Lake Taupo: The hidden golf destination of New Zealand's North Island

TAUPO, New Zealand -- This touristy region hidden in the heart of New Zealand's North Island offers something not even the great Lodge at Kauri Cliffs and the Farm at Cape Kidnappers can deliver.

Taupo, near the shores of Lake Taupo, the country's largest lake, remains the only golf destination in New Zealand featuring two courses within close proximity honored among Golf Digest's "100 Best Courses Outside the United States." Wairakei International Golf Course landed at no. 54 on the magazine's inaugural list in 2005 before dropping off. The Kinloch Club made its first appearance at no. 76 in 2012. Coupled with the exclusive Huka Lodge -- widely regarded as the country's premier lodge -- these two courses just 20 minutes apart team up to create a world-class golf getaway.

"Within close proximity, we've got two courses that are incredibly different," said Louis de Bievre, general manager at the Huka Lodge. "That gives us flexibility that a resort with one course does not have. In a country blessed with golf, we've got two great ones."

It's just a scenic three-hour drive to the Cape Kidnappers golf course in Hawke's Bay for those who want to chase down the Tom Doak design ranked no. 13 in the world, but staying awhile comes highly recommended.

Where to play?

Wairakei has been around since 1970, but the opening of The Kinloch Club in 2007 became the catalyst for drawing international golfers.

It took years for Jack Nicklaus to finish his inland links, a scenic layout framed by a magnificent amphitheater of hills and rolling land. Nicklaus designed, arguably, the toughest track in New Zealand from the 6,734-meter tips (roughly 7,364 yards).

Thick fescue lines the fairways. There are a handful of blind shots to aiming posts that will befuddle first-timers. The shaggy bunkers look captivating, although their jagged edges judge mistakes cruelly. The back nine serves up the always-fun combination of three par 3s and three par 5s.

"Every time you play, you get a different round of golf," said Tom Long, director of golf at The Kinloch Club. "The only flat spots are on the tee box. It keeps you interested. If you go to sleep, your score will suffer. The front nine is more interesting, more tricked up about where to hit it."

Those who want a more relaxing round might be better off at Wairakei, a quirky classic built by English architect John Harris, five-time British Open champion Peter Thomson and his associate, Michael Wolveridge.

The 6,444-meter course (roughly 7,047 yards) sprawls out across 450 acres within the Wairakei Geothermal Park. In 2011, Wairakei officially became a protected pest-free wildlife sanctuary when the owner fenced in the entire layout and planted more than 25,000 native trees and 5,000 exotic species, both for beautification and as a food source to attract native birds.

The forest of pines and evergreens along the perimeter adds to its peaceful solitude. Golfers will appreciate the hills, streams, ponds and unique bunker faces lined with wood (almost like Pete Dye's railroad ties). It's not as well kept as Kinloch, which is probably why the course fell off of Golf Digest's radar, but the personality of the routing is still very much alive and well.

"It is a tactical course," said Mark Webb, a golfer visiting from Hamilton.

Where to stay?

With just 25 rooms in total, including the exclusive Owner's Cottage and its companion Alan Pye Cottage, the Huka Lodge consistently delivers exceptional hospitality set within 17 acres of manicured grounds.

Nicklaus is one of many celebrities who favor the privacy of the lodge, a former fishing lodge along the raging Waikato River and just a 10-minute walk from the famed Huka Falls. Guests are greeted by name as soon as they pull into the drive.

All the secluded junior suites open up to the bank of the rushing river. Dinner and breakfast are included in the stay. Dinner guests gather early for complimentary wine and exquisite appetizers (called entrees in New Zealand). They may pick where to dine. How about the secluded patio next to a fireplace? Or the front terrace overlooking the river? The trophy room upstairs? The wine cellar? After seating you, the staff will serve one extravagant course after another. Men are required to wear jackets, so don't forget to pack one.

The four-star Wairakei Resort, a mile down the road from the course, caters to more budget-conscious travelers. There's a fine restaurant for dinner and a breakfast buffet and the usual mix of swimming pools and tennis courts.

"This is an iconic site," said Phil Hughes, an Auckland resident visiting for a company golf outing. "It's great to see the hotel continue on. It was one of the icons in its day. The challenge is it's been around a long time. It's tough to keep up, but they've done a nice job."

Off the course

Tourists come for the water sports and beach fun, but there's so much more.

Forty-seven lakes and streams feed Lake Taupo, a crater formed by a violent volcanic blast. Fly-fishing, especially a guided tour from the Huka Lodge, will reveal these unspoiled freshwater rivers and their bounty.

Adventurers can ride in a jet boat or go skydiving. Serious adrenaline junkies might attempt bungy jumping or the hair-raising extreme swing called the Taupo Cliffhanger. A scenic hike through the "Craters of the Moon" showcases the region's geothermal activity, the boiling mud pools and hissing vents of steam.

Three towering volcanoes -- Mount Ngauruhoe, Mount Tongariro and Mount Ruapehu -- offer the legendary Tongariro Crossing, considered one of the best day walks in the world.

Jason Scott Deegan has reviewed more than 1,000 courses and golf destinations for some of the industry's biggest publications. His work has been honored by the Golf Writer's Association of America and the Michigan Press Association. Follow him on Instagram at @jasondeegangolfadvisor and Twitter at @WorldGolfer.
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Lake Taupo: The hidden golf destination of New Zealand's North Island
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