For the Love of Travel
For the Love of Travel

Mountainside Thrills in Ruapehu

No matter the season, no matter your skill level, no matter the size of your appetite for soft adventure, the wondrous Ruapehu region never ceases to amaze me at its capacity to stimulate all senses, from its lavish buffet of leisure pursuits.

After calling into old faithful, Chateau Tongariro, for morning tea and some window time communing with the plum-duff perfection of Ngauruhoe, I had a hot date with Ruapehu Adventure Rides. I was about to lose my quad bike riding virginity – and truth be told, I was a little pensive.

Karl and Maria Splitt were my effervescent hosts, who operate the quad bike tours from their equally attractive accommodation base, Mountain Heights Lodge, at National Park Village. They have lived in the area for nearly 20 years and behind the lodge, the quad bike playground comprises 230 acres of undulating farmland and native bush.

Fully kitted out by Maria with a helmet, wet weather pants and jacket, gloves and gumboots – I had visions of a mud bath, although mercifully I remained remarkably mud-free. Acquainted with my trusty Honda quad bike, Karl took me through my paces with a basic safety lesson and competence training course, before we let loose on the wider all-terrain course.

As a newbie to quad biking, I was neurotic about disgracing myself as a quad bike numpty, but I wasn’t as useless on four fat wheels as I initially feared.  Karl is an outstanding guide and there’s no denying the exhilaration of the experience – even when fording menacing-looking mud pools and mounting ridiculously steep banks. With the backdrop of Tongariro National Park providing soul-stirring scenery, I couldn’t think of a better location to surrender to the off-road adventure of a quad bike tour.

What a thrill ride – and you’ll be rewarded with a library of action shots, taken by Karl, to immortalise the experience. It’s an ideal experience for family, friends, groups and corporate events, at great-value rates. Do it!

In the heart of Tongariro National Park, taking a ride to the summit of Ruapehu from Whakapapa village, on the radiant new Sky Waka Gondola, has fast elevated itself as a signature Kiwi experience. I’ve always been in awe of the alpine engineering prowess of the Swiss – and the Sky Waka is a match for its spine-tingling prowess. Zipping you up 1.8km from the base station on New Zealand’s longest gondola ride, Whakapapa’s spectacularly formidable volcanic landscape sweeps you up, as you gaze in wonder out of the glasshouse-like cabin, soothingly appointed with heated leather seating!

Situated at 2,020m above sea level, the cherry on top is Whakapapa Ski Area’s Knoll Ridge Chalet which is New Zealand’s highest café. As you gush superlatives over the horizon-searching views, it’s just the spot to enjoy coffee from Pātaka, drinks in The Back Bar, or grab a delicious snack or lunch and marvel at the skyline from Knoll Ridge’s giant floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking The Pinnacles.

Either side of the ski season, half of Knoll Ridge is transformed into The Pinnacles Restaurant, serving up a stylishly executed and indulgent buffet lunch, which I fortuitously was able to gorge on in May, prior to the winter changeover. But nothing beats drinking in and meditating with that stupendous alpine vista.

Ready for a cool change, snow bunnies? Make tracks to majestic Mt. Ruapehu’s snow-coated skifields, which fully open for the season in the first week of July, running until to late-October. You can self-drive to Ruapehu’s ski areas or opt for a trusty shuttle to do the leg work, connecting the slopes with Ohakune and National Park.

Whakapapa Ski Area is New Zealand’s largest ski area with over 65 trails to discover, but if you’re a newbie, Happy Valley will be your happy place, which opens early June. This is New Zealand’s largest beginner ski and snow play area, where you can spend the day experiencing the best that a family winter holiday has to offer with ski and snowboard lessons, sledding, tossing snowballs and building snowmen!

At the neighbouring field, Tūroa Ski Area, even in the peak of the season, you’ll have ample room to roam, revelling in the space and freedom of its wide open bowls and chutes. Tūroa boasts the nation’s longest vertical drop at 722m, which is reached by the High Noon Express zipping you up the nation’s highest lifted point, with achingly massive views of the North Island. Rip up plenty of gullies, drops, natural hits, wide trails & world class terrain parks. You’ll be riveted by how much of the landscape resembles frozen waves. Meanwhile, Tūroa’s Alpine Meadow is tailormade for beginners. You’ll find your feet in no time.

The charismatic mountain town of Ohakune is a tailormade base for winter wonderland adventure. Just minutes from Tūroa’s slopes, when the day is done on the ski runs, après fun cranks into action at the Powder Keg, a frothy venue within the Powderhorn Chateau. It’s considered the original house of après ski fun, with a family friendly vibe. The Powderhorn Chateau is not just a sublime European alpine lodge, offering a spoil of creature comforts, but it’s a cherished social nexus in Ohakune.The Powderkeg Bar & Restaurant is feted for its sparkling service, warm and convivial atmosphere, and roaring fire in the cooler months.

Open from early morning to late evening, I gorged on delicious dishes, from the fabulous Egg in a Hole Bagels for breakfast to their gourmet pizzas and pork ribs for dinner. The Powderkeg is complemented by the equally impressive Matterhorn Grill. For over thirty years, Powderhorn Chateau’s commitment to exceptional service and splendid quality free range food has secured its stature as a perennial favourite.

The indoor heated pool with bar service on-demand, is my kind of indulgence. My suite was a homely cocoon of warm-timbered comfort, with high-end linens and fabrics, expansive bathroom and work desk.

Also in Ohakune, another family-favourite to rest your head at is Rocky Mountain Chalets. Each chalet features comfortable bedding, a warm intimate living area, fresh linens and stylish décor, SKT Tv, free wifi, plus you can treat yourself to the two hot spa pools and a sauna on-site.

Each chalet’s interior is completely unique in décor, design, and configuration – whether you’re after a couple’s retreat or a relaxing roost for the extended family. Located just past the landmark carrot, it’s just a short stroll through integrated walkways to the eateries and retail enticements of the main street.

For breakfast on the run, pop into Thorn, a fiendishly popular food container on the main street next to the i-SITE. They specialise in in fuelling your morning fix with Organic Hawthorne Coffee Beans and organic milk. Their gourmet toasted sandwiches and daily homemade baking is divine. The inventively flavourful muffins are a must-try.

Synonymous with winter in Ohakune, Johnny Nation’s famed main-street Chocolate Éclair Shop is powering up for the seasonal stampede. Typically open in tandem with the ski season, be sure to sink your teeth into one of their celebrated giant cream-filled, chocolate-topped pastries. For a dinner to remember, reserve a table at The Cypress Tree in Ohakune.

Established 14 years ago, this Ohakune mainstay is universally lauded for its hearty small-town hospitality, under the command of Leah Stuckey. Locally-sourced food is a focus, while their craft beer list is exhaustive. A roaring open fire and comfy couches is a homely touch in the winter. Offering a drool-worthy selection of small plates and large plates, for dinner, I plumped for the Southern Fried Chicken with chipotle mayo and the Spiced Lamb Roti with slaw, riata and mint chutney. Superb service and super reasonable prices seal the deal.

I tripped around the North Island in an Avis rental car. Alongside great deals, enjoy Digital Check-in to minimise physical contact with rental staff and Risk Free Bookings allowing you to change or cancel reservations, without fees, for rentals due to start before 19 December 2021.

The drama, diversity and grandeur of the Ruapehu District sets the stage for spectacular year-round outdoorsy adventure, with experiences that cater for all age ranges and abilities. Blessed by two national parks – Whanganui National Park to the west and the world-heritage wonder of Tongariro National Park on its eastern flank, make your first stop the region’s official website.