5 free & fun things to do in Taupo

Whakarewa Point

1. Walking and cycling

Nothing beats just strolling along Taupō’s waterfront admiring the lake. On a clear day, the views of the distant mountains complete the picture: they are often snow-topped. The shared walkway that goes alongside the lake as far as Waitahanui at Five Mile Bay is called the Lions Walk.

We cycled the route (voted New Zealand’s favourite urban ride a couple of years ago) almost as far as Waitahanui, stopping to test the water temperature (hot) near the Taharepa Reserve, and on past the Two Mile Bay Sailing Club.

From here, the track takes you beside sheltered bays where you get the same fabulous scenery as the folk in the big holiday homes. There’s freedom camping for self-contained vehicles at Waitahanui and, from there, it would be an easy, mostly flat ride into town.

Water rushes from the Aratiatia Dam

Another great cycle ride is from Huka Falls to the Aratiatia Dam. Huka Falls is well known, and deservedly so. At the falls, the mighty Waikato River narrows sending a mass of water gushing down the 11m drop at the rate of 220,000 litres per second. It’s awe-inspiring to stand and admire the power of nature.

The Huka Falls Loop is a grade 2–3 ride, so it’s slightly harder than the Lions Walkway but well worth doing. We started from the Hub Café (with the helicopter outside) and, after fortifying ourselves with morning tea, set off on the cycle trail.

The first part of the track takes riders through regenerating forest beside the Waikato River to the dam. From here, the route loops to the opposite side of the river, then back to Taupō through impressive scenery, including the steamy area around Wairakei.

In one place, we came to a narrow, sulphurous-looking and scorching stream that we cycled beside for a while. The loop is almost 17kms in length, so when you’re finished, head back to the Hub for lunch and a long, cold drink.

2. Ragin rapids

Four times a day during the summer months the Aratiatia Dam gates open for 15 minutes, filling the ravine below with surging white water. Since the gates were firmly closed when we cycled past on the loop ride, we made another visit to check out the spectacle. Taupō’s full Māori name is Taupō-nui-aTia, which means the 'great cloak of Tia'.

Tia was the discoverer of the area, and the ravine below the Aratiatia Dam is also named after him. Aratiatia translates as the ‘stairway of Tia’. When we got to the viewing platform downstream from the dam, the rocks in the narrow gully were fully exposed, and there were only puddles of water in small pools at the low points. 

A warning siren sounded before the gates opened, then gradually the ravine began to fill with thousands of litres of water. First, the water rose almost imperceptibly before rocks started to disappear below the surface.

As more water rushed down the channel, it began to churn and seethe, until eventually all the rocks and the cliff sides that had been above water just minutes before were hidden beneath the rushing current. Unlike the Huka Falls, where the rate of water crashing past is constant, the rising water of the Aratiatia ravine was strangely different: a unique experience.

3. Hot water

Wairakei Terraces

Taupō’s geothermal nature means the area is alive with hot water and steam. Being great fans of heated pools, we always head for a soak when we’re in Taupō. Perhaps the most famous of Taupō’s spa resorts is DeBretts, where visitors have been taking the waters for more than 100 years.

The early rustic, stream-fed pools were first upgraded in 1958, and continuous improvements have produced today’s complex with its outdoor mineral and spa pools, plus indoor pools and treatment rooms.

There is a camping area, and RVs are welcome. Up the road at Wairakei, there’s a different hot pool experience. Where DeBretts caters for families, the Wairakei Terraces are a thermal experience for adults only.

The pools sit below silica terraces and a waterfall, creating an ambience that recalls the famous pink and white terraces. There are no waterslides or giant mushroom showers here - all is peaceful and calm, the only sounds are bird calls and the gently flowing water. But for free hot soaks in Taupō head to Spa Park.

In the past, bathers just found an excellent spot to soak in the Otumuheke Stream, but in 2018 the area received an upgrade, and there are now changing rooms, toilets, seating and signboards explaining the history of the area. You can relax in natural rock pools while taking in views of the Waikato River.

Steamy landscapes

Craters of the Moon

The Craters of the Moon are not free to visit, but at only $8 per person, the admission is super-cheap. At this strange attraction, just down the road from the Wairakei Terraces, you can wander around the steamy landscape and gaze at lunar-like craters. Vents disgorge clouds of steam, while the craters plop and bubble with hot mud.

