North Island: Around the mountains

By Joanna Mathers

Joanna Mathers finds plenty to keep her happy away from the slopes.

Petrol heads have true off-road adventures with Tongariro Quads. Photo / Supplied
Petrol heads have true off-road adventures with Tongariro Quads. Photo / Supplied

Happy Valley - it's such a welcoming name. It brings to mind laughing children, gentle slopes and fun times in the snow. Or it did before I strapped on my skis. I was on a winter holiday with my family. I had never skied before but it looked so easy when other people did it that I reckoned I'd be zipping down the slopes in no time. How wrong I was.

Instead, I stood side-on, shuffling my skis with crab-like steps up the slope a few metres, before turning, sliding uncontrollably and toppling over. All this while five-year-olds sped past me, laughing.

I soon realised that my place was in the cafe, sipping mulled wine and pretending I'd just returned from some daring back-country run.

If, like me, you enjoy the pristine alpine environment but don't enjoy skiing, there are many great ways to spend your time around Ohakune and the North Island skifields. Here's a sample of the attractions on offer.

Family-friendly

If your partner loves to ski, but you and the kids aren't so keen, filling in the days can be a little tricky. Here are some fun, family-friendly alternatives. As a mad horse woman, I love the sound of Ruapehu Homestead Horse Treks just out of Ohakune. Sue Allomes and her husband have been running horse treks in the area since 1985. "Our treks through open farmland have wide views of the mountains and surrounding countryside," says Sue. "And on a clear day, riders can see Mt Taranaki in the distance."

The treks are suitable for the whole family and children can also "adopt a pony" for a half or full day. "This is really for children who don't have horses," says Sue. "They come and learn to groom and saddle the ponies, then have riding lessons."

Another option is the National Army Museum at Waiouru. Its Kidz HQ includes a replica World War I trench, tunnels and a "Q store" where children can get dressed in soldiers' garb. "The children go to the store and get issued uniforms," explains Nicola Bennett from the museum. "They are all vintage; some date back to before World War I. They often don't really fit that well, but the children have a great time."

If your kids are adventurous, the SLR Vertical Climbing Centre in Ohakune includes the Real Roc climbing wall (12m long and 10m high with challenging overhangs and other obstacles) and the Clip'n'Climb, which includes a harness and is more suitable for younger children.

On sunny days, take a hike. One of the most picturesque walks is the one-hour Lake Rotokura walk, 12km from Ohakune. The trail takes you past Dry Lake, a man-made lake that is home to a variety of native and exotic birds, then on to Lake Rotokura, which is surrounded by bird-filled beech forest.

The Mangawhero Falls walk covers a shorter distance and starts at a carpark on Ohakune Mountain Rd. The track offers views of the beautiful falls, which are often adorned with icicles in the colder months.

Grown-up adventures

A romantic ski weekend with your beloved can soon turn sour if your partner spends all day on the snow and you're left in the hotel twiddling your thumbs, so have your own adventure off the mountains.

Just 90 minutes from Ohakune, Taupo has some of the best adventure activities in the world. One of the most famous is the Water Touch Bungy over the Waikato River. It's a 47m jump from a cantilevered platform and you can choose to touch the water with your hand or have a "full immersion" experience.

If you're a bit of a petrol head, Tongariro Quads might offer the sort of fun you're looking for. It has a range of off-road quad bike tours that take visitors through some of the area's most dramatic and untouched landscape.

There is also a heli biking option where visitors are choppered over Mt Ruapehu and Mt Ngauruhoe to the quad bike base and hit the dirt from there.

Many longer, more challenging walks around Ohakune are more suited to adults. The Lake Surprise walk is a five-hour return trek that takes walkers up a steady slope. The lake is set amid ancient beech forest and the track passes a waterfall that flows over rocks coated in white silica. The starting point is on Ohakune Mountain Rd, 15 minutes past the ranger station.

Soda Springs walk is another lovely trek taking two to three hours to complete. Part of the Tongariro Alpine Crossing, it follows the Mangatepopo Stream, past lava flows and cold water springs. The walk begins at the end of Mangatepopo Rd, off SH47.

The dramatic alpine scenery around the Tongariro National Park is probably best viewed from above. Mountain Air Flights runs 15-35 minute tours. The most popular is the Volcanic Explorer, which soars over the three volcanoes in the area (Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe) at a height of 10,000 feet.

