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New Zealand family travel: The treasures of Taupo

by Brook Sabin for Stuff.co.nz

"What are we doing today?" I'm convinced kids think their parents have magical powers - able to conjure up an exciting holiday adventure at a moment's notice.

One of the biggest challenges is finding activities that are just as much fun for adults, as they are for kids - after all, it's your holiday too.

We have found a solution. Most people drive straight past Taupo - perhaps stopping to watch the sheer force on display at Huka Falls. But there is much more to this region if you just look a little closer.


Watch the video here.


The secret volcano valley

Thirty minutes outside Taupo is a geothermal wonderland most of us have never heard of - Orakei Korako. The area is known as The Hidden Valley, but don't let the remoteness fool you; this is one of the most active geothermal regions in the country.

Orakei Korako is a stunning geothermal wonderland most have never heard of.

When you first arrive, you need to board a boat to cross the Waikato River to reach the geothermal field. What greets you on the other side is the biggest silica terraces anywhere in the world - giving a glimpse into what the Pink and White Terraces would have once looked like.

From there, you follow a snaking boardwalk up through the valley, passing more than 20 geysers, hot springs and mud pools. There's even a rare geothermal cave to explore; one of only two known to exist in the world.

Orakei Korako gives a glimpse into what the Pink and White Terraces once looked like.

The park is continually exploding, gushing and bubbling. The Earth here is angry, and it's a privilege to be able to witness its constant tantrums.

Price: $15 for kids, and $39 for adults. Family pass - 2 adults and up to 6 children is $98. You can even bring your dog.


Raging rapids

One of the best free attractions in Taupo puts on a show at 90,000 litres a second, several times a day.

The release of the Aratiatia Dam turns the gorge into a raging river within five minutes.

The Aratiatia Dam, just north of the city, is the closest most will ever come to witnessing a flash flood. After a series of loud warning sirens, the dam opens, and in a matter of minutes, a trickling stream down a narrow gorge becomes a raging torrent.

Price: Free. Water releases happen at 10am, 12pm, 2pm (plus 4pm in summer).


White water jet

Another great way to experience the Aratiatia Rapids is by jet boating to the base of them. The Rapid Jets trip is unlike any other in New Zealand; it's a little like white water rafting in a jet boat.

Rapids Jet offers the only white water jet boat trip in the country.

You get all the usual spins and close shaves you'd expect in a jet boat, as well as thundering through roaring white water, getting some serious air as you hurtle down the river.

Price: $75 for children, $129 per adult - with discounts for booking as a family. Suitable for children as young as five.


Interactive wonderland

If you or the kids are a fan of the hit TV show Lego Masters, you'll want to stop at Mind Junction. This adventure centre for kids has the largest permanent lego display in New Zealand - alongside lots of other activities like a giant outdoor maze, radio control boats and a fully functioning flight simulator.

Mind Junction is fun for young and old.

The Discovery Centre is a highlight - it's accessed by a pitch-black 'sensory tunnel' - then out you pop in a room full of experiments. Kids will learn about space, sound, light and Earth while playing with interactive displays.

Price: Mind Junction charges per activity, or purchase a VIP Pass for $35 - which gives access to most areas.


Heat up

DeBretts Hot Springs are designed for kids and adults alike. Children can spend the day at the hot water playground, or racing up and down the hydro-slides, while parents relax in the nearby thermal pools.

This popular complex can be crowded during holidays, but off-peak, it's a great place to unwind while the kids burn off their energy.

Price: Family day passes start from $79.


Geothermal safari

The best Segway trip in the country involves an off-road safari.

An off-road Segway safari ventures down a valley to a hidden geothermal stream.

After a quick training session, the specially designed Segways are ready to be unleashed on a course through the forest, that includes hills, dips, bumps and slopes. The tour even visits a hidden geothermal stream - wrapped in a mythical valley of steam.

Price: Tours with Pure Kiwi Adventures start from $75.


Waka in the sky

New Zealand's largest gondola has just opened at Whakapapa - on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu. The Sky Waka takes you 1.8 kilometres up into the clouds - passing frozen waterfalls, ancient lava flows, snow-covered valleys and ends the journey at the highest restaurant in New Zealand, overlooking the vast expanse of the Tongariro National Park. You can even see out to Mount Taranaki on a clear day.

Whakapapa's Sky Waka leads to the highest cafe in New Zealand.

Snow sledding is also a popular activity for kids that need an easy introduction to snow - adults can even race their children down, before getting on a specially-designed sled lift to return to the top of the course.

Sledding at Whakapapa is a popular activity for kids who don't have the confidence to ski.

Price: A family pass up the Sky Waka costs $135.


The lake's hidden gem

One of the country's most magnificent Maori rock carvings is tucked away on Lake Taupo - only accessible by boat.

Magnificent Māori rock art is hidden on Lake Taupō.

In the 1970s, wearing just speedos and safety glasses, four artists marked out a giant artwork to create a permanent connection between the region's ancestors, and the land. It took four years of painstaking work to carve out the enormous face.

Today Chris Jolly Outdoors run regular sailings out to the carvings. While there, you'll also be greeted by ducks that'll swoop in - hover above you - and take bread from your hands.

Price: Family cruise packages start from $99 - kids even get a chance to drive the boat.


White-knuckle ride

Floating down the Tongariro River feels like a trip back to New Zealand before humans arrived. The river passes towering canyons, pumice cliffs, dense native bush and more than 60 rapids.

Tongariro River Rafting runs down Grade Three rapids - an adventure for all ages.

Tongariro River Rafting's main trip is on Grade Three rapids; this 14km journey is the perfect balance of adventure and scenery - with little chance of falling out.

A family-friendly option for younger kids includes a section of Grade Two rapids - where children as young as three can join. Winter rafters are kept warm with several super-cosy layers and a hot spring soak afterwards.

Price: From $85 for children and adults $99.


Fast karting

Some of the most powerful go-karts in the world can be found at Taupo Karts, with a specially built track at the Bruce McLaren Motorsport Park.

Taupō Karts are some of the fastest in the country.

You'll be jumping on a 390cc kart, able to rocket up to more than 50 km/h, with a long straight and a series of sharp S bends to test your skills.

Parents don't need to fret, the speed of the karts are monitored continuously - and can be electronically reduced at any time by the Race Controller.

Price: Kids start from $25 for 10 minutes while adults are $65 for 15 minutes.


STAYING THERE Heritage Collection Anchorage Resort Taupo has modern family-friendly apartments overlooking the lake, with a large pool and hot tub. Prices start from $140 per night. 

Turangi's Creel Lodge has chalet-style accommodation in a beautiful garden setting. It's close to Mt Ruapehu, the Tongariro River and in the heart of the country's best trout fishing. Prices start from $140. 

GETTING THERE Taupo is an easy three hour drive from Auckland or two hours from Napier, Hamilton or Tauranga. It's five hours from Wellington. Air New Zealand has connections from Auckland, while Sounds Air runs a service from Wellington.


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