Set amongst lakes, forest, and volcanic peaks, Rotorua is the grand-daddy of New Zealand tourism.
Today, this famous geothermal region offers something for everyone. If you love the outdoors there are myriad options for hiking, mountain-biking and getting out on the water. Those wanting to learn about the culture of Aotearoa New Zealand can attend cultural performances, take advantage of the Rotorua Museum's twice-daily free 'Garden Tours', or visit a historic Māori marae or village, as Rotorua is known as the country’s Māori heart. Adrenalin junkies are able to Shweeb, Luge or Zorb to their heart’s content, meanwhile those with a geological bent can watch the planet’s energy emerge from the earth into a bubbling, steaming array of colourful sulphur pools or spurting geysers. And after a hard day’s adventuring you can sink into a relaxing hot pool. You’ll find them in and all around Rotorua, from smart lakeside spas to hot streams surrounded by native bush where soaking is free.
They used to say ‘you’ll smell Rotorua before you see it’ and, indeed, it was the quality of the area’s hot sulphurous mineral water that brought the first tourists here 100 years ago. Today you’ll smell sulphur in most parts of the town – a local park has bubbling pools next to the skateboard ramp, and the gutters steam like Manhattan on a winter’s day.
Most visitors stay for only a day or two, but often leave wishing they had allowed longer to enjoy this place of many colours.
Visitors fly into Rotorua airport, 7km east of the town centre on the lakeside, from as far away as Australia. There are twice-weekly flights from Sydney, although most arrivals are domestic, with daily services from Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown; all operated by Air New Zealand.
If you’re travelling by car or bus, Rotorua is a natural crossroads, with separate highways linking the town with Auckland and Hamilton, Tauranga, Taupō and Whakatāne/East Coast. There are no passenger train services to Rotorua.
Rotorua straddles the lake of the same name. City and district have a combined population around 73,000.
The town wraps itself around the lake; you are never far from its shore. Fenton Street is the main north-south thoroughfare, starting at Te Puia and running all the way to the lakefront. You’ll find most of the town’s motels and hotels on or within a couple of blocks from this street – it’s also home to the i-SITE information centre. To the west of Fenton Street, the town centre is a geometric grid, containing shops, eateries and backpacker hostels. To the east of Fenton Street are the Government Gardens, Polynesian Spa, and the lakefront.
There are more than 50 lakes in the Rotorua region providing fantastic opportunities for swimming, boating and fishing. Lake Rotorua is the largest of these. The Lakeland Queen, a beautifully restored paddle-steamer, offers lunch and dinner cruises in elegant surroundings. The boat to Mokoia Island combines a cruise with the chance to experience a natural and cultural tour of a pest-free nature reserve. Those wanting a more thrilling nautical experience should check out Kawarau Jet for fast and furious jet boat rides and parasailing.
Venturing east of the tourist boat wharves, a lakefront walk makes its way along the shoreline through low bush and parkland, then onto a boardwalk past sulphur terraces and bubbling pools before finishing alongside Polynesian Spa. This enjoyable walk will take about 20 minutes one way.
The Blue and Green Lakes and Lake Tarawera, both a few minutes’ drive from the city, are not to be missed. As the road snakes through farmland and native bush, you’ll come across one, then another of these crystal-clear lakes, sitting like gleaming jewels in the forest. The Blue Lake (Tikitapu) is popular for water sports and swimming and the campground here is a good option for those wanting natural surroundings close to town. Further along the road, the Green Lake (Rotokakahi) is sacred to local Māori and no swimming or water access is allowed. Finally, you will reach the second-largest lake in the district, Lake Tarawera, named for the mountain of the same name that rises from its southern shores. Mount Tarawera last erupted in 1886, destroying the famed Pink and White Terraces, at the time considered one of the great natural wonders of the world. At the Buried Village, on Tarawera Road, visitors can see an excavated Māori and European settlement that was also destroyed in the eruption.
Mountain Biking, Redwoods
On the way to Lake Tarawera you’ll pass the Redwoods Forest. This area of natural beauty is within walking distance of town, but once you step under the towering Californian Redwood trees you’ll feel a world away from civilisation. There are numerous well-signposted and easy walking tracks here, and the southern section of the forest is designated for mountain biking; you can rent bikes at the gate off SH5, 5km along the road to Taupō.
Thirty kilometres south-east of Rotorua, the stunning Whirinaki Forest is a huge, untouched swathe of native trees. Walks here range from easy day hikes to multi-day treks with Department of Conservation (DOC) huts and campgrounds for overnighting along the way.
