Taupo, New Zealand
We drove north from Wellington along a winding highway. Rolling hills undulated by; we passed sheer cliffs carved by centuries of rushing rivers, and wide plains, stretching out in green monotony to the foothills of distant mountains. Four hours into our journey we crested a hill and were astounded by the vista spread before us. The massive bulk of Mount Ruapehu, the highest point on New Zealand’s North Island and one of the most active volcanoes in the world, dominated the scene, snow-capped despite the heat. As we continued along the highway, slowly skirting around the mountain, another came into sight – Mount Ngauruhoe, Lord of the Rings’ Mount Doom, almost perfectly conical, its summit shrouded in cloud.
We travelled further north – soon the southern end of Lake Taupo, New Zealand’s largest lake, came into view. We followed the lake’s edge all the way around to its northernmost point where we reached our destination: the holiday town of Taupo. Before we reached the town centre we turned off onto the Napier road to reach our hotel – a luxurious splurge – the Hilton Lake Taupo! Now there’s a hotel chain with a considerable reputation!
Situated on Taupo’s outskirts (although to be fair that’s only a few minutes’ drive from the town centre), the Hilton was all white columns and exquisitely manicured hedges. The beds in our suite were astonishingly comfortable, and mine came with the added bonus of being in a room that I didn’t have to share with my teenage brother (for the only time on our New Zealand trip). There was even a pillow menu – pillow not comfy? Just order a new one! Our balcony had a view out over the lake to Mount Ruapehu, Mount Ngauruhoe and their brother, Mount Tongariro, in the distance.
In short, staying at the Hilton was pretty special. I would hazard a guess that perhaps the Hilton Lake Taupo is not quite as fancy or posh as other Hiltons worldwide (Taupo is not really the poshest of places), but somehow life just seemed more serene as soon as you stepped into its air-conditioned embrace. It was quite lucky that we were staying somewhere interesting in Taupo, because, to be honest, there wasn’t really that much to do outside the hotel. Well, not for us. Let me explain why.
There are three types of activities to do in Taupo. Firstly, there are the extreme sports: skydiving, mostly, with a spot of parasailing on the lake thrown in for good measure. Skydiving and parasailing? No, thank you. I am not extreme enough for those.
Secondly, there are the fun-sounding but expensive options: scenic helicopter flights, sailing cruises, fishing, jet boating (I include jet boating here rather than under ‘extreme sports’ because even my mother considered giving it a try). The problem with these activities is that you have to be really super keen to make the price worth it. A jet boat ride would be awesome – but awesome enough to pay over NZ$100 per person for half an hour? I mean, we’re staying at the Hilton for a treat but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to throw money away!
Finally, there are the free or cheap activities which will keep you occupied for a while… but probably not for more than a day or two. Visiting Huka Falls is one thing I would certainly recommend: these gushing rapids with a nine-metre drop at the end provide some spectacular viewing, the roiling water ice-blue as it plunges over the falls at a rate of five Olympic swimming pools per minute. They’re also very easy to access, which is always a plus. There are also thermal pools in Taupo (although I can’t really comment on them since we chose not to visit them – we knew we were heading on to more spectacular ones at Rotorua, our next destination), and a small range of attractions relating to local produce, including the Huka Prawn Park, where you can while away an hour or two fishing for prawns in thermally-heated ponds!
Obviously Lake Taupo itself is a major attraction, stretching away into the distance where it meets the mountains looming up against the sky, but there is only so much scenery-viewing that you can do on a holiday. Having said that, the amount of Lake Taupo-viewing that you can do before getting bored is actually quite high. The character and colour palette of the lake varies enormously throughout the day and according to the weather. I took an inordinate number of photos of the view from our hotel balcony, each one totally different to the others just because of the movement of the clouds and the play of light on the water. You can also paddle or swim in the lake, but being an Australian and coming from a land blessed with literally hundreds of glorious beaches, the grey sand-and-pumice beach and tepid, slightly murky water at the lake’s edge just didn’t really compare.
I was glad we were staying somewhere a bit posh at Lake Taupo because it meant we didn’t feel bad about spending most of our time at the hotel. We were just making the most of it! Those afternoons spent lounging guilt-free in the pool were fantastic – there was no pressure to be anywhere else sightseeing or racing around tourist attractions. I read half a book and even painted my toenails – something that tends to occur once a year at most! I even painted my mum’s toenails. Hey, mums need to relax every now and then too!
We ate dinner at the Hilton’s restaurant, Bistro Lago, two nights out of our three. This was for two reasons: a) the food at Bistro Lago was delectable – delicious roast duck that avoided that usually-inevitable fattiness, an amazing lamb tagine with apricots and cauliflower couscous, great fish and chips, and so on, and b) pretty much all the rest of the restaurants in Taupo seemed to serve food that was decidedly average (and not all that much cheaper than the Hilton at that).
So what to make of Taupo? Don’t go there for the activities, unless you’re prepared to pay a premium or be terrified out of your mind. Go for the scenery, the relaxation and to spoil yourself. After all, what else are holidays for?
Cover photograph: Lake Taupo at sunset, as seen from the balcony of our hotel room.