Dawn Picken finds rest and recreation in Ruapehu's mountain playground
Wind whistles as we ascend the mountain at Whakapapa. Rain decorates the panes of the Sky Waka, which whisks us up from the Top of the Bruce base area at 6m/sec. Our destination is Knoll Ridge Chalet, home to the Pinnacles Restaurant. At 2020m above sea level, it's billed as the highest restaurant in New Zealand and even getting there is a treat - the floor-to ceiling glass gondola is comfortable and quiet inside.
Despite the weather on day one, visiting Mount Ruapehu in the off-season proves to be a stroke of genius. Or luck. We marvel that we can walk unencumbered by the thunk-thunk of ski boots and delight in the freedom to explore sparsely populated attractions.
At The Pinnacles, we belly up to the buffet, enjoying fresh and roast veges, fish, meats, soup, breads and dessert (our favourite is the warm apple crumble with pouring custard) and later groan that we've overdone it. High winds and poor visibility scuttle plans for a post-lunch walk. A sign announces the Skyline and Waterfall walks are not recommended today. Thankfully, the gondola is built to withstand winds of up to 100km/h and our descent is uneventful.
I've brought friend Veneta and our girls, ages 17 and 16, to the Ruapehu region for an adventure-packed weekend. The question is - can we keep the teens engaged and entertained outside the universe of their phones?
Our lodging at Night Sky Cottage in Horopito suits the girls just fine. They have brought togs and are first in our group to enjoy the side-by-side freestanding bathtubs which face a private bush filled with mānuka trees and native birds. The luxury eco-retreat is stocked with goodies for breakfast and beyond, including fresh sourdough bread, homemade Anzac biscuits, horopito and kawakawa chocolate, six kinds of artisan tea, mānuka honey, yoghurt and cereals. We don't linger to nosh though, because dinner at Osteria in Ohakune awaits.
We start with warm marinated olives and three-cheese arancini - Sicilian rice balls stuffed with mozzarella, feta and parmesan. Miss 17, our vegetarian, pronounces the gnocchi di casa "awesome". Potato pillows among butternut squash, spinach and toasted pine nuts. Pecorino Romano and lemon complete the dish. My salmon on a bed of roasted, mashed root vegetables is moist and flavourful. Tiramisu brought home and eaten an hour after dinner hits all the right notes - espresso, cream, chocolate, lady fingers. Delizioso.
Our eat-a-thon requires a hefty helping of outdoor activity on day two. Sunny skies beckon for our ride on the Old Coach Road. We start at TCB Ski Board Bike shop and are outfitted with a full-suspension electric bicycle and helmets. Staffer James Bell tells us the Grade 2 (easy) bike ride from Horopito to Ohakune Junction and back to TCB is 17km long and will take around two and-a-half hours. The trail starts near Horopito Motors Wreckers, an attraction in itself, where the history of motor vehicles can be seen in the rusting ruins. The movie Smash Palace was filmed here in 1981.
People aged from around 5 through to retirees are part of our tour group. Cycling the track from the Horopito end means the ride is mainly downhill. Undulating terrain of the Old Coach Road combines with new trails through stunning native bush in Tongariro National Park. The road was used to carry passengers and goods between two railheads on the North Island main trunk link before 1908.
Despite the battery boost of an e-bike, we exert a fair amount of energy navigating tracks through the bush, sometimes walking the bikes uphill through tight switchbacks. Photo stops at the Taonui and Hapuawhenua viaducts were a must, as was a ride down the centre of rumbly railroad ties. The teenagers leave us in the dust, calling in exasperation when they reach the end of the track. We are still several kilometres behind. "Where ARE you? We've been waiting FOREVER."
We are on holiday. Moving at our own pace and loving it.
The teenagers press pause on the Great Outdoors and hang out near the Ohakune i-SITE to mooch free Wi-Fi. That leaves Veneta and me to walk to Tongariro National Park's highest waterfall, Waitonga Falls. The well-formed track starts about 11km up the Ohakune Mountain Road and passes through beech and kaikawaka forest. A boardwalk snakes through alpine wetlands alongside the Rotokawa pools. According to the Department of Conservation website, the walk offers fantastic views of Mount Ruapehu and the surrounding countryside. Clouds blanket the mountain when we visit, but there is no hiding the 39m thundering falls.