Long lunches

Not everyone is keen on outdoor adventures, so if you're after a more sedate way to pass the time, the area has plenty of excellent eateries. With a roaring fire and cosy atmosphere, Utopia Cafe is the ideal spot for brunch.

Bearing Point is a top spot for a long lunch. It has garnered many fans with its modern European cuisine made with fresh New Zealand produce. It also has a varied wine list featuring Kiwi and international wines. "We think of our restaurant as affordable luxury," says maitre d' and manager Kristi Nation.

The Powderkeg Restaurant and Bar has long been a popular apres ski destination, a great place to meet mates after they've come down from the slopes. It offers a range of tasty food, including gourmet pizzas and burgers, plus breads, entrees and hearty main meals. It's lively and is the ideal place to visit if you're in a party mood.

For something a little more intimate, The Matterhorn restaurant is open upstairs during the ski season. It has a cosy wooden interior, and a bar where you can sample small plates of food and drink cocktails.

Pamper yourself

Hiking, horse riding and other outdoor activities can leave your muscles feeling pretty sore. A soak in a thermal pool is the perfect antidote. One hour from Ohakune, the Tokaanu Thermal Pools have been used by local iwi (Ngati Tuwharetoa) for hundreds of years. They traditionally provided the local people with a place to bathe and cook and in the 1800s were used as a stopover for people travelling from Wanganui to Taupo by stage coach. They have a number of small, naturally hot mineral pools which are between 39C and 41C), plus a large, chlorinated pool that's around 37C.

Powderhorn in Ohakune has a large, heated pool that can be used by the public when it's not being used by hotel guests. It is heated to between 36C and 38C, and costs $8. Contact the hotel first to make sure it is available.

Massage is another ideal cure for aching muscles. Manuka Natural Therapies in Ohakune offers relaxation and deep-tissue massage, which range in length from 30 minutes to as long as you can take (otherwise known as Death by Massage). It also has a sauna, which you can book to use, and is free if you book a massage.

Sipping on warming winter indulgences

Mulled wine, hot toddy . . . nothing is more comforting than a warm winter drink. The good people at Powderkeg know all about warming people at the end of a cold winter's day - here are two of the delicious drinks they serve at the popular bar.

Mexican Caliente

Steamed milk
Cinnamon
Cayenne pepper
High-quality dark chocolate
60ml Sauza tequila
60ml Tuaca tequila

Gently warm the milk and add a pinch of cayenne pepper and cinnamon. Pour into a tall glass that contains the tequila and a couple of squares of dark chocolate.

Spiced Apple Chai

200ml apple juice
Star anise
Cloves
30ml cranberry juice
90ml Cruzan aged rum
Apple slices

Warm the apple juice with the star anise and cloves. Add to this the cranberry juice and Cruzan rum, top with the apple slices.

CONTACTS FOR FUN OFF THE SNOW

Family friendly

* National Army Museum, Corner SH1 and Hassett Drive, Waiouru. Ph (06) 387 6911.

* Ruapehu Homestead Horse Treks, Corner Piwari St and SH49, Rangataua. Ph 027 267 7057.

* SLR Vertical Climbing Centre, Ohakune Shopping Centre, Goldfinch St. Ph (06) 385 9018.

Grown-up adventures

* Water Touch Bungy, 202 Spa Rd, Taupo. Ph 0800 888 408.

* Tongariro Quads. Ph 0274 908 964.

* Mountain Air Flights, Mt Ruapehu Airfield. Ph (07) 895 5995.

Long lunches in Ohakune

* Utopia Cafe, 47 Clyde St. Ph (06) 385 9120.

* Bearing Point, 55 Clyde St. Ph (06) 385 9006.

* Powderkeg and The Matterhorn, 194 Mangawhero Tce. Ph (06) 385 8888.

Pampering

* Tokaanu Thermal Pools, Mangaroa St, Tokaanu. Ph (07) 386 8575.

* Powderhorn Pool, 194 Mangawhero Tce, Ohakune. Ph (06) 385 8888.

* Manuka Natural Therapies, 14 Manuka St, Ohakune. Ph (06) 385 8507.

Walks

* For maps and info, visit the i-Site, 54 Clyde St. Ph (06) 385 8427.

- Herald on Sunday

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