Central North Island: Alpine luxury

By Edward Rooney

Edward Rooney discovers he could get used to the pleasures that come with being chairman of the board.

The cafe at the top of Whakapapa skifield, Mt Ruapehu. Photo / Edward Rooney
The cafe at the top of Whakapapa skifield, Mt Ruapehu. Photo / Edward Rooney

We were somewhere around Waitahanui on the edge of Lake Taupo when the amazement began to take hold. With due apologies to Hunter S. Thompson for the stolen opening, the drive to Whakapapa skifield had become a voyage into the New Zealand dream.

Somewhere the dream had morphed into a fantasy.

We'd driven to Rotorua three days before, a packed lunch at Cambridge then coffee at Tirau. A hike through the Redwoods on an icy cold morning was a mere whiff of the heartland awaiting us.

But this is no tale of rediscovering inner Aotearoa by a big city family who'd neglected their home country far too long. We were headed to Taupo on a luxury package.

Two nights at the near-new Taupo Hilton with breakfasts; full ski packages of lift passes and rental gear; and dinner at Simon Gault's Bistro Lago.

It's a ski trip to suit couples who've driven from Auckland or Wellington to the snow each winter for donkeys' years. Five hours each way with as much skiing as you can fit between them.

Hilton has tied together the package to take the annual Mt Ruapehu pilgrimage to whole new heights of convenience and enjoyment. Do you need to be well-heeled? Not necessarily. I'd call it, well, sensible.

On our first night at the Hilton, we shop for local produce and cook in our room.

Okay, my partner cooks as son and I traipse next door to DeBretts Thermal Spa Resort for a soak and swirl down the hydro-slide.

Back to the room for fresh vegetables and a cut of prime beef with a glass or two of Huntaway pinot gris. We tune into The Block on telly but my eyes keep wandering out the balcony windows at the lake as the sun slinks behind the mountains.

Our morning of anticipation dissolves into amazement during our transport to the mountain.

An ex-pat Scotsman and local of 47 years, named (what else?) Scotty, has to be experienced to be truly appreciated.

He's behind the wheel of his trusty front-wheel drive shuttle, which has cut a course in and out of the skifields when 4WDs have failed.

"The difference is the driver," Scotty explains immodestly.

He has no need for modesty. As a former operations manager of the Whakapapa skifield and volunteer host to this day, Scotty knows every ridge and hollow - and everyone knows him.

At each bend in the southbound road to Ruapehu, Scotty has an anecdote. Nearly 50 years in the area have loaded him with history, geology, botany, culture and outrageous gossip about absolutely everything.

"There's the island where the All Blacks' haka Ka Mate came from," Scotty points as we motor down a hill at Lake Rotoaira.

"I met a Welsh couple at the picnic area there last year."

At Whakapapa skifield, Scotty parks at the steps to the customer service hut, where we are kitted out for the snow in short order by the beguiling Freya and Gemma from Ruapehu Alpine Lifts.

Snowboards are the order of the day as my partner and son, nine, are on the snow for the first time. I also opt for a board, despite my only previous experience as a poor skier 20-mumble years ago.

We stumble and tumble about on Happy Valley for the morning. Freya and Gemma text us an invitation to take the lifts to the top of the skifield for lunch. Who could refuse? Let he who is without sin cast the first snowball.

The chairlifts to the lofty heights of Ruapehu are head, shoulders and airspace above any ride at Rainbow's End. Snow-making machines blast curtains of crystals to dangle through as we approach higher and higher altitudes.

The cafe is a cantilevered marvel of alpine architecture. The crown of Ruapehu seems a short arm's length from our table. I opt for a pie and chips; son, nine, chooses an orzo pasta salad; my partner goes for beef lasagne. Hearty fare in charming company in an eatery at the top of the world.

Hardcore skiers scoff their sandwiches, eyes darting desperately to the slopes - time-poor and aware they need to be on the highways home within hours.

In the afternoon, our son clicks out of the snowboard with an air of finality - actually, he declared it loudly - and I fork out $20 for a plastic sled. The best $20 I spent on the trip, he's happy for the rest of the afternoon as I slide and sluice my way down Happy Valley. Chairman of the board, I was, for a few cherished moments.

Back at the huts, Scotty's waiting with his van for the return to the Hilton. It's a more subdued ride back. We're happily weary from the mountain exercise and slouch into our room as dusk falls.

Eager for Gault's famous fare, we pass up the thermally heated swimming pool, spa pool, sauna and steam room.

A hot shower, clean shirts, and we're at the table of Bistro Lago. Guiltlessly, we devour dinner in the old restored heritage section of the historic hotel. I start with seared Atlantic scallops with cauliflower cheese and chorizo and a main of Hawke's Bay lamb shoulder with mustard and caper crust, soubise - and silver beet. My Mum would approve of the silver beet.

My partner opts for sweet and sour coconut prawns with cucumber, mint and pineapple salad for starters and confit duck leg with chicken and leek sausage, braised red cabbage and walnuts. Again, I note, my Mum would probably approve of the leeks. My partner raves in Dr Seuss-like stanzas about the sausage.

Son, nine, is served fettuccine bolognese with garlic bread and I can only shrug off his oblivious disregard for the best food, perhaps, I've ever sat down to. I am not making any of this up, you can check the menu online.

I reflect on the soggy carloads of skiers and boarders heading back to Wellington and Auckland on dark roads. They may well have traditional cafe stops on the way home but they cannot possibly rival our evening.

Just to be certain of this, we head back to the room and I consult the pillow menu - a choice of eight different pillows, from the therapeutic to the ultra-soft. We fall asleep in impossibly soft beds. In my mind, I'm riding a gravity-free chairlift over powder snow.

If you take this trip, then insist on Scotty for your driver. And do not pity the day-trippers, they probably didn't even have time to appreciate the view of the lake around Waitahanui

HILTON LAKE TAUPO SKI TRIP

Rates start from $320 a couple and vary depending on the type of room you want to stay in and the number of people you're travelling with.

The package includes:

* One night at the Hilton Lake Taupo hotel.

* A day pass to the slopes of Mt Ruapehu.

* Complimentary ski hosting.

Book at laketaupo.hilton.com or phone 0800 448 002.

Edward Rooney and family were thoroughly spoilt by Hilton Lake Taupo, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts and Scotty.

- Herald on Sunday

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