The burgeoning resort town of TAUPO, 80km south of Rotorua and slap in the centre of the North Island, is strung around the northern shores of Lake Taupo, the country’s largest lake, which is the size of Singapore. Views stretch 30km southwest towards the three snowcapped volcanoes of the Tongariro National Park, the reflected light from the lake’s glassy surface combining with the 360m altitude to create an almost alpine radiance. Here, the impossibly deep-blue waters of the Waikato River (“flowing water” in Maori) begin their long journey to the Tasman Sea, and both lake and river frontages are lined with parks.
For decades, Kiwi families have been descending en masse for a couple of weeks’ holiday, bathing in the crisp waters of the lake, and lounging around holiday homes that fringe the lakeshore. But there’s no shortage of things to see and do, from the spectacular rapids and geothermal badlands north of town to skydiving – this is New Zealand’s freefall capital – and fishing. The Taupo area is a most fecund trout fishery, extending south to Turangi and along the Tongariro River, with an enviable reputation for the quality of its fish. Year-round, you’ll see boats drifting across the lake with lines trailing and, particularly in the evenings, rivermouths choked with fly-casters in waist-high waders.
Nowhere in Taupo’s compact low-rise core is more than five minutes’ walk from the waters of the Waikato River or Lake Taupo, which jointly hem in three sides. The fourth side rises up through the gentle slopes of Taupo’s suburbs. Most of the commercial activity happens along Tongariro Street and the aptly named Lake Terrace.
Taupo also makes a great base for exploring the surrounding area (see Around Taupo), where highlights include Huka Falls, Aratiatia Rapids, Wairakei Terraces and the Craters of the Moon geothermal area.
The Tuwharetoa people had lived in the area for centuries, but it wasn’t until the New Zealand Wars that Europeans took an interest with the Armed Constabulary trying to track down Te Kooti. They set up camp one night in June 1869 at Opepe, 17km southeast of Taupo (beside what is now SH5), and were ambushed by Te Kooti’s men, who killed nine soldiers. Garrisons were subsequently established at Opepe and Taupo, but only Taupo flourished, enjoying a more strategic situation and being blessed with hot springs for washing and bathing. By 1877, Te Kooti had been contained, but the Armed Constabulary wasn’t disbanded until 1886, after which several soldiers and their families stayed on, forming the nucleus of European settlement.
Taupo didn’t really take off as a domestic resort until the prosperous 1950s, when the North Island’s roads had improved to the point where Kiwi families could easily drive here from Auckland, Wellington or Hawke’s Bay.