless rain, the lake is impressive. It stretches to the horizon, yet what you can see from town is only 5 per cent of the lake as a whole. It’s the size of Singapore (a country that holds close to 6 million people) and is always a little bit warmer than you’d expect it to be. Many rivers flow in, one flows out: that’s the mighty Waikato, which — 3km out of town — throws itself over the Huka Falls at a rate of five Olympic swimming pools per minute.
Taupō is one of those places where, even on a cold day, all the men wear shorts. My cab driver — in T-shirt as well — cannot engage with my friendly “bit nippy, isn’t it?” chat. He simply has not noticed.
It’s a friendly town too. In the taxis, you sit in the front seat. In the centre of town I’m not sure how the cars get anywhere with all the constant slowing down to allow pedestrians to cross, even when it’s not required. Walking down and around Heuheu St, where clusters of boutique shops and cafes await, you’ll wave “thanks!” 15 times just crossing the street. It takes an Aucklander some getting used to.
After a good wander through the shops, I stop for refreshment at Replete ,agemofacafeand store, hiding in plain sight. Replete has been a Taupō mainstay for close enough to 30 years. Step inside to find a beautifully curated selection of gifts and treasures — ceramic tableware, gorgeous glass tumblers, and philosophical badges — as well as a food cabinet stuffed to the brim with temptations.
That night, Taupō is still all bluster. I make my way through rainy gusts to The Brantry, a beautiful wintery space, small, and filled with nooks and crannies to explore and dine in. There’s an old gun room that now serves as a wine cellar, and upstairs, the ZeaYou art gallery.
From Fridays to Sundays, the gallery stays open late and restaurant guests wander upstairs, wine glass in hand, to peruse the art between dinner courses as if they were at the opening of an exhibition. The wine means strangers mingle, chat ensues — and hopefully purchasing too. Every now and then a waiter appears at the top of the stairs to lure the guests back to their tables.
Downstairs, The Brantry is also bursting with art — it’s busy on the eye and in the number of people who are here to enjoy their Saturday night.
The food is lovely, complicated and bold in flavour. Such a lemony tart, such strong coriander for the dumplings. Whipped butter, a burnt smear of homemade marshmallow. Gyozas come with home-made sweet chilli sauce, the prawns have the most perfect bite. After dinner, I stagger out into the night, my insides warmed right through.