The Aratiatia Rapids not far from the town of Taupo are all about power. Not just hydro-electric, with the dam above the 28m drop being the first built on the mighty Waikato River, back in 1960; but also people power. The rapids were a popular tourist attraction, and the dam killed them stone dead, to the public's vocal dismay. Happily, the power company then agreed to open the gates three times a day for half an hour or so, in order that everyone could thrill again to the surge of water through the narrow, one kilometre-long spillway. It's an impressive display as the black rocks are gradually drowned by surging, foaming clear turquoise water - and, naturally, it was a gratefully exploited location for The Hobbit movie.
There's more turquoise water at Wairakei Terraces down the road, made milky this time by a silica suspension which includes lots of other reputedly therapeutic minerals. It's certainly a civilised place, restricted to age 14 and over (mostly well over), tastefully landscaped and planted with native bush. Scalding hot water streams over stalagmited terraces into four pools of different temperatures, warm to sweatily hot, and there can be few things more relaxing than lolling on a shelf, turning into a human prune while the steam rises above the manuka and tree ferns. Retreating under the hump-backed bridge to play troll when a passing shower plinks into the pools is as lively as it gets.
Out on a cruise on the lake, on the dinky little pretend-steamer the Ernest Kemp with its moderately crabby captain, you can see the much more elegant Barbary in action, taking guests on the standard tour of the town end of this vast lake (biggest crater lake in the world, they saw evidence of the eruption that caused it in ancient Rome and Greece, back in AD180). The Barbary was involved with power of a different sort, when she was one of the Greenpeace fleet to sail to Mururoa in 1973 to protest against French nuclear testing on the atoll. Now she takes it easy on the lake, cruising to the modern Maori rock carvings a couple of bays around.
They make a useful focus for the cruises, and a turning point, but the main joy of the outing is simply being on the water, looking (in vain, today, alas) for the mountains - Tongariro, Ngauruhoe, Ruapehu - at the end of the lake, and feeling mild envy for the owners of the flash holiday homes tucked into the bush; but, really, even on a cloudy afternoon, most jealous of the carefree boys having such fun plunging off a little island into the lake's clear, drinkable water.