Volcano Land – Lake Taupo & Rotorua

Journey: Auckland – Lake Taupo – Rotorua – Auckland

Period: Mid January (summer), weekend

The sun was setting as our red hatchback cruised through New Zealand State Highway 1. Few hours ago, the light was harsh, I felt so tempted to spread sunscreen on my left arm and face even though I was sitting inside the car. Now the glow was gentle, welcoming us after a restful weekend back to our home in Orakei.

For most part of the day, light clouds scattered across the sky providing some shade as the cool wind blew through our hair.

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Waking up at 3 am on early Saturday morning for a light meal to replenish energy, we set off at 4 o’clock, traveling at 110 km down the south side of Bombay Hills. In the pitch darkness, we were guided by only the astronomy of the south hemisphere and the reflectors on the road. It felt as if I was journeying along the North-South Expressway in Malaysia. Together with a few other brave souls, we were one of the few cars racing down the road.

At the break of dusk, we paused into Matamata (www.matamata.co.nz) for a pitstop. A large sign saying, “Welcome to Hobbiton” greeted us as we looked for a place to stretch our legs and use the public washroom. This place had evolved since the Lord of the Rings series, from a sleepy old Kiwi town to a tourist attraction in New Zealand. No doubt, the price of the food and beverage here had increased to fit the tourist market demand.

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We didn’t like our breakfast, it was overpriced but “eat we must” as we were on a schedule to reach Lake Taupo by 8.30 am for the 2013 State Epic Swim.

Journeying on, we drove through the mountains. Summer had arrived but a fog accompanied us as we traveled closer to the geothermal sites of central North Island.

We reached Lake Taupo Yatch Club at 7.55 am, giving our mate J more than enough time to change into his event official uniform while Tony and myself scouted for a comfortable spot to watch the athletes conduct their warm-up swim.

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It feels very much like the Lake District of Queenstown in South Island but instead of the The Remarkables and other snow-capped peaks, Taupo gives a scenic view of volcanoes in the distant. In fact, this famous lake which is the home of the Iron Man New Zealand was once an active volcano that has blown its top off thousands of years ago.

What I really like about Lake Taupo district is the beauty that it feels more like a weekend recreational town for Kiwis to relax as compare to Queenstown which resembles a typical tourist trap with large influx of Chinese tour buses and overcrowded facilities.

The best time to walk around Lake Taupo (www.greatlaketaupo.com) is on a Saturday morning. We visited the Riverside Market (every Saturday, 10am till 1pm) where Tony bought second hand books at $3 each. There was stall selling homemade sausages and the chef was very friendly and gave us four different samples. The pork & watercress sausage was especially yummy. Other stalls of our interest include the one selling llama products and other stall with display of essential oils made from lavender.

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As we continued our tour of Taupo on foot, I found an old aircraft in the backyard of a McDonald’s restaurant. Once a military air transport, it is now part of a unique fast food dining experience. Taupo matches most activities that Queenstown offers, for those seeking a thrill, opt for the Hukafalls Jet or skydive. River rafting, bungy jump and scenic flights are just some of the activities that one can do if he/she is willing to part with his/her cash.

There are also lots of free activities on offer. After checking in to the Lakeland Resort (www.lakeland.co.nz), we went for a swim in the lake followed by dinner at Wok-tastic, a cheap & cheerful place owned by a Chinese family. It’s not a place for authentic cuisine but they have fish & chips at $5. I tried their spicy noodles and it’s really good for the price, though I won’t recommend eating the Singapore Noodles. Also on the menu are side dishes such as samosa (10 pieces) and money bags (8 pieces) at $4 each. The lady owner was kind enough to allow us to mix 5 samosas and 4 money bags at $4.

While we were busy chopping down our noodles, our mate J was having his committee dinner at the Crooked Door (www.crookeddoor.co.nz), he described the food there as “pub style food, good quality with wide variety”. There are lots of choices on the menu and the entree are reasonably price. Instead of having their main courses, mates can order different entree for sharing and sampling.

We walked past Scenic Cellars (www.sceniccellars.co.nz) which Tony described it as “the best place in town (New Zealand) for wine”. They have moved out of their former building and business has expanded with the additional of an eatery. It’s the perfect venue for a romantic night of wine & dine if you are looking to please that someone special.

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The next day, we set off to Huka Falls (www.hukafalls.com) – the largest falls on the Waikato River, is one of the most visited natural attractions in New Zealand. The serenity of the majestic of the falls was broken when a tour bus offload a wave of eager tourists armed with camera and snapping five shots of the same spot. Huka falls can also be explored onboard a jet boat that offers a 360 degrees view of this natural wonder.

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As we continued our drive back to Auckland, we stopped by Rotorua (www.rotoruanz.com) – famous for its geothermal springs. The Rotorua Museum (www.rotoruamuseum.co.nz) offers visitors an enriching educational experience for the family. I highly recommend a day trip to The Blue Baths (www.historic-venues.co.nz) if you are staying over at Lake Taupo. As we were in hurry for time, we stopped by a local park to soak our feet in the hot spring for free.

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Our late lunch at Pigs and Whistle (www.pigsandwhistle.co.nz) was disappointing. I ordered linguine and my pasta turned out to be a plate of dry spaghetti. The pizza my mates had was “cheap preserved chinese garlic with cheese on a soggy microwaved crust”. Having said that, Pigs and Whistle is worth going for if all you are after for is beer and cider. Housed in a former police station, the pub offers live music on certain nights and live screening of television sports.

As the sun set, our car brought us to our final pitstop – the Hamilton Gardens (hamiltongardens.co.nz). Pouring hot water from the thermal flask into our cups, we slipped green tea under the shade of the trees. We took a quick tour of the botanic gardens before continuing our journey home. The Hamilton Gardens offer several collections. I enjoyed exploring the Paradise Collection comprising of different culturally inspired gardens such as the Indian Char Bagh Garden, Italian Renaissance Garden and Japanese Garden of Contemplation.

The wind continued to howl, the rays now felt gentle on the skin as our red hunchback carried us back to the city of Auckland…

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