River rafting, hot pools and trout abound in the middle of the North Island, writes Alexia Santamaria.
I'm not super adventure girl by nature, so the safety video at Rafting New Zealand's HQ in Tūrangi really isn't helping my nerves. What do they mean "if I fall out of the raft"? Or if the raft flips? I tell myself they have to present the worst-case scenario but it's very unlikely to happen and I soon learn I'm right; this is all just part of being a safety-conscious professional operation. I'm in good hands.
As we head to our departure point, I realise what amazing people guides are. Harvey's sweet nature and easy personality has me trusting everything will be fine. Physical capability and rafting skills are essential for his job, but being calm and able to manage seven people's personalities in an inflatable boat on a lively river is where his real talent lies.
All fears dissolve as we reach the section of the Tongariro River where we put the boat in. This is mainly because I'm so distracted by the insanely beautiful scenery that's suddenly all around me. Cliffs dripping with lush green foliage, large smooth rocks with crystal-clear water rushing over them, emerald water lapping at our feet and above, a cloudless sky bathing us in its morning rays. Everyone is a bit gobsmacked by the view and my kids have even paused trading insults to look around them.
Very Lord of the Rings.
We get into the hardy inflatable and listen to our instructions. "Hold on" means put your paddle horizontal on the side and hold the ropes, "Get down" means do the same but lower yourself right into the raft. "Over left" means everyone move to the left, and so on. It feels like a lot to remember but we're assured it will all make sense once we're in motion. And it really does — all these movements avoid us getting stuck on rocks or wedged anywhere tricky as we progress down the river.
Once I have the hang of it, I'm surprised at how enjoyable it is. Sure, there are some moments of adrenaline as we traverse 52 rapids over 14 km of river, but it's just enough to make things fun, not to leave me fearing for my life. And the scenery just keeps getting prettier as we hit the rapids; still, serene water becomes turquoise eddies with playful white caps and a delightfully refreshing mist — basically the biggest natural spa pool I've ever seen. Pumice cliffs, tiny waterfalls, cascading ferns — I feel cheated that I've never experienced this kind of beauty in all my years of living in New Zealand. Being on a river gives you such a different perspective and I can't get the smile off my face. My whole family are the same — in fact the usual sibling rivalry has ceased entirely, making way for visible exhilaration from our 9- and 12-year-old.
After we finally finish our adventure with a hot chocolate on the raft, it's up the road to Creel for lunch. Tucked into the back of a fishing-tackle shop that's been running for 80 years, this is a real hidden gem. The home baking is outstanding and I have never tasted a plum cake this good; apparently some of the locals phone ahead so the tourists don't snaffle all their brioche.
The kids are keen to hit the Tokaanu Thermal Pools and a soak in one of the private pools is the perfect way to relax after our action-packed morning. In fact we're so relaxed we all head back for a cheeky nana nap before dinner at Oreti Village, where we are staying. The views from our room are breathtaking and if it wasn't for the distinctly New Zealand tūī call, we would swear we were in the Pacific Islands as we gaze out at the blue water and palm trees. Dinner is wonderful, with some of the best handmade gnocchi I've had in a long time; we all sleep very well.
The next day it's off to breakfast at Lakeland House at Braxmere. The boys love the hearty Tūrangi-sized portions — double the size of an Auckland brunch — and we love the tranquility of coffee
and kai in this serene setting right on the water. We can't leave without a swim so head to nearby Omori for a lovely morning splashing around in the clear waters of Lake Taupō. The kids are very keen to check out the National Trout Centre so we head there. An old hatchery, it's now a fascinating space with a small museum and the opportunity for visitors to see the whole process, from spawning to full-sized rainbow trout to erm . . . dinner. Our boys are delighted at learning to fly fish in the large pond (adults can go out to the real river). They both eventually catch one and are so proud as they take their luminous treasure to the smoker. Half an hour later we're presented with two pizza-style boxes with still-warm smoked trout. It doesn't last long.
We know it's time to head home but have heard the burgers are great at local eatery, Rust, so stop in before hitting the road.
The rumours are true — and once again the servings are much more generous than home. I really enjoy my lunchtime mojito and polenta fries too, not something I remember seeing much of last time I was in Turangi 20 years ago. Things have definitely changed for the better around these parts (although, to be fair, it's always been stunning) and we're already making plans for another trip next summer.