The Central North Island contains some of New Zealand’s star attractions, many the result of its explosive geological past. It’s dominated by three heavyweight features: Lake Taupo, the country’s largest; Tongariro National Park, with its trio of volcanoes; and the volcanic field that feeds colourful and fiercely active thermal areas, principally around Rotorua, where boiling mud pools plop next to spouting geysers fuelled by super-heated water, drawn off to fill hot pools around town. Accessible Maori cultural experiences abound here, with highly regarded Arawa carvings and groups who perform traditional dances and haka before a feast of fall-off-the-bone meat and succulent vegetables cooked in a hangi underground steam oven.
The dramatic volcanic scenery of Rotorua is striking for its contrast with the encroaching pines of the Kaingaroa Forest, one of the world’s largest plantation forests, with serried ranks of fast-growing radiata (Monterey) relishing the free-draining pumice soils. In recent years, high international milk-powder prices have fuelled a large-scale conversion to dairying, but silviculture remains the area’s chief earner.
The rest of the region is loosely referred to as the Volcanic Plateau, high country overlaid with a layer of rock and ash expelled two thousand years ago, when a huge volcano blew itself apart, the resultant crater and surrounds filled by expansive Lake Taupo. This serene lake, and the streams and rivers feeding it, have long lured anglers keen to snag brown and rainbow trout, while visitors flock to diverse sights and activities located near the thundering rapids on the Waikato River, which drains the lake. South of Lake Taupo rise three majestic volcanoes in Tongariro National Park, created in 1887 – a winter playground for North Island skiers and a summer destination for trampers drawn by spectacular walking trails.
The altitude of the Volcanic Plateau lends Taupo, the Tongariro National Park and environs a crisp climate, even in high summer. Spring and autumn are tolerably warm and have the added advantage of freedom from the summer hordes, though the freezing winter months from May to October are mainly the preserve of winter-sports enthusiasts. Rotorua is generally balmier but still cool in winter, making the thermal areas steamier and hot baths even more inviting.