I am so excited about seeing my first New Zealand national park! When I first began research on which national park to visit, I knew Tongariro would be up there. I was really hoping to see Mt. Taranaki and even make it down to Wellington, but time has continued to be a factor and I didn't want this vacation to be all about driving, so I had to ditch those plans. At any rate, the goal today is to make the approximately three-hour drive from Rotorua to the park with a short break in Taupo.
I head out of Rotorua on Highway 5 then hook up onto Highway 1 at Waikarei. Since road trips are my favorite mode of travel, I'm looking forward to this long drive and seeing more of the North Island. It's a drive that doesn't disappoint. Two-lane roads are my absolute love, and this one is hugged by lovely green, and at times mountainous, pastureland dotted with sheep, cows and horses. What I've been amazed by is that some of the hills are steep, so steep that when I see a cow grazing at that angle, I think that I could photograph its udder just by parking at the side of the road and looking up. Not that I'd want to a picture of its udder though.
After leaving rainy Rotorua behind and about 1.5 hours into my drive, the weather clears a bit, then gets cloudy again; at one point, there's even fog on the road ahead. So cool!
Just a little past noon, I'm getting a little hungry—dried fruit and nuts aren't cutting it. Up ahead, I see a small one-story building. It's the Lava Glass Glassblowing Gallery and workshop that I'd seen somewhere while doing research. And it has a small cafe attached. A handful of cars are parked in the gravel lot. The handcrafted glass works are indeed beautiful and the salesperson extremely helpful, even explaining that they can arrange delivery to Hawaii and working out the cost. As much as I'd like to purchase something, I thank the woman and continue on to the cafe. I'm just glad a couple has entered the gallery so she can turn her attention on them while I look to fill my tummy.
There aren't many items on the chalkboard menu, but I enjoy the most delicious salmon seafood chowder with a perfect piece of toasty, buttered bread and a mocha. I don't think I've ever had chowder with such large pieces as salmon as this one had. It hits the spot on this slightly damp, chill day. After sharing where I'm headed, the sales woman explains that sunset at Lake Taupo is spectacular, but that there would at least another hour or so to Tongariro National Park after that. So as much as I'd want to stay for the sunset, I'll have to pass.
Along the road leading to Taupo are small signs indicating activities that I really wish I had time for—Huka Falls jet boating and river cruise, Wairakei Natural Thermal Valley (you can see the smoke right by the road!), Craters of the Moon Geothermal Walk, horseback rides, scenic flights and more.
My first view of the lake is via a lookout surrounded by homes. I'm sure on a sunny day it would look awesome, but today..."meh." The gray clouds are hovering and cover up the pretty blue of the lake. I turn off Highway 1 onto Napier Taupo Road and enter the busier part of town with many shops, restaurants and activity vendors. Convenient parking is available alongside each block and this area is really geared toward visitors. But no time to dilly dally. I turn left onto Lake Terrace and drive alongside the lake on my right and a line up of hotels, motels, condos, rentals on the left, offering perfect views of the sunset, I imagine. I love how you can easily cross the two-lane road from your accommodations to walk along the lakefront, either enjoying a morning cup of coffee or a leisurely after-dinner walk. It'll definitely be an overnighter on my next trip.
At one point, the road begins to hug the hillside, then turns inland, leaving Lake Taupo behind. On we go to Tongariro National Park! On both sides of the road are stands of trees as far as I can see.
Finally, from atop a small rise in the road, I spot a snow-covered mountain. My first view of Tongariro, I think. From Highway 1, I turn right onto Highway 46, then hook up with Highway 47. My accommodations for the next two nights, Discovery Lodge, is just past the junction that takes you into Whakapapa Village. Driving into the higher elevation, the air gets a lot colder and rain begins to fall from dark gray clouds overhead. Just as I pull onto the gravel driveway to the lodge, slush starts to fall on the windshield. Woohoo! Almost snow! Had to take a picture of it.
Discovery Lodge has small cabins, the suites, that face Mt. Ruapehu, rising up in the distance across the road. Although I'm not in a suite, I do have a wonderful view of my own.
After checking in and making a reservation for dinner, I settle in. I'm in one of the rooms on the bottom floor of a two-story building near the check-in area and small dining room with a picture window that faces open pastures dotted with cows. I couldn't be any happier than I am while sitting on the bed writing the first entry of my travel blog as the clouds open up letting in the warm rays of a setting sun. Pure heaven. I feel like this is where I belong.
Tomorrow, I'm off on one of the trails in the park—though not the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing. Discovery Lodge is actually a great place to stay if you wish to do the crossing since it offers a bus from the lodge to the trail head in the early hours of the morning. Information is right at the check-in desk. Click here to read my review on my stay at the Discovery Lodge. By the way, it's run by a really a friendly family with the cutest dog!
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