Rotorua Canopy Tours
Rotorua Canopy Tours offer a unique opportunity to see New Zealand native forest from a bird’s eye perspective. Guided tours depart from their headquarters at 147 Fairy Springs Road and after a short drive you’ll be zip-lining through the forest canopy. Standing alone at the top of an ancient rimu tree 22m above the forest floor is a thrilling highlight of the tour. Their new Ultimate Canopy Tour experience takes things to the next level, with a cliff walk, abseil descent, and free photos to keep as reminders of your bravery! This entertaining and educational adventure was the supreme winner of the 2016 New Zealand Tourism awards.
Māori had long appreciated the healing properties of Rotorua’s waters and European settlers soon discovered this for themselves. In the 1870s a Catholic priest, Father Mahoney, bathed regularly in the thermal spring water of hand dug-pools where Polynesian Spa is now located and reported great relief from his arthritis. Polynesian Spa has become a Rotorua icon on the lakefront, with its large family pool and a total of 28 different hot mineral pools ready to soak in. The slightly acidic Priest Spring relieves tired muscles, aches and pains, while the alkaline waters of the Rachel Spring nourish skin. From spa therapies to geothermal mud body wraps, aromatherapy massage, relaxation massage and facials, locals and travellers love visiting for relaxation at its finest - they’re open every day of the year.
Polynesian Spa, Retreat Day Spa
Next door, the Blue Baths is an art-deco beauty. At Hell’s Gate you can bath in hot mud, while at Wai Ora Resort, two-time winners of the World Luxury Spa Award, experience their signature massage therapy based on ‘Miri Miri’; the traditional Māori massage technique.
Also at the top of the Skyline gondola is the Luge, a heart-pumping downhill ride on a choice of tracks ranging from scenic to extreme. Velocity Valley, next door to the Agrodome, offers a bungy and swing, jet-sprint ride and a free-fall experience. It’s also home to the Shweeb, another kiwi invention that allows you to race against your mates along a 500m metal track in a pedal-operated pod.
Rotorua offers some of New Zealand’s best white-water rafting, with the famous Kaituna river understandably popular due to its massive grade 5, 7m waterfall – the highest commercially rafted river in the world. There are a number of white-water rafting operators including Kaitaiki Adventures and Raftabout Rotorua who run regular guided trips down the Kaituna, Rangitaiki, and Wairoa rivers. Adventures vary between Grade 3 and Grade 5, so you can choose the level of intensity you’re up for.
Rotorua was the first official zorbing site in the world. Imagine rolling down a hill in a huge plastic globe, either tumbling over and over in a dry Zorb, or sloshing and sliding around in one filled with water … guaranteed to be a ball of laughs! Rotorua’s go-to for zorbing is OGO.co.nz.
FOOD AND DRINK
The Māori people have always made good use of indigenous herbs and spices in their cooking – such as using kawakawa leaves for tea, horopito (often referred to as the New Zealand pepper tree) to add some spiciness to meals, and dried korengo seaweed for seasoning. Over time, their rich knowledge of New Zealand’s bounty of plant-life has been shared, and is incorporated into exquisite meals prepared by skilled chefs at restaurants such as Mokoia at the Wai Ora Resort. This gives a cultural aspect to their modern cuisine, making fine-dining a unique experience for guests.
There are plenty of funky cafes in Rotorua that offer delicious meals for reasonable prices. Capers Epicurean on Eruera Street is a very popular with locals and tourists alike for breakfast, lunch, and dinner – the perfect spot to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee and a tasty meal to go with it, or quickly grab something yummy from their well-stocked deli. Ciabatta is a well-kept secret in Fenton Park, famous for their ‘Paleoccino’ (a coconut-based cappuccino) and pastries. For varied dining options, head to the lake end of Tūtānekai Street, known to the locals as ‘Eat Street’. In this and neighbouring blocks you’ll find restaurants offering every cuisine imaginable. Newly opened SOBAR is proving an Eat Street hit with live entertainment, gourmet street-style food and a great selection of craft beers. A few blocks up Tūtānekai Street, the Thursday-night street market (5-9pm) allows visitors to try local delicacies like mussel fritters, with tapas-style meals served from food trucks and a band pumping out old favourites. If you’re intrigued to try a traditional Māori cuisine experience, you have to visit Whakarewarewa, The Living Māori Village for their famous hangi pie with its distinctive crispy, hearty flavour. Right opposite the night market, the Pig and Whistle Historic Pub provides a family-friendly atmosphere all week long, with great meals, (look out for the signature ‘curly fries’), a wide selection of craft beers and lively cover bands playing Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Skyline Stratosfare Restaurant offers an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch and dinner at the top of the gondola, whilst the recently refurbished Lakeland Queen paddle steamer is perfect for a romantic meal out on the water.
Bars come alive on Friday and Saturday nights, when locals and travellers head out to party hard. Watch the rugby with locals at Hennessey’s Irish Pub, or get down on the dance floor at Lava Bar, right next to Base Backpackers.