As soon as we arrived in Wellington it was the New Zealand Labour Day bank holiday weekend. We wanted to take advantage of this weekend before starting work so we started looking at potential places we could easily get to. One of the places that really appealed to me was Taupo.
Taupo is in the North Island and about a 5 hour drive from Wellington. It’s home to New Zealand’s largest lake (which is the same size as Singapore). The lake is a result of one of the surrounding volcanoes erupting over 5,000 years ago. It’s a hugely popular spot among both Kiwis and backpackers and it’s easy to see why. Here you can do a whole range of activities including walking trails, bike trails, water sports and sky diving to name a few. As it’s a volcanic area there are plenty of geothermal attractions to see including the geothermal park Craters of the Moon and free thermal parks.
Getting to Taupo
We rented a car from Bargain Rental in Wellington city center. We got a Toyota Vitz for $165. As part of this we got the gold insurance for $60, picked it up on Friday evening and dropped it back Monday evening. The car itself was clean and ran ok but it definitely struggled going up hills and I wouldn’t want to be stuck driving this for a long time. We left it quite late to book a car so there was limited availability.
Where to Stay
We stayed in Kowhai Retreat which we found on Airbnb. It was a newly converted garage that was really cosy. As this was Labour weekend everywhere was really busy and accommodation was pricey. This place set us back $240 for 2 nights. The owners were friendly and the house was in a great location – only a 20-25 min walk along by the lake to the town center. There is no shortage of taxis and it’s easy order one or flag one down if you don’t feel like making the walk.
There’s plenty of paid and freedom campsites to choose from. For those of you freedom camping check out Taupo’s Superloo in the town center. For 50c you can use their bathrooms, showers, hairdryers and rent towels. It opens daily from 8am to 5pm. There are also plenty of free public bathrooms through the town center.
What to Do
There is plenty to do here and you can easily pass a couple of days relaxing in the town. I’ve divided up all the different activities below:
Start at Spa Thermal Park just a 2 min drive (or 20 min walk) outside the town center. There’s unlimited free parking here and you can relax in the piping hot natural thermal springs or cool off with a dip in the Waikato river which is New Zealand’s longest river. You can find similar springs in Rotorua, however, Taupo has the advantage of not smelling like rotten eggs. There are newly installed changing rooms and bathroom facilities located here.
You can also check out Craters of the Moon which is a 9 minute drive outside of Taupo town center. There are a several of trails through the geothermal park to enjoy. It costs $9 for an adult and opens daily from 8:30am till 5 or 6pm depending on the time of year.
There are loads of water sports to do here. Somehow Richie caught me at a moment of weakness and signed me up to a 1000 ft parasail with him on the lake. I was sh*!ing myself. I hate heights, stairs make me dizzy so how I agreed to do this I will never know. We signed up with Big Sky Parasail. They let you do either a 500 ft or 1000 ft sail which you can do either alone, tandem or as a trio. They also offer video and photo options during your turn but we opted to just get the tandem sail for $95 each. We were brought out with 2 other couples. While on the boat they give you all the equipment and talk you through the flight. The guys were really great and put everyone at ease and despite my fear I LOVED this. The flight lasts 12 minutes and as soon as it was over I wanted to do it again. The views of the lake are phenomenal and honestly it’s much more relaxing and comfortable than I thought it would be.
There are lots of other boat tours you can check out as well as hiring jet skis and kayaks. A popular option is to rent kayaks for four hours and paddle around the lake to the famous Maori Carvings. We didn’t end doing this as we were short on time but next time I’m in Taupo for the night I really want to check these out in person.
Walks and Hikes
While you’re at Spa Thermal Park you can walk up to Huka Falls. This is a lovely scenic walk that starts beside the changing rooms in the park and brings you along the Waikato river. The walk is very a very easy 3km walk taking about 40 mins each way. Following the track will bring you to Huka Falls. Walking along the calm serene river you don’t expect the powerful 11 meter waterfall you encounter. Up here, over 220,000 liters of water cascades every second down into the pool below. There is a foot bridge going across the river to allow you to better see the falls. If you fancy getting up close and personal with the water you can get a jet boat tour to the falls.
Another option is to complete the Tongariro River Trail which is an easy level 15 km loop suitable for all levels. This track takes about 3 hours however there are options to do shorter routes along it. The most popular starting point for the walk is the Tongariro River Bridge on State Highway 1. If you’re feeling like a challenge consider driving to Tongariro and completing the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. For more details on that see my post here.
One of our friends really wanted to do a skydive and her boyfriend didn’t. Richie, being the adrenaline junkie he is, was more than happy to sign up and go along with her. They booked in to complete the 15,000 ft skydive for $359pp with Taupo Tandem Skydiving. This might have been the smoothest run operation I’ve ever seen. All four of us got to the office just before 5pm where the guys were brought straight through suited up and brought through the safety checks. Within a few minutes they were boarding the plane and taking off. Us mere non-jumpers headed over to the viewing area next to the office and waited. Slowly after about 15 or 20 mins little dots began to appear in the sky.
It was actually amazing to watch everyone fly in! On the one hand skydiving sounds amazing but it also makes my legs turn to jelly so I don’t think I’ll be trying it myself any time soon. Richie couldn’t recommend it enough – you get a 60 second free fall and a complete view of the entire lake and surrounding mountains and volcano. The staff were so good and efficient so from start to end the entire process only took about an hour.
From Taupo it’s only a 1.5 hour drive to Mt Ruapehu where there are three different skil fields for you to go snowboarding or skiing. Note, ski season runs from June to October each year. During the Summer months you can get the gondola up the mountain and complete some walking trails.
Where to Eat and Drink
For a small town there are so many places to eat and drink here. One of the best places we went to was Lakehouse Taupo. Its right by the waterfront with lots of seating outdoors. They have a wide range of local craft beers and do great reasonably priced breakfast (starting at $9) and dinner (starting at $18). Southern Meat Kitchen is where you want to go for burger, ribs and chicken. It’s a small menu but its popular and reasonably priced with dishes starting at around $15.
Another place we checked out was Vine Eatery and Bar. This place looks as good as the food tastes and was a definite treat. You can get tapas or main courses all of which are divine. Mains will set you back around $30-$40 but my god was it good. I could go on for pages on all the places there is to eat and drink but the best thing to do is simply wander around and try as many as you can.
Right in the heart of the North Island, Taupo is a great place to spend a couple of days or a long weekend. It’s a town that has something for everyone and is a place I would go absolutely go back to.