Rotorua – the jewelry box where Mother Nature keeps her brightest gems and most potent perfumes. Comprised of a series of joined-up smaller lakes, the entire region of Rotorua is the result of major volcanic activity, which is still progressing to this very day. Despite the pervasive eggy odour of hydrogen sulphide that the town is constantly perfumed by, Rotorua has been acclaimed as the tourism capital of New Zealand's North Island serving as a magnet for up to three million travellers annually, who come to discover volcanic phenomena and learn about New Zealand’s Maori culture. There are endless opportunities for experiences to be had and memories to be made in and around the geothermal city that will remain with you long after you leave the region and have you smiling at the smell of rotton eggs forever after. What follows is five such experiences that you need to have in Rotorua.
1. Take a stroll through the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley
Who knew that James Cameron's Pandora was situated just a 20 minute drive from the Rotorua city centre!? The Waimangu Volcanic Rift valley stands bright and tall as the world's youngest geothermal system, and the only geothermal system in the world created within written history; with it's creation stemming entirely from the 1886 eruption of the volcanic Mt Terawera. Although near impossible not to stumble across a geothermal system in the Rotorua region of New Zealand, Waimangu is without doubt my favourite - let's just say I loved it so much I went back for seconds! Although shorter walks are offered, I recommend booking yourself in for the full 4km (one-way) walk through the volcanic valley as well as the 45 minute boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana - a lake with it's own separate geothermal system. Allow yourself 3+ hours for the walk + boat tour.
- Opening Hours: 08:30 - 17:00
- Fee: $79.50NZD ($37 for access to the walking track and bus and $42 for the boat)
2. Take a trip to Hobbiton
Since the release of the first Lord of the Rings film back in 2001, there’s no denying that the New Zealand economy has received a rather hefty boost. In 2004, six percent of visitors to New Zealand (~120,000-150,000 people) cited the Lord of the Rings as the main reason for visiting New Zealand. A further one percent of visitors went as far as to declare the Lord of the Rings as their only reason for visiting the land of the long white cloud. This one percent alone equated to approximately NZ$32.8 million in spending. One of, in my opinion, the best Lord of the Rings sites is located a short 1-hour drive from Rotorua – the Hobbiton movie set. The first time I visited this site was back in 2014 whilst on a solo trip to Auckland and spent the whole day skipping around in joy, this time however the experience was made even more joyous as I was onboard a Topdeck tour and thus had my Topdeck family with me to geek out with. Daily tours are offered of the picturesque ten-acre site set upon a still operating 1250-acre sheep farm in the Matamata region of New Zealand. Your guide will not only escort you through the set, recounting fascinating details of how Hobbiton was created – and the crazy antics of Peter Jackson, but will also shout you a free drink at every hobbits favourite drinking spot – the Green Dragon Inn. Click here to a more in depth review of Hobbiton from my first visit back in 2014.
3. Explore the thermal wonderland of Wai-O-Tapu
Welcome to the sacred waters of Rotorua, Wai-O-Tapu, where lakes glow bright green, pools resemble the eyes of dragons and geysers explode up to 20m in height. And just to clarify, no, i'm not talking about the movie set from a fantasy dreamland. This is an actual place on planet Earth. But I mean, I can see why you might have been confused. The most famous geothermal feature of the park is the spectacular Champagne Pool (pictured above). The brilliant orange ring feature is the result of bubbling CO2 rising from the deep green of the spring, while heavy metal sulphides precipitate at the edges to form the ring. Alternatively, if it's spurting boiling hot water you're after, be sure to arrive to the park early to catch the eruption of Lady Knox geyser which occurs at ~10:15am daily. These timely eruptions get a hand from chemistry. Back in 1901, Wai-O-Tapu served as the site for the first open prison in New Zealand. Unaware of the geyser, a gang of prisoners poured soap into it's spout while out washing their clothes, unwittingly causing the geyser to erupt, shooting hot water 20 metres high into the air. Now all it takes is a dash of detergents every morning to get Lady Knox fired up.
If you're looking for a breath of un-sulphuric fresh air then head no further than the 110-year old Whakarewarewa Forest, just a five minute drive from the centre of Rotorua. The 5600 hectare forest is famous for its magnificent stand of towering Californian coastal redwoods, which make this place one of the district's most spectacular natural assets and a supreme playgroup for nature lovers, hikers, mountain bikers and even horse riders. Walking tracks range from a half-hour wander through the Redwood Grove to a whole-day route to the Blue and Green Lake, with most walks beginning at the Redwoods i-SITE. If you're a bookworm, I recommend bringing along you're favorite book and curling up on the Redwood Grove for a long while. The newest addition to the playground is the Redwoods Treewalk also located outside the Redwoods I-Site. The TreeWalk consists of 21 suspension bridges traversing between 22 Californian coastal redwoods. Although pricey costing $25 for a 553 metre walk, walkers are provided a unique birds-eye perspective of the native undergrowth below as well as an empowering view of the Redwoods towering above from up to 12 meters above the ground. If you're carless the forest is easily accessible by public transport, all you need to do is take bus 3 from nearby the Rotorua I-Site and alight at Terawera Road (click here for google map instructions). From there the Redwoods I-Site is a short and tranquil 1km walk.
As a highly active geothermal region, another thing you are not short of in Rotorua are spas. The Polynesian Spa is New Zealand’s leading internationally acclaimed thermal spa, offering hot mineral spring baths in hand with picturesque views over Lake Rotorua. When buying your entrance ticket you are offered the choice of four different bathing areas: the Adult Pools (offering seven hot mineral pools of varying temperatures and sizes with view of Lake Rotorua), the Family Spa (offering two hot alkaline mineral pools for the adults overlooking a large freshwater chlorinated pool for the kids), the Private Pools (offering one of 13 private heated alkaline rockpools – 4 offering views over Lake Rotorua) and the Lake Spa (offering a more private and deluxe experience surrounded by native flora, the sound of two waterfalls and a grotto). Although tempted by the Lake Spa I opted for the Adult pools and was anything but let down as I sat in the lake-side spa soaking in the minerals and watching the sky change to pastel as the sun went down.
Note: I did also visit the Hells Gate geothermal spa during my stay in Rotorua but found it overpriced and small – although the mud bath did leave my skin feeling super soft and my windburn healed.