Dinner is takeaway chicken and fries from The Blind Finch Hamburgeria. It's not your usual grab-and-go grease - there are enormous fried buttermilk chicken wings and truffle fries with truffle oil and truffle mayo. We also tuck into mushrooms stuffed with garlic and cream cheese and whole crumbed jalapenos stuffed with cream cheese and mozzarella (careful - these bite). Next time we could be tempted with the enormous speciality burgers or falafel patties.
Clouds part again for the start of day three for our trip on the Whanganui River. We wind our way from Horopito to Pipiriki, the base for Whanganui River Adventures. The Māori-owned business offers tours year-round combining jet boating, paddling, tramping and mountain biking. Our time is short, so we opt for the 45-minute Manganui o te Ao River jet boat trip, which includes scenic views of the gorge with deep ravines, tree ferns and native mosses. Waterfalls carve channels into rock cliffs, adding to nature's soundtrack.
The Whanganui River journey is one of 10 listed Great Walks. The canoe or kayak paddle is 145km long, lined with DoC huts and campsites. The entire river has huge cultural significance to Māori, and was granted legal personhood by the Government in 2017. It has provided a means of transport and a living environment for hundreds of years.
it's raining as we glide into the Mangaio Stream but showers are brief and owner/operator Ken Haworth skilfully navigates the jet boat near cliffs, spinning us 360 degrees on the return trip. The girls record the action on their phones while holding the handrail and laughing like hyenas.
We're hungry after a morning of adventuring and driving, and stop at Thorn in Ohakune. The roadside container shop features organic Hawthorne coffee beans, organic milk, fresh sandwiches and gourmet toast, plus paleo and gluten-free options. We start with a yoghurt parfait topped with fresh raspberries and blueberries with feijoas tucked further down the cup. Course two is toasted sandwiches ranging from basic cheese to chicken and cranberry. The coffee is delicious and strong, a must before the return trip home.
Last stop, the National Army Museum Te Mata Toa in Waiouru. I had doubted we could focus on anything indoors after a jam-packed weekend, but the museum easily holds our attention. We have the pleasure of a one-hour tour with kaiarahi (guide) Erena Rukupo. The museum also offers 20-minute tours for those short on time or with shorter attention spans (such as younger children).
New Zealand's military history comes alive with well-appointed mannequins and artefacts such as cannons, vehicles, uniforms and even antique chocolate rations and a taxidermied horse. Kiwi participation in conflicts from the time of the NZ Wars through the present day is chronicled in photos, memorabilia and written descriptions that help visitors glimpse the harsh conditions soldiers faced in the past, and still endure today. Māori warrior culture is highlighted through stories of tangata whenua such as Captain Pirimi Tahiwi who fought at Gallipoli.
Read a little or a lot - you could spend hours here with a break at The Mess Tent to indulge in a "Bunker Buster" gourmet sausage roll, bangers and mash, army-style, plus coffees and baked treats (try the ginger slice).
Kids HQ has hands-on activities like puzzles and a rack of authentic Army uniforms for dress-up. The clothing is remarkable, not only for its sturdiness, but also for its size. Judging by the suit jackets, Kiwi soldiers of past generations were much smaller than today's.
One of the most moving displays is Roimata Pounamu: Tears on Greenstone, a remembrance wall bearing names of Kiwi military personnel who've died in service to their country. A recorded voice speaks every single person's name aloud.
The museum is also a place where Kiwis can research information about New Zealand veterans and family members who served in the armed forces. Some family members have donated medals, which are displayed in a special repository.
We hit the road towards home, heads buzzing with information and memories. We've had our adrenaline fix, caffeine fix, food fix and luxury retreat fix. Most importantly, we had our togetherness fix. My friend and I know time is short with our children as they hurtle through their teenage years - the chance to take them away for a weekend is priceless.
We also learned there's much more to Ruapehu than skiing or snowboarding in winter (though that is super fun): during the quiet season, you can clearly hear your own screeches of delight.