Image: Geyser Flat, Whakarewarewa, Rotorua
The bubbling city of Rotorua is a must-see (as well as a must-smell) for anyone travelling around New Zealand. I’ve been there a few times and I’m still keen to go back for more! So here, from my experience, is a list of the top 10 things you can do in Rotorua:
Wander through Kuirau Park
There are countless places in Rotorua in which you can observe hot pools, mud pools, steam vents, yellow rocks and geysers, but Kuirau Park is something special. My family makes an effort to visit it every time we go to Rotorua. Not only does it have a fascinating array of wonderfully smelly geothermal features, including a steaming lake with a boardwalk over the water, it has a play area, a paddling pool, beautiful gardens, sculptures and – get this – naturally heated foot spa pools. Surely you must have to pay to enter such a fantastic place? Nope. It’s FREE. Why do you think we go there every time?
Race down Mt Ngongotaha in a luge
The Rotorua Luge is a lot of fun – one of the most exciting things I’ve done in my life, in fact. You get to the top of Mt Ngongontaha by means of a gondola ride, which is mildly exciting in itself, offering great views of Lake Rotorua. At the top is a restaurant, a winery, a 4D motion theatre, a giant swing ride, (which is the second scariest thrill ride I’ve ever been on,) and the start of the three luge tracks. A luge is sort of a cross between a go-kart and a toboggan that, to me, looks like a big jandal. There’s a scenic track, an intermediate track and an advanced track – how fast do you dare go?
Spend an afternoon at the Blue Baths
The Blue Baths is a gorgeous art deco bathhouse from the early 1930s. The grand building has a Mediterranean feel to it – no wonder it’s a popular wedding venue.
There’s a posh tearoom upstairs and period furniture in the foyer, and there’s always smooth jazz music playing in the background.
The Blue Baths has a single large swimming pool with a more intimate hot pool on either side of it, plus a fountain at it’s head. It’s geothermally heated, of course, but it’s not shaded, which means that on a cloudless day it can get uncomfortably hot.
You will definitely need sun lotion.
I still can’t say it properly, but Whakarewarewa is a Maori village with people living it, right on top of a myriad of geothermal features. Its full name is Te Whakarewarewatanga O Te Ope Taua A Wahiao – “the uprising of the warriors of Wahiao” – and it’s been inhabited by the same tribe for hundreds of years. If you want a taste of pre-European, native New Zealand culture, this is the place to find it, as well as some very impressive geysers. Also, I had the nicest corn on the cob of my life there, cooked in a mineral hot pool.
Become enthralled at the Rotorua Museum
The Rotorua Museum is housed in a picturesque building that used to be a bathhouse – the creepy kind of bathhouse that was also a sanatorium that immersed patients in water and electrocuted them. The building is Edwardian, but built in an Elizabethan style, and has an interesting history of its own. The museum’s main attraction, however, is the exciting yet haunting Tarawera Exhibition, which is about the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera, one of the worst natural disasters of New Zealand’s relatively short human history. If you want to get a feel for New Zealand’s past and its explosive geology, the Rotorua Museum is unmissable.
Walk around the Government Gardens
The Rotorua Museum – and the Blue Baths for that matter – are in the Government Gardens, which are on the edge of Lake Rotorua. If museums aren’t your thing, though, or if you’re on a tight budget, you should still visit this area, as it’s a pleasure to see – and it’s FREE. When the sun is shining and the flowers are in bloom, the gardens look quite British, but there are also palm trees, Maori statues and bubbling hot pools to remind you what a wonderfully exotic place New Zealand is. Like Kuirau Park, my family always gravitates towards the Government Gardens whenever we’re in Rotorua.
Stroll along the shore of Lake Rotorua
Here’s another thing you can do for free in Rotorua: follow the path around the edge of Lake Rotorua. It’s pretty like all lakes, of course, but Lake Rotorua is different. The water is a strange, powdery blue – a sort of creamy turquoise – due to all the yellow sulphur in it and, in places, it’s gently steaming.
Along the path, you’ll come across acid-burnt plants and little hot pools and mud pools. You’ll also come across plenty of seagulls, because apparently seagulls aren’t put off by boiling, acidic water as long as there are a few tourists around with sandwiches.
Take a tour of the Buried Village
Like the Rotorua Museum, the Buried Village teaches you about the Tarawera Eruption, but in a more immersive – and more expensive – way. The village of Te Wairoa was buried by the 1886 eruption to be excavated and recreated in the twentieth century. Its burial preserved many artefacts of everyday life in the village, meaning you can really see how the people lived back then – even the tour guides wear period costumes. On top of its valuable history, the site has a tearoom and a pretty waterfall.
Explore the Waimangu Volcanic Valley
If you want to be blown away by the sheer beauty of nature and its geothermal wonders, the Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the place for you. There are guided tours, but I prefer walking around on my own and, besides, it’s much cheaper. There are easy walks as well as proper hikes and, if you feel like relaxing while sightseeing and have a lot of money to spare, you can take a cruise on Lake Rotomahana. Despite the cost, the Waimangu Volcanic Valley is worth seeing. I cannot describe how stunning it is.
Relax at the Polynesian Spa
Close to the Blue Baths, the Polynesian Spa is a more popular – and, therefore, more crowded – hot spring bathing option. While it is more expensive than the Blue Baths and doesn’t have the art deco charm, it does have some sweet views over Lake Rotorua, private pools and a full spa therapy service: massages, body scrubs, facials, local thermal mud – the lot. Spending time at the Polynesian Spa is the ultimate indulgent experience, but don’t indulge too much and forget to enjoy the history, the culture and the incredible sights Rotorua has to offer.
List complied by Abigail Simpson