Dashing north from Taupo, the fabled Waikato River begins its meandering journey from the mighty lake with a bang. Only 5 kilometres upstream, the graceful glassy free-flowing waters are suddenly coralled into a shallow ravine of hard volcanic rock, roaring and rumbling at high speed before bursting over the Huka Falls and crashing into a turbulent pool, 11 metres below.

The Hidden Valley

orakei_korako_overviewIt is one of the least visited thermal attractions, but I would argue it’s the the most spectacular. Rotorua may well be the capital of all things bubbling, steaming and gushing – but the “Hidden Valley” of Orakei Korako is just a 30 minute drive north from Huka Falls. ( Veer left onto Satte Highway 1 and follow the signs.) This ancient thermal wonderland boasts New Zealand’s most expansive silica terraces, following the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces in 1886.

I just adore the conical shape of brooding Mt. Ngauruhoe, which was understandably hand-picked by Peter Jackson to star as Mt Doom in Lord of the Rings. If short-and-sweet walks are more to your liking, make a beeline to Whakapapa Village. A panoply of leisurely walks are on offer. My two pet picks – the Taranaki Falls walk ( which includes stunning triple-peak views) and the 45 minute Te Porere Redoubt Walk.

Orakei Korako

golden_fleeceHugging the shores of placid Lake Ohakuri, Orakei Korako translates as “The Place of Adorning.” This beautiful lakeside valley throngs with thermal formations, an atmospheric geothermal cave, and photogenic bushwalks through pristine native forest and mud pools. Unsurprisingly this timeless and ethereal landscape was chosen as one of the locations for the BBC series, “Walking with the Dinosaurs.”

Most of the thermal park actually lies beneath the dam waters of the lake, but you won’t be short of fascinating sights to explore on solid ground. Like a grand portal welcoming you to the park, the Emerald Terrace, New Zealand’s largest, towers over the frontage. Over 20 million litres of hot water trickle over the terrace and down into the lake every day. The park offers some stupendous panoramic look out points, across the entire site.

My favourite thermal formation is the Golden Fleece terrace, 40 metres and long and 5 metres high. Formed in 131 AD, this absurdly gorgeous structure resembles a gigantically delicious mound of icing sugar.

Tongariro National Park

tongariro_chateau_2For a complete change of scenery, point the car west, and traverse the vast forest country of the central plateau, on the western flanks of Lake Taupo, for the 90 minute romp all the way down to Tongariro. (Use State Highways 30,32, 41 and 47.) It is one of our most treasured and seductive natural playgrounds, richly endowed with sightseeing magnets.

Tongariro National Park is a year-round visitor draw, luring a wide cross-section of snow-bunnies, fishers, trampers, hikers, mountain bikers, photographers and anyone with a lust for the great outdoors. Gifted to the people of New Zealand in 1887 by Tuwharetoa, the world-heritage site is the nation’s oldest national park, and undoubtedly one of the most popular.

Ruapehu_Lounge_with_PianoNo matter what nature-based temptation lulls you here, the charming, homely Chateau Tongariro continues to anchor the region’s tourist trade. Nestled at the foot of moody Mt. Ruapehu, this beacon of red-carpet hospitality celebrated its 85th anniversary last year. And although the hotel has witnessed many ups and downs, dramas and disasters since 1929, this stately neo-Georgian establishment has been enjoying a renaissance since the 1990s.

What first captivates the fresh arrival to the hotel, are the bold theatrics in the colours and furnishings of the Ruapehu Lounge. With a grand piano, billiard table and open fire gracing the velvet-curtained and chandeliered lounge, what better setting could there be to drink in the alpine ambience with a cocktail or two?

The Tongariro National Park is laced with dozens of tracks, catering to all levels of fitness and endurance. For the extra-intrepid, the Tongariro Northern Circuit is classed as one of New Zealand’s Great Walks, circumnavigating Mt. Ngauruhoe and affording supreme vistas all over Mt. Tongariro. It is possible to add side trips up to the summits of both peaks, although the standard walk normally takes 3-4 days. Part of the Circuit walk takes in what has been widely described as “the best one day walk in the world”, the Tongariro Crossing. Blazing a trail across the most tantalising volcanic landscape in New Zealand, the panoramas abound.

Mt Ngauruhoe

Tongariro_National_Park(1)Safeguarded as an historic site, the fortifications on this walk were constructed by the warrior Te Kooti and his followers during the Maori land wars. Mountain biking continues to boom, and Tongariro spoils bikers for choice. The showpiece excursion – 42 Traverse, which is considered as one the nation’s leading bike tracks. Zipping through the Tongariro Forest Park, it is usually started at the Whakapapa Village end.

Treat yourself this winter to a self-drive escape in the heart of the North Island. Thrifty Car Rental offers exceptionally good deals, with handy locations, including Taupo and Rotorua.