Taupo might have a huge lake the size of Singapore but that's just the half of it, as Rachel Pinder found out on a whirlwind weekend tour of the city and its surrounds.....
There's no two ways about it - Taupo does have a huge lake, which is, in fact, the largest freshwater lake in Australasia. And incredibly, the lake was formed after a volcanic eruption in 181AD, which was one of the world's most violent known eruptions of the past 5,000 years. Of particular interest to tourists and locals alike, the lake has special significance to the Tuwharetoa Maori tribe, who believe the Lake Taupo region is part of a line of fire that extended from the Maori people's original home in Hawakii. It extends through White Island and Totorua to Tokaanu before bursting into flames as the sacred mountains Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro.
But the lake is just the tip of the iceberg as Taupo has heaps more to offer the visitor - and at just an hour and half's drive away, makes a fantastic weekend destination for people from Hawke's Bay. Being new to Napier and New Zealand as well as a native Pom, I found the drive through the Kaweka Ranges simply breathtaking. As the light dimmed and the night closed in, we arrived over the hills to see the twinkling lights of Taupo before us - a truly magnificent sight.
But rather than get some much-needed rest for the fun-packed weekend ahead, my friend and I decided to check out what nightlife Taupo had to offer. From award-winning restaurants to cheep and cheerful cafes and cosy bars, we soon found our way around and had a great night on the town. Needless to say, we woke up the next morning with that fuzzy feeling around the gills. But the sun was streaming through the windows, and casting a welcoming glow which pushed us on to get out and explore. And explore we did.
The Mighty Falls
If there are two things you have to see when you're in Taupo, it's the Huka Falls and the Aratiatia Rapids. First up, we headed to the Aratiatia Rapids, where we experienced the power of the Waikato River floodgates opening and filling the Aratiatia Rapids.
Then we jumped on a boat with our friendly host Dave Kilmister, who took us on his Huka Falls River Cruise, a great introduction to one of Taupo's must-see spots. As we meandered gently along the river in the warm sunshine, we watched the colourful bush go by, as well as natural hot springs and a geo-thermal power station - the last thing I was expecting to see by the riverbank. But the best bit had to be spending 10 minutes at the base of Huka Falls, where we got some fantastic views and great photo opportunities.
It's pretty incredible when you think that 220,000 litres of water per second roll over the mighty falls - which is one of New Zealand's most visited natural attractions.
Shawn the Prawn
Next, we headed to the nearby Huka Prawn Park, where we enjoyed a personalised tour of New Zealand's only prawn park and met ``Shawn the Prawn'' - the biggest prawn ever to be caught at the park, who is now pickled in a jar for all eternity. Wow, another first.
I never thought I'd get into the whole fishing thing. But when faced with the challenge of hooking a real live prawn out of the pond, I was all for it. But after sitting, rod in hand, for a good half an hour, my excitement was starting to wane and my stomach was beginning to grumble. After all, it was lunchtime. I had to face up to the facts that I wasn't going to be the next Maui, and hang up my rod in defeat and head to the prawn restaurant - to taste someone else's catch. And there was an amazing selection of prawn dishes to sample, which we happily gobbled up before our next mission - a visit to the mind-blowing Wairakei Terraces.
Reminiscent of the pink and white terraces which were destroyed by the Mount Tarawera volcanic eruption in 1886, Wairakei Terraces give an amazing look back in time, and feature man-made cascading silica terraces in pinks, blues and whites. We were lucky enough to have an amazing Maori guide, Jim, who told us stories about the how the wooden carvings depict legendary figures of Ngati Tuwharetoa, and filled us in on the history and culture of the tribe. It was a great chance to ask all those burning questions about Maori culture I'd been wondering about, as we walked around the Maori village. We also checked out the therapeutic foot bath, an animal park, bird aviary, and the recently-reinstated Te Kiri o Hinekai Pool, more well-known as the Honeymoon Pool and recognised for its healing powers.The amazing thing about Wairakei Terraces is the amount of hard work and voluntary effort which has gone into it. They also have a night-time cultural experience, which includes a traditional welcome (Powhiri) and challenge (Wero), a guided tour past the terraces and a living Maori village, followed by a traditional Hangi meal and concert.
I thought I might be ready for a nap by this point as it was quite late in the afternoon and we'd already seen and done so much. But the tourist in me was hungry for more. So, spurred on with a very unappetising cold mince pie, we headed onwards and upwards to the Craters of the Moon - which was a walk with a difference. And we timed it perfectly, as the sun was just going down and a full moon was already rising high up into the sky when we arrived.
Named for it's other worldly atmosphere, the Craters of the Moon thermal area in Wairakei Tourist Park sprang up in the 1950s, when the nearby power station lowered underground water levels. The 30 minute walk took us past bubbling craters, mud pools and steam vents, as well as a lot of interesting plants which have adapted to thrive in the hot, steamy conditions. We strolled along as the darkness got closer on well-formed pathways with elevated viewing platforms. And the best thing about it is it's all free of charge. So that was the end of day one. We staggered back to our motel, exhausted but happy.
When the next day rolled around and that sunlight pierced through the curtains again, my desire to see more of Taupo's treasures was still burning. And what a way to start the day with a 47 metre jump over the Waikato River valley with Taupo Bungy. This unique cantilever bungy platform is designed to hold 100 people, and the colour of the water was enough to inspire my friend to take the plunge. I was left quivering on the bridge while she hurled herself into the oblivion, with just a bungy cord to bring her back to reality.
Good on her, she showed me up big time, and was buzzing for the rest of the day. I was kicking myself that I didn't do it because the massive grin on her face said it all - she absolutely loved it.
Coming back to earth was very leisurely as we headed out on Lake Taupo for a brunch cruise with Chris Jolly Outdoors, where we checked out the Maori rock cravings and Whakiapo Bay, while enjoying a sumptuous bubbly breakfast. On the way back, we fed flying ducks hunks of bread as they swooped down from the skies to grab a bite.
We couldn't have finished off the weekend in a more relaxed way as we bathed away every care in the world at Taupo Hot Springs Spa. First off, we soothed ourselves in the natural thermal mineral waters, surrounded by the historic Onekeneke Valley. Then we indulged ourselves in a pampering beauty treatment - I had a relaxing facial while my friend had a therapeutic massage. There was a whole range of rejuvenating therapies to choose from, from purifying body scrubs and wraps to waxing, manicures and pedicures.
I don't think I've ever felt as blissfully chilled-out and relaxed as when I floated out of the Taupo Hot Springs Spa and realised that the weekend had to come to an end sometime.
But I know this definitely won't be my last visit - Taupo has too much going for it and we only just touched the surface.
Accommodation was courtesy of the Suncourt Motorhotel and Conference Centre.