Elisabeth Easther finds timber trails, waterways and mountainsides in the Ruapehu District.
We were looking for a weekend that includes paddling, peddling and a fair bit of gobbling so headed in the general direction of Taumarunui for our adventures. We planned to save the bulk of our puff for the Timber Trail, an outstanding new addition to the Nga Haerenga National Cycle Trail Network.
According to my travel companion, I'm the world's most finicky person. I think he means that I have high standards with regards to domestic matters, but arriving at the gorgeous garden cottage of Bradley's B&B, on the fringes of Taumarunui, it was as if all my finicky dreams had come true. I was in an oasis of clean, tranquil elegance. The fresh air, the generous garden, lovingly tended by Melana, the full-sized cricket pitch, the spa pool, and our super comfy, spotless house - I wish we'd had longer to enjoy it all.
Sadly though, intrepid travel writers can't just laze around, so early on Saturday morning we headed to the Whanganui River, and launched our waka from Taumarunui Canoe Hire. Talk about isolated. Along the way, the only other living things we saw were feathered, four-legged or finned. My favourite, of all the creatures great and small, were the harriers wheeling over our heads.
After three hours of gentle padding alongside our trusty guide, Justin, we saw a sign pointing to Lauren's Lavender Farm, just five minutes' walk from the riverbank. Literally following our noses, we popped out on a plateau of purple, a veritable sea of lavender bushes, buzzing with bees.
It was as if we'd fallen down a rabbit hole in Wanganui and emerged in southern France. The cafe was a delightful discovery, ditto the gift shop, bulging with lavender wares.
But time was of the essence, and Ronnie and Karen, (parents of guide, Justin) had arrived with the jet boat to return us up river to the car. I do like how some people make you feel safe; even while doing a 360 on a glassy river: Ronnie was clearly the master of his 400-horse-power machine, and we made it back to base in just 20 minutes.
Another of the region's reasons to crow is Whakapapa. Just as lovely in summer as winter, we grabbed the last chair lift up Ruapehu at 3:30pm and rode to the cafe, the rocks below us naked without their winter cover of snow. The welcome nip in the air was a relief after the warmer river temperatures, and the sky so clear we had unimpeded views of Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, all the way to the cone of Taranaki.
Riding back down the mountain, we made a detour to National Park, home of The Station Cafe, housed in the historic train station. The biggest hardship was choosing what to have. Turns out the locally grown venison was an excellent choice, as was the lamb.
Sunday morning, bright and early, Sandy from Visit Ruapehu arrived to take us to Piropiro Flats, to do a section of the recently opened Timber Trail in the Pureora Forest Park. Mr Snoozy, who was so enthusiastic about a big bike ride the night before, decided it might be better if he researched the charms of Bradley's Cottage. It'd be a shame, he said, to have come all this way and not have one of us relax. Just as well, too. The 45km section we rode wasn't terribly hard but, starting as it does with a 70-minute climb, it's not for the faint-hearted.
This grade two track following historic tramways and old logging tracks is one of the newest segments of Nga Haerenga, the National Cycle Trail Network.
It is ideal for a range of abilities, from confident families to more experienced mountain bikers - the downhill at the end is a blast. The scenery is phenomenal and all along the way information boards explain the area's fascinating history.
We rode over an assortment of bridges that are more than just practical, they're works of art. The Maramataha is the North Island's longest swing bridge, and the Ongarue Spiral is a gem, restored to its former glory as part of the trail's development.
Ideally this is a two-day ride, spanning 77km in total, starting at Pureroa, with an overnight at Piropiro, ending at Bennett Rd, south of Ongarue Village, 15 minutes north of Taumarunui. The terrain wends through the most luscious native bush, opening up to vast vistas, showing off some of New Zealand's finest forest.
The birdlife is abundant, and everything from tui, kaka, kereru and fantail chirped and cheered us along our way.
From start to finish, this trip left only part of my body sore, and that was my face, from smiling so much.
What to do
The Timber Trail: nzcycletrail.com
Taumarunui Canoe Hire: taumarunuicanoehire.co.nz
The welcoming Hawkless family also provide cycle hire and a Sherpa service.
Lauren's Lavender Farm: laurenslavender.co.nz
Grand year round but, for the full bloom buzz, December to March is best.
The Station Cafe: thestationcafe.co.nz
Top staff, food and atmosphere.
Bradley's Garden B&B: bradleysgarden.co.nz
Arriving is heavenly, leaving isn't so much fun.
Elisabeth Easther was a guest of Visit Ruapehu.