A ski weekend in Taupo opens up a world of adventure, as Nicola Whitham and Tim Roest discovered.
With fresh snow on the mountains and a weekend forecast of cloudless skies we set off, not for National Park or Ohakune, but to try out a ski package at the Hilton Lake Taupo.
Sitting prominently above the lake to take advantage of expansive views, the Hilton is a hotel of two parts. One is the gorgeous Heritage Wing, originally the iconic Terraces Hotel dating back to 1889. It blends Victorian elegance with contemporary style and comfort. The new Mountain Wing features a range of room types from luxurious guest rooms to impressive, self-contained apartments and a grand presidential suite. The Cellar Ballroom and cocktail bar, spacious function areas and the hotel's flagship restaurant, Bistro Lago, unite the two wings, as if, like the legend of Tongariro and Pihanga, they were always meant to be together.
We were escorted to our lavish king apartment in the Mountain Wing where we would stay for the next three days. We felt like royalty. The main room stretched from a kitchen-dining area through to a lounge framed by floor to ceiling sliding glass doors that opened up to a private balcony. We sat in the cool evening air taking in panoramic views over the lake to the mountains.
Before dinner at Bistro Lago, we met Edward the cocktail-making genius in the hotel bar. We gave him a few ideas and then let him loose to create a cocktail for each of us. He didn't disappoint, and we sipped his concoctions before a roaring fire, in the cosiness of a big leather couch.
Bistro Lago's executive chef is Simon Gault, most recently seen as a judge on the TV series MasterChef. We began with ciabatta with truffle and mushroom mascarpone, extra virgin olive oil and Pukara caramelised balsamic. I had to restrain myself from eating the last smudge of mascarpone with my fingers. We moved on to Seared Atlantic sea scallops with green pea custard and Pernod nage, followed by wood roasted Akaroa salmon with olive oil, saffron potatoes, tomato and cardamom fondue. Tim had the steak tartare with tempura, Barolo olive, crispy sage and toasted ciabatta bread, followed by the lamb rack with goats cheese creamed potatoes, tomatoes, olives and wood roasted garlic.
My scallops were outstanding, a melt in your mouth delicacy. We sampled each other's dishes to ensure we missed no part of the experience. With perfectly matched wines it was an opulent affair.
By 7.30am the next day we were on our way to Mt Ruapehu in a shuttle arranged by the hotel. Our cheerful Scottish driver, "Scotty", passed the hour-long journey sharing his extensive knowledge of the region, from the massive volcanic explosion that created Lake Taupo - to the Kaimanawa horses and local Maori legends. A master of organisation, six years of shuttling forgetful guests up the mountain means that if you arrive in jeans and T-shirt, he can see you through gear rentals and on to the chairlift.
Kitted up, we made our way to the new Knoll Ridge chalet, positioned almost at the top of the slopes on the Whakapapa side of the mountain. We were rewarded with stunning views stretching down into the vanishing distance. The new chalet is a triumph and worthy of the climb, even for those not wanting to ski their way back down.
The ski fields were understandably busy, with the long-awaited dumping of snow still fresh on the slopes. Whakapapa saw a 15-year record in visitor numbers the day before.
As skiing novices, we weren't sure how best to spend our day, but our decision to get a few lessons at the beginning turned out to be a master stroke. Our Slovakian instructor was world class and quickly (and painlessly) had us feeling confident and enjoying the experience. I continued to practice on the baby slopes while Tim tested himself on more challenging runs.
Back at the Hilton, we took advantage of the bubbling outdoor spa, where we unwound after our skiing workout and watched the sunset on another picture perfect day.
Sunny Monday afternoon rolled around and we headed off to take on the thrilling Formula Challenge at the Taupo racecourse, where you get to drive a single-seater racecar. The challenge caters to all levels of experience - from first timers to professionals. As well as Formula challenge single seaters you can also choose from V8 Fords and Holdens. We gave the single seaters a spin and were taken to the pits to be suited up in race suits, boots, helmets, and gloves, lowered into a car and directed to the track. It was an adrenalin-pumping experience, yet we felt safe the whole time thanks to calm and careful instructors.
On our final day in Taupo we reluctantly checked out of the Hilton, and sought solace at the acclaimed Scenic Cellars. You can come here to sample and buy their wide range of wine, but their coffee and snacks were equally welcome first thing in the morning.
We couldn't leave without getting out on the lake, so the good guys from Chris Jolly Outdoors took us on a boat cruise to Mine Bay where we could view Maori carvings in the rock faces, standing more than 10 metres high and only accessible from the water. It was a great way to round off our trip, and as the skipper shared his knowledge of local history, it seemed fitting to reflect on everything that has lead to Taupo to becoming such a world-class destination.
Thrills and laughs
The Huka Falls Jet is a remarkable example of a Kiwi attraction blending stunning natural scenery with outstanding local engineering, and a generous portion of Kiwi ingenuity and charm.
Our driver, Steve, was quite a character; he took every opportunity during his knowledgeable commentary to make droll jokes. This confidence and his expertise in handling the powerful New Zealand-made jet boat engine had us feeling reassured despite the fact we are speeding along at 80km/h, winding through shallows, narrowly missing sitting swans and skimming under low-hanging branches.
Steve's waving hand signalled upcoming 360s - we braced ourselves and clung to the heated handrails as the boat spun almost out of control yet somehow missed riverbanks and sheer rock faces. As the boat bounced off the riverbed below a wave of icy water sprayed us.
The thrill didn't end when we reached the awe-inspiring Huka Falls - they're a breath-taking backdrop for an exhilarating experience. Pulling in scarily close to the roaring falls, you could feel the spray as the water plunged into the pool.
Where to stay:
Hilton Lake Taupo, ph (07) 378 7080
What to do:
Formula Challenge, ph (07) 377 0338
Chris Jolly Outdoors, ph (07) 378 0623
Huka Falls Jet, 0800 HUKA JET 0800 4852 538