Kerri Jackson uncovers one of the North Island's best-kept secrets.

When it comes to travel, the term "hidden gem" is an overused one, especially in a country as small as New Zealand.

Here it's rare to come across a true hidden gem; those undiscovered nooks that have defied the trend towards multimillion-dollar baches and crowds of summer tourists.

Welcome to Lake Maraetai, filled with none of those things and a genuine old-school Kiwi summer holiday hidden gem.

Lake Maraetai lies almost smack-bang in the centre of the North Island, between south Waikato and the Taupo district, about 50km northwest of Taupo and 20km southwest of Tokoroa, hemming the edge of Mangakino — the town that time forgot.

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It was built in the 1950s to house those working on the massive hydropower projects in the region that would eventually create Lake Maraetai. And a lot of the bach accommodation in the town are those original hydro-workers homes.

Like The Rustic Bach — a bach as baches are supposed to be: a little weatherbeaten on the outside and furnished with recycled old couches, but with a new deck designed to make the most of the central North Island sunshine.

It's the perfect spot from which to base yourself for a weekend on the waters of Lake Maraetai.

The lake is spectacularly beautiful and on this anniversary weekend morning it's still and glassy, as the first of the day's waterskiers skates across the surface, resembling the dragonflies that hover nearer to shore.

Waterskiing, though, is just so five minutes ago. The new craze among waterbabies is wakeboarding and there's nowhere better than here to give it a try.

Local operators MIA Wakeboarding offer lessons and coaching for everybody from the experienced wanting to tweak their skills to beginners like me who've never before dared to strap themselves into the boots and bindings of a wakeboard in an attempt to walk on water.

An hour, a few spectacular falls and several aching limbs later, I'm addicted.

It's just about the most fun you can have on water.

And thanks to the expert guidance of MIA's owner/operator, Englishman Ki Barker, it's much easier than I expected.

MIA Wakeboarding is steadily growing its involvement in this area. As well as wakeboarding, the company offers lodge accommodation and day trips to other activities around the region. They've also built a jump park in one corner of the lake, which despite my adamant, giddy and possibly adrenaline-fuelled claims that I'm going pro, is possibly "just" out of my reach.

If you're looking for something at a different pace, Graeme Wise's jetboat River Canyon Tours are a great way to fully appreciate the stunning scenery.

The tours head across the lake and down the Waikato River about 12km to the Whakamaru power station and dam, through some dramatic scenery. The river canyon - for the most part only accessible this way or from a kayak if you have arms of steel - rises in sheer cliffs with thick bush hemming the water's edge.

Keep your eyes peeled and you'll occasionally see trout pop teasingly to the surface and large water-birds skim low across the water. It's Lost World-style country and despite the huge hydro dams and nearby roads, it retains a primeval, untouched feel.

This is a spectacular, more sedate style of jetboating — for photographers and sightseers rather than thrillseekers — but the scenery is more than enough to take the breath away.

Back at the boat ramp, a steady stream of boaties jostle for position among kayakers and school rowing teams. It's busy but the tiny lakefront never feels crowded. There's even a couple of tents lining the few free campsites available right by the water.

There are more free camping spots further along the Mangakino lake shore, nestled between the golf course and the water. Just remember that free camping means little or no facilities.

If you want good coffee and a snack the fantastic Bus Stop Cafe is right there on the waterfront, serving from a large silver bus. It's a great spot to shelter from the sun and relax on one of the seats styled from old wakeboards.

Sip a coffee, watch the sun go down, and reflect on a fantastic weekend in which you discovered a true hidden gem.

IF YOU GO
For information on Mangakino's history visit Daphne Cotton's self-styled museum. The original hydro-worker cottage is filled with Cotton's personal collection of newspaper clippings, photographs, maps and memorabilia - all of which document a unique social history. At its peak, the town had a population of 6400 and was home to the country's biggest high school and first shopping mall.

Facilities in the town are basic. There is a general store and several cafes and takeaways.

Accommodation is mostly baches; as well as the MIA lodge there are two other backpacker-style lodges.

Other activities in the region include kayaking and fishing. There are also walks and mountain-biking trails. Pureora Forest Park is close by, where you can stand on the geographical centre of the North Island and visit New Zealand's largest totara tree.

MIA wakeboarding lessons include a boat, a driver, fuel and coaching.

River Canyon Tours.

Further information: See rusticbach.co.nz and mangakino.net.nz.