As a child, Judy Bailey spent almost every holiday in Taupo. She returned to the area to revisit childhood memories - and seek out new ones.

Taupo has always had a very special place in my heart. My dad, an avid fly fisherman, had bought a tiny two-room army hut at the end of the war and plonked it on a small section close to the mighty Tongariro River in Turangi. It's there still.

It looks even smaller now, slightly dilapidated. There was no power there then, just kerosene lamps and a coal range. We all slept together in the tiny bunkroom and I would screw up my courage to run barefoot through the sweet smelling manuka to the longdrop loo out the back.

We would hike up crystal clear rivers and streams and picnic on their banks as Dad and my brother stood in the chill waters flicking their rods backwards and forwards in search of the elusive trout that lurked there.

It was so quiet, peaceful, still, but for the call of the birds and the rushing of the river. I loved it. So it was with a great sense of anticipation that I headed back to Taupo recently.


So often when you have great childhood memories about a place the adult reality is a bit disappointing. But the things I loved about the place haven't changed. It still has that uniquely crisp, clear mountain air, there are still trout to be found in the lake, anglers still line up, shoulder to shoulder at the mouth of the Waitahanui River in the famed and oh so orderly 'picket fence' formation, hoping to bag trout as they head up from the lake to spawn.

The mud pools and hot springs are just as enticing and there are a myriad ways to explore the great outdoors and really connect with the essence of New Zealand.

I cruise the lake in style on the classic cutter rigged ketch Barbary. Apparently she was once owned by swashbuckling Hollywood legend, Errol Flynn. He won her, so the story goes, in a card game. She's just gorgeous.

Faithfully restored by her current owners, Jamie and Sarah Looner, they've added a few modern comforts - best of which are the bean bag chairs lined up a perfect distance from the boom, to keep you safely out of harm's way - always good on a yacht, I've found! And if it happens to rain, they have all-enveloping thermal-lined ponchos to keep you toasty.

Lake Taupo was formed from a massive volcanic eruption more than 26,000 years ago. It lies in a caldera, or crater, covering 616 square kilometres, making it the largest freshwater lake in Australasia. Jamie is a character and a mine of information about the local history.

We're heading to the Maori Rock carvings at the northern end of the lake. Suddenly the haunting sounds of a Maori waiata drift across the bay and there they are, rising up out of the mist on the sheer cliff face.

These are relatively recent additions to the local landscape, created in the late '70s. The main carving, of Ngatiroirangi, the high priest and chief navigator for the Te Arawa tribe, is said to protect Taupo from volcanic activity. Timely, after nearby Mount Tongariro erupted after a hundred year silence!

Thermal activity is central to Taupo's attractions. Karapiti, the Craters of the Moon, is unique in that it is operated by a local charitable trust, staffed by volunteers and the entry fee, just $6, funds community groups in Taupo.

Karapiti is part of the Wairakei geothermal field. It is, as the name suggests, other worldly. There are steaming craters, fringed in bright green moss, mud pools, fumaroles and everywhere the striking red, orange and ochre-coloured clay. Make sure you take the path up the cliff for the view over the field - it's well worth it.

Being a woman of a certain age, I am beginning to feel the need to cram in as many lifetime goals as I can. One of them has always been to fly a plane - so, with that in mind, I head off to Taupo's airport to connect with Izardair.

The charming and avuncular Chris Blyth is their chief instructor. Their website said he was patient, with a good sense of humour - he'll definitely need it with my coordination skills, or lack of them!

Chris throws me in the deep end. Little did I know when I climbed in the tiny Cessna that he'd get me to control the takeoff. It was, I have to say, remarkably easy once I managed to relax - coming down though might be a different story. We spent a happy half-hour putting the plane through her paces. Rolling to the left and right and pitching up and down, the plane was remarkably responsive to my lightest touch.

We swoop down to take a close look at Huka Lodge, one of the world's top luxury retreats. It hugs the emerald waters of the Waikato River in splendid isolation. Picture-perfect. This is as close as I'm ever likely to get. We get a bird's eye view of the sprawling Wairakei geothermal field and then head back out over the crystal clear lake, its treacherous reefs clearly visible.

And now, the tricky bit. I tense up markedly - this landing business is a whole lot scarier than the takeoff. The nose is lurching towards the ground. We weave about a bit and then Chris takes pity on me and sets us down, gently back on terra firma. I think I want to try that again. There's nothing quite like being up there with the birds.

On my way home I stop to acquaint myself with the bees. The Huka Honey Hive is a Taupo institution. It's been around for nearly 20 years and promises "a honey experience that will leave you buzzing".

The brainchild of a local beekeeper, it has expanded from humble beginnings to quite an empire. Here you can watch bees at work in a glass hive, you can sample more honey varieties than I can name, drink honey mead or liqueur, find honey treatments for acne, sore throats and other ailments, and something that makes my eyes light up - nature's alternative to Botox!

This I have to try. It's a cream made from royal nectar and bee venom and is said to stimulate the muscles and firm the skin ("reducing the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles" - good luck with that!) I leave the honey hive, clutching my cream in one hand and a truly divine honey ice cream in the other.

The cream may or may not work its magic, but my relaxing few days in Taupo certainly did.

Judy Bailey was hosted by Destination Great Lake Taupo and partners. Judy cruised the region in a VW Tiguan courtesy of Ebbett Taupo.
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- Herald Online