Taupō pulls out the stops for cycling visitors, writes Sarah Bennett
Firstly, let's add Taupō to the list of towns that claims it has "some of the best mountain biking in New Zealand". There's a pattern emerging here.
But this tasty resort town shows it knows what side its bread is buttered on by spreading bike-love across all slices of life. "From scenic cycling and family fun, to technical trails and epic descents, Taupō has it all," the visitor guide states.
The optics are good. This is the home of the legendary Lake Taupō Cycle Challenge. It has a giant-sized 10-speed sculpture and bicycle art in the parks and gave birth to the national Big Bike Film Night festival. It's home to the Huka Trails, Craters MTB Park, pump tracks and BMX parks, as well as the Great Lake Trail. In all, it boasts several hundred kilometres of trail.
Cath Oldfield is a longstanding member of trail-build and advocacy group Bike Taupō, which has been pushing the biking barrow for nearly 20 years. "We're fortunate to have a core group of people who are really passionate and just get things done," says Oldfield. Through her popular children's cycling programmes, she aims to get as many young ones riding by 5 years old. "Because when you empower the kids you change the culture."
The lay of the land
A dramatic, volcanic mosaic shaped by fire and water, Great Lake Taupō has stacks of natural wonders and many grand backdrops for outdoor adventure. There's a lot to see.
The marketing bumf says: "There are few better ways to enjoy Taupō's epic landscapes than from the saddle of a bike." Looks like a fair call, because most of the town's main attractions can be reached on two wheels.
Getting your bearings
The excellent visitor website (lovetaupo.com) has a user-friendly trail guide (search "bike trails and parks"). The free town map features the main arterial cycleway across town.
Bike Taupō produces fab $5 maps for both Huka Falls/Craters Mountain Bike Park and the Great Lake Trail, and has interactive Trailforks maps embedded on its website (biketaupo.org.nz).
A town tour
The must-do is the Great Lake Pathway, which traces the water's edge from town to Two Mile Bay, to Three Mile, Four Mile and Five Mile Bays. Despite these yardsticks, the pathway is actually 13km one way.
The trail was recently revamped as far as Three Mile Bay. It's wider, smoother, and just better all-round for all its different users. Messages etched into the concrete path read "Aroha atu, aroha mai – share with care".
Along the way are refreshment stops and picnic spots, and a lovely park and playground at Wharewaka Point. The trail gets a bit rougher from there but it's worth pedalling on if you like a leg stretch and lashings of late afternoon sun.
On the edge of town, Spa Park is where you go for a free soak in hot springs. It's also the starting point of the Rotary Ride to Huka Falls, a leisurely 2–3 hour return ride along the Waikato River. Allow a whole day to go all the way to Aratiatia Dam and watch the spill gates open, a spectacle well worth seeing.
Craters MTB Park is close to Huka Falls. Constantly evolving thanks to solid community support, the park has around 50km of singletrack spread across a privately managed pine forest.
The main entrance is the "the Hub" where the bike-mad FourB crew hire bikes and run shuttles, and offer local knowledge including suggestions for intro rides. They also issue the Bike Taupō membership necessary to ride the trails ($10 for a week).
Our ride highlights were the fun features on Scraggs and the pine-flavoured flow of Mr & Mrs, but our top pick was the freshly dug Megalicious, a brilliantly crafted intermediate downhill flow trail that seemed to go on forever.
For more scenery and less sport, head to the Great Lake Trail. One of Ngā Haerenga New Zealand Cycle Trails' 22 Great Rides, this 83km network has four tracks connecting for various day rides as well as a 2–3 day point-to-point featuring scenic boat transfers.
We recommend two day-rides, both of which start from Kinloch. The first is the Headland Loop, a 2–3 hour ride that climbs moderately strenuously to various lookouts over the lake.
The second is the K2K–Otaketake Loop, which is a couple of hours longer, more rock and roll, has superior scenery and a particularly fun descent.
Both make an even better day out when topped off with a tipple at Kinloch's Tipsy Trout.
If you've ever considered a skydive, this could be your time. I can heartily recommend Taupō Tandem Skydive. Back in the day I jumped with these roosters, or more specifically the reassuringly named Brad Rock. Between the adrenaline rush, eye-popping scenery and bragging rights, it remains one of my most extreme yet memorable escapades.
Two Mile Bay Sailing Club is the place to be. Right on the Great Lake Pathway, it was bathed in late afternoon sun when we parked up outside for a post-ride beer. It's a family-friendly option, with cheerful service, pizza, live music at weekends, boat and board hire, a swimming raft in summer, and grassed area for the kids and the dog.
At the Craters MTB Park Hub, Kefi cafe is also a must-visit. The counter food is top-notch, as are the Greek-inspired a la carte offerings such as the pulled lamb baguette with big, fat chips, washed down with local beer.
Offering a warm welcome in more ways than one, Wairakei Terraces is hot pool heaven. Inspired by the pink and white terraces, it features a cascade of pools fed from a historic stream, the mineral-rich waters and clays of which were highly valued by Māori for their therapeutic benefits.
The piping hot water certainly feels sublime, especially after a big ride or two. But we also love the Terraces bushy landscaping, ethereal steamy vibe, and the manaakitanga we've been shown on the many visits we've made over the past 15 or so years.
Hazards and cautions
If you like to avoid late nights, good times, and aggravating your dodgy knee, you might want to give Finn's a miss. We just popped into this central-city bar for a digestif after dinner, but the music was so good (a bunch of brilliant ageing rockers called Panda Mania) and the locals so friendly that we didn't get home until 1am. No harm done.
Bike town rating
I bet Taupō folk are glad that highway bypass went in all those years ago. Cycling and walking around the CBD is pleasant, and there are plans afoot to make it even friendlier. And with the exception of the Great Lake Trail, it's also possible to bike to other places you want to go, off-road. Every time we visit, another path has been created or improved.
This isn't an accident, or reactive management. Taupō shows what you can achieve when you organise, collaborate, plan and execute with intelligence and foresight. There are benefits for everyone.