After an afternoon of adventure in the Waitomo Caves, I drove through the rolling green countryside to Rotorua, the 10th largest urban area in New Zealand: bubbling with fascinating, although sometimes sulphur-stinky, geothermal features. The city presents lots of opportunities to learn about and experience Maori culture. With lots of adventure activities to offer, Rotorua is also seeking to become the North Island’s answer to thrill-packed Queenstown in the South Island.
I spent three nights (two full days) in Rotorua. With the help of my hosts at the bed and breakfast I stayed at, I felt like I made the most of my time there.
Rotorua has numerous geothermal sites in the city and in the surrounding area including geysers, bubbling pools of mud and steamy thermal water. Some of these are located inside parks that charge admission fees, but you can visit some bubbling mud and thermal pools for free by having a wander through Kuirau Park, a public park near the Rotorua city centre. You can spend quite a bit of time walking through the pathways in this park. Now and then, new vents of steam and mud bubble to the surface which have to be cordoned off. These pools are actually quite dangerous and from time to time people have been killed or severely burned by attempting to get too close, so heed the warnings!
From Kuirau Park, I walked to the Maori village of Ohinemutu, which is situated by Lake Rotorua. The village is home to the Ngāti Whakaue iwi (or tribe). Around the year 1350 AD, their ancestors journeyed thousands of miles in canoes (or waka) across the Pacific from Hawaiiki, the location of which historians hotly debate. Tradition holds that they chose the area by Lake Rotorua precisely for the geothermal activity, which they used for heating, cooking and cleaning. The village has a large marae (meeting house) with intricate woodcarving inlaid with paua shells. Ohinemutu also has an Anglican Church (St. Faith) which is a fascinating blend of Maori and Christian art. The pews are carved with traditional Maori symbols and a window to the lake has a beautiful etching of Christ walking on the water.
After visiting Ohinemutu, I took a short stroll to the Rotorua Museum, housed in a former bath house from the days when Rotorua became a spa town. In the late nineteenth century, visitors flocked to the nearby silica Pink and White Terraces, which were so beautiful that they were called the Eighth Wonder of the World. Tragically, when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886, it killed at least 120 people and buried the Pink and White Terraces under a crater which then filled with water, becoming a lake. The eruption was thought to have completely destroyed the terraces, but recent research has revealed that at least part of the terraces are actually still there underneath the lake. In spite of the loss of its main tourist attraction, the region recovered mostly by selling itself as a spa town, capitalizing on the area’s thermal springs and inviting people to “take the waters.” The Rotorua Museum recounts this story and still has some of the bath structures from when the building was one of the bathhouses. There is also an exhibit dramatically recounting the Tarawera eruption with an earthquake simulation. The museum is a bit expensive at $20 so be sure to ask your accommodation if they have a discount coupon available.
I spent the evening at Te Puia, home to a Maori arts and crafts center and home to the Pohutu Geyser. I booked the Te Pō – Indigenous Evening Experience Combo through my bed and breakfast. The price is a bit high, at $150 NZD (I was able to get it for $135 NZD), but I thought it was well worth it. It included a guided tour of the Te Puia center, which includes a kiwi house, weaving and and woodworking stations. The friendly guide also showed us the geyser, which had been erupting early that day. The second part of the evening included the entertainment and dinner. We were treated to several Maori dances, including the haka. After doing the haka, they invite members of the audience to come and participate. After the show, we enjoyed feast of Maori food cooked in a hangi, underground ovens heated with geothermal energy. If you’re an American traveling in New Zealand around the Thanksgiving holiday, the meal is a perfect replacement: no turkey, but delicious lamb, kumara (sweet potato) corn on the cob, delectable desserts and much more. When dinner was finished, we returned to the Pohutu Geyser again to watch it erupt, sipping cocoa sitting on the warm rocks. Unfortunately, the geyser didn’t erupt as spectacularly as it did earlier in the visit. The Te Puia community does a very professional job and I would highly recommend it to anyone wanting to experience Maori culture.
Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland
The next morning, I drove to the Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland. In order to see the Lady Knox Geyser, you need to arrive at the park around 9:45 am. I had a few minutes to spare, so I stopped by a few bubbling mud pools right near the entrance to the park. I got my ticket and had to get back in the car to drive over to the geyser. The explosion was pretty spectacular, although not quite as spectacular as the Pohutu Geyser at Te Puia. The park assists the geyser in making it punctual by encouraging it a bit, pouring soap down into the vent to convince it to burst forth. Artificiality aside, the viewing experience is marred a bit by the throngs of camera and iPad toting tourists crowding the geyser.
The rest of the Wai-O-Tapu park was really enjoyable. It has so many different geothermal features, so many different colors, plenty of steam and bubbles. The enormous Champagne Pool (pictured below) is one of the park’s most remarkable points of interest.
I left Wai-O-Tapu and drove to the foot of Rainbow Mountain for a few hours of hiking. I first did the short Crater Lake walk, which provides views of two beautiful blue crater lakes at the base of the mountain. I then proceeded to climb the mountain. The rock on the way up changes color every so many yards, with some deep pinks and yellows. The multicolored mountain certainly lives up to its name. The climb was really steep without too many flat parts to provide some rest. It’s fairly strenuous, but it doesn’t take three hours like the park signs say. I would find that all of the parks in New Zealand overestimate the time it takes to hike somewhere. The summit of the mountain offers scenic views of the surrounding green mountains.
Waikite Valley Thermal Pools
After the hike, I was ready to relax in the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. I chose these pools because not only are they located close to Wai-O-Tapu and Rainbow Mountain, but they were less expensive than some of the other places and I had good reports from my bed and breakfast. The site has an eco-trail walkway to the steaming Te Manaroa spring which is the heating source for the pools. They have a “main splash pool” where kids play and smaller “sit and soak, passive bathing” pools for relaxing and more tranquility. They have private spas as well, which are more expensive, but I’ve been told that this is nothing that different from the passive bathing pools.
There are plenty of other activities in Rotorua that I missed, but I was happy with how I spent my two days there. I could have easily spent a couple more days there, but I had to move on and explore more of New Zealand!