We spent over an hour wandering around the area, including taking a path up to a lookout, which gave us great views of the surrounding area. The tracks and boardwalks are well marked to protect the fragile ecosystems and also to safeguard visitors - the landscape changes without warning as new craters are created. 

4. Beautiful bush walks

Towering bush at Opepe

There are lots of pretty walks around Taupō, but the best we’ve found are at Opepe, where there are loop walks on both sides of SH5. We started by walking the northern track and were amazed by how many big trees there were in this mature forest.

Although it’s so close to the road, we were soon walking through bush that gave us an idea of what New Zealand’s forests were like before so much was lost. At the far point of the loop, we could no longer hear traffic, just birds.

Historical surprises

Opepe Cemetery

A sidetrack took us to a small clearing where we were surprised to see wooden grave markers. A nearby sign explained that there had been an attack by Te Kooti’s forces during the New Zealand Land Wars. Nine soldiers were killed in the battle and later buried in this spot.

It was a peaceful place, and I found it hard to imagine the bloody scene 150 years previously. There is more history to discover on the southern track. The scenery is more open because of settlement and development in the days when Opepe was a township,

rather than just a name on the map. We saw the remains of a pit-sawing operation dating back to 1869, where timber was cut for telegraph poles, and also the site of a redoubt and a stock-watering trough.

A historical pit saw at Opepe

What made this interesting was a long story on the adjacent information board, recounting the tale of a soldier’s escape from Te Kooti’s men. A man named Cresswell, who was a member of the armed constabulary, was spotted by one of Te Kooti’s scouts. Cresswell fled naked across the Kaingaroa Plains (in winter), taking two days to reach safety.

Years later, while working on the Waioeka Gorge Road, a fellow labourer recognised him. This man had been Te Kooti’s scout and told Cresswell that he’d refrained from shooting him because the sound would have alerted the Constabulary to the whereabouts of Te Kooti’s force.

5. Town and around

L'Arte Café and Gallery

Taupō is full of interesting shops and galleries. If you’re in Taupō over the Queen’s Birthday Weekend, pick up an Art Trail Guide and check out some of the artists and craftspeople who work in the area.

Whenever you visit, you can take a walking tour of the downtown streets and admire the many walls adorned with eye-catching murals, created during last year’s Graffiato event. Lava Glass (where we stopped for lunch after watching the Aratiatia Dam opening) is a fascinating place to visit.

Funky fish at L'Arte

It has a gallery, shop, café and sculpture garden, showcasing the colourful glass art of Lynden Over. There’s a fee to watch the glass blowing and to enter the sculpture garden, but part of this can be used towards a purchase from the gallery.

A mosaic living room at L'Arte Café

We were short of time when we visited, so we didn’t spend time in the garden, though we plan to do so next time we’re in Taupō. However, we did spend ages wandering around and admiring the garden art and sculpture at L’Arté Café and Gallery at Acacia Bay.

This place is a wonderland, where the flowers and trees are enhanced by colourful and quirky creations scattered among them. Judi Brennan is the ceramicist here, and her work includes an outside living room created from mosaics.

More mosaics at L'Arte

Intricate mosaics are everywhere. There’s a working pottery studio and a shop to browse, where Judi’s ceramics are for sale as well as artworks in a variety of mediums by other artists.

We finally sat down to enjoy coffee and cake in the café, named by Lonely Planet as its No1 café pick for the central North Island. We had spent a great few days in Taupō, enjoying what the town had to offer, and so much of it had been free. I had several other things on my todo list, but they’ll have to wait until next time. Taupō, we’ll be back. 

Furthur information

Plenty of fun for families
  • There are plenty of places to stay in Taupō. The NZMCA has a park at Taupō Airport, there are several holiday parks, and freedom camping is allowed in designated areas in the town centre. There are several DOC campgrounds, including Five Mile Bay, Aratiatia Dam and Reid’s Farm. Details can be found at: taupodc.govt.nz/recreation/ freedom-camping. DeBretts has powered campervan and RV sites. Information about this and the hot pools is at taupodebretts.co.nz
  • Information about other places mentioned in the article can be found at cratersofthemoon. co.nz; lavaglass.nz, larte.co.nz; wairakeiterraces.co.nz
  • The Aratiatia Dam gates open daily at 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm.
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