A road trip around Lake Taupo is short enough to do in half a day but there are so many gems worth exploring, why not make it an overnighter, writes Adele Thurlow.
There's no denying Lake Taupo is spectacular and a huge force in the region's tourism appeal. But a road trip around the lake reveals the surrounding area is awash in unspoiled locations, serene villages, excellent cafes, gratifying bush walks, and Insta-worthy scenery.
Starting in Taupo, stock up on delicious road trip treats at Baked with Love, a boutique cakery tucked away in a laneway selling sumptuous mini-cakes, or Raw Balance for treats free of everything bar virtuous ingredients. Heading in a clockwise direction towards the southern end of the lake, there are multiple views across the water to the mountains of the Tongariro National Park. Much of the road between Hatepe and Turangi hugs the lake edge and it's here you'll find dazzling panoramas.
The emerald water of the sheltered bays along the eastern side are sparkling and inviting and, in summer, you'll see brave cliff jumpers leaping from Bulli Point into the water below. Alongside the long, straight stretch of road between Motutere and Waitetoko is possibly one of New Zealand's most picturesque rest areas, and the enormous marina under construction at the tiny village of Motuoapa is worth stopping to check out. Kids are likely to beg to stay overnight here once they spot the Kombi cabins and ship-themed units at the holiday park nearby.
Known for its world-class trout fishing, Turangi is also a good base for skiing, the Tongariro Alpine Crossing and mountain biking. In a leafy street is one of the town's hidden secrets — the Creel Cafe. Tucked behind a tackle shop of the same name, is a cosy eatery with large windows framing a flourishing garden.
Deciding between the freshly baked pastries and pies, or the kitchen menu could cause a considerable delay to a road trip. A word of caution for families however, the confined space isn't the most suitable environment for noisy, energetic kids — Licorice Cafe back in Motuoapa would be a more child-friendly choice. Conversely, get a takeaway coffee and let the littlies burn off energy on the Tongariro River Trail — a 15km riverside loop weaving in and out of native bush with a selection of entry points along the trail.
The southern lakeside settlements of Pukawa, Omori and Kuratau, tucked away from the main road, are havens for holidaymakers who return year after year. There are two vineyards in this area, which open during summer offering excellent wine, food, olive oil and al fresco events.
At Oreti Village Resort in Pukawa Bay, cedar chalets sit in a row above the bush-clad lakefront with views across the lake to Mt Tauhara and, in the evening, the distant night lights of Taupo. The on-site restaurant — with a menu featuring salmon, duck, eye fillet, and mandatory nuggets for the kids — is the best location to watch, with a wine in hand, the lake disappear into darkness. Likewise, the best way to view the sunrise is in pyjamas with the chalet bedroom bi-fold windows wide open — the tui won't mind your morning hair.
Heading up the western side of Lake Taupo, the highway drifts inland amid rugged, hill country farms — a stark contrast from the route down the other side of the lake.
Following Western Bay Road, watch for a DoC sign at the entrance to Waihora Rd. A 7km detour along this unsealed road leads to an easy 10-minute walk through magnificent native forest to Waihora Lagoon in the Pureora Forest Park. The destination, which could easily pass as a location for a prehistoric-themed movie, is nothing short of ethereal and utterly worth the bumpy drive in. Where else can you see towering rimu and kahikiatea trees reflected in glass-like water? DoC notes that the lagoon may dry out in summer but, on our early spring visit, the water level was so high, the boardwalk connecting the forest track to the lagoon viewing platform was almost submerged.
Post-bushwalk tucker can be found back on the main highway at the Tihoi Tavern. This former trading post serves up hearty meals in a popular rural pub adorned with boar heads and chainsaws. Or if it's coffee and cafe fare you're after, you'll need to hold on for another 30 minutes until you're almost back in Taupo - the impressive gardens, gallery and food at L'Arte Cafe are worth the wait. Secluded behind large shrubs on rural Mapara Rd, it'd be easy to pass by this beauty but, within, the brightly coloured mosaic sculpture garden is far from inconspicuous and a magical destination to end a road trip.
Five spots to take a dip
Take your pick along the entire Taupo lakefront - Warm Water Beach is popular and is close to coffee and gelato carts. The beach at Wharewaka Point is peaceful and has an excellent playground.
2. The track alongside the Hinemaiaia River (entry from State Highway 1 opposite Hatepe) leads to sheltered spots perfect for a summertime dip while native birds croon overhead.
3. Cliff jumping at Bulli Point (2km from Motutere) offers brave swimmers three ledges to leap from - the highest at 7m.
4. Soak in the natural mineral water of Tokaanu Thermal Pools, and explore the adjoining thermal bush walk with bubbling mud and sinter basins.
5. Whakaipo Bay, a short distance from L'Arte Cafe on Mapara Rd, is a 45ha reserve with more than 1km of lake shoreline and crystal clear water.