5 reasons why the North Island should be on your list

New ski area developments, ease of access and a relaxed vibe has put the North Island 100% back on our winter holiday list writes Marion Ross for Ski and Snowboard Magazine.

The arrival of bracing Antarctic breezes and the first snowfall of the season is our cue to get organised for winter. We do it every year, sometimes two or three times – trek off to a faraway resort town to get our snow fix. By default, it’s always been the South Island, and then sometimes Canada or Colorado in our summer, but last year we had a reset.

That reset was the rediscovery of skiing, and winter holidaying, in the North Island. As a nipper I’d always skied on Mt Ruapehu, but as an adult the attraction of wider horizons took me away to other resorts. Last year we read that Whakapapa Ski Area had done some big new developments, and our curiosity led us to book a winter holiday in Taupō.

Here’s why we’re going back this year, and taking our friends with us:

No driving means more après ski

Apres ski at the Schuss Haus Corona Bar

Mt Ruapehu’s shuttle from Taupō to Whakapapa really transformed our mountain experience. Arguably the best part about taking the shuttle was that we were able to stay late, do some night skiing and enjoy the après ski activities without worrying about driving back (make sure you’re up there on a Friday or Saturday night for this).

The night skiing experience was one of the highlights of our trip. Floodlights lit up the Rockgarden run and live music played from the Schuss Haus Corona Bar. You can ski till your legs are shot because, as we discovered, there’s tasty Mexican food and cold beers at Schuss Haus to revive you. We only had to pull out one last run at the end of the night to get back to our waiting shuttle at the base area.

Whakapapa is big, and it has big plans

Whakapapa Ski Area

The advances they’re making at Whakapapa are pretty exciting. Last year they installed a snowmaking system that can make snow in up to 25 degrees Celsius, an elevator into Happy Valley and new carpet lifts. Further up the mountain, there are plans afoot for a new gondola in 2019 that will get people out of the base area and up to Knoll Ridge Cafe in record time.

While Whakapapa is already the biggest ski area in the country (Mt Ruapehu has more skiable terrain than the four major South Island ski areas put together), plans to reconfigure the upper mountain lifts will open up even more terrain.

We had a seriously good time discovering the natural halfpipes, chutes and massive snow-filled bowls that the volcanic landscape has gifted the ski area. Out west, there is a huge lift-accessed and patrolled backcountry area which really surprised us. Skiing this mountain as a child, we never ventured out that far so it was like discovering a whole new ski area I never knew existed.

It’s not all about the snow

Wairakei Terraces thermally heated hot pools

We stayed in Taupō which is just over an hour’s drive from Whakapapa Ski Area (and just over 3 and ½ hours from Auckland) and discovered you can do practically anything in this lakeside town, even in winter. A key drawcard for us was the hot pools, and with Taupō being a geothermal region there are lots of them. I’m convinced that being able to soak our ski weary muscles in real geothermal waters allowed us to recover more quickly from long days on the slopes, and they really added to the feeling that this was the most relaxing winter holiday we’d ever had.

Our first off-mountain adventure was a mountain bike ride on the Great Lake Trail. Being out in the bush and with such incredible views across Lake Taupō was uplifting, and the riding was some of the best we’ve done. We also tried trout fishing, a first for us together and a new-found passion. Our fishing charter took us to beautiful secluded bays on Lake Taupō where we caught three good-sized trout from the deep green water.

Our adventuring also took us on a late afternoon hike up Mt Tauhara to watch the sun set over the mountains. Even if you’re not a romantic this is a must-do just for the photo opportunities. Our headlamp-lit descent was not for the timid (be prepared to get muddy) but definitely fun if you have a bit of experience in the bush.

The local food and craft beer are exemplary

Cosy winter dining at Vine Eatery & Bar

Taupō has a sophisticated range of eating establishments, craft beers and artisan foods.

One of our favourite discoveries was The Storehouse, a warehouse style café adorned with vintage bikes, indoor plants and general Scandi vibes tucked away on a side street. The Kokako coffee was good every time we visited, the smashed avo, deep fried chickpeas and haloumi made for the breakfast of champions, and the chocolate caramel slice literally has to be the best in the world.

We found so many options for eating out in the evenings that after four days we still felt like we’d missed out on some of the best. Vine Eatery & Bar had a warm, buzzing atmosphere, cosy fire with big leather armchairs to sink into and the most astonishing list of wine, beer, whisky and cocktails. Food comes in the form of tapas or a la carte dishes, and everything was delicious.

Taupō’s Saturday Market is a must-visit for the artisan food and local produce. We were lucky to get there early enough to score an empanada each and two chocolate custard donuts (they sell out quickly). You’ll also find fresh local herbs, produce and breads to stock up on if you’re selfcatering.

Craft beer is everywhere, and Taupō’s definitely on the bandwagon. We tried quite a few in different places around town including a Hairy Box from Lakeman Brewing Co, a lager from Escape Microbrewery and an IPA from Crafty Trout Brewing Co. The verdict? There’s something for every taste – just visit a local bar and try them all out.

It’s all so easy

Lake Taupo and Tongariro National Park

Our North Island winter holiday was easy to organise. There are loads of different accommodation options (many lakeside with amazing views), several ski shops and rental outlets in town if you need gear, and the shuttle to Whakapapa can be booked online or with a quick phone call.

We loved that everything is within walking distance of most accommodation, and for a reasonable price you can stay right on the lakefront. There’s a walkway that follows the lakeshore right into town, and you’ll wake up with a view out to the mountains.

This was a winter holiday of different proportions for us. While we love being on the mountain and will always ski as much as we can, this time we got to try a whole lot of new things. We skied at what felt like a completely different ski area, we had time together doing things we love and discovering new passions, and we relaxed in a way we haven’t in a long time. Needless to say we’ll be back this year, with all our friends in tow.

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