Like many destinations in New Zealand, Rotorua is the complete holiday package and comes with an almost bewildering array of options for things to see and do.
Accessible by car in under three-hours from Auckland (or less than an hour by air), this geo-thermally-active holiday hotspot offers a plethora of naturally-heated pools in which to while away your visit, a fascinating Māori heritage and culture to uncover, exquisite natural beauty to enjoy, and extreme sports and activities that will take your breath away. Here are eight amazing experiences that every first-time visitor to Rotorua should have.
1. Explore a geo-thermal wonder world at Te Puia
With its bubbling mud pools, gushing geysers and the distinctive scent of sulphur drifting gently on the breeze, Te Puia has an almost ‘other worldly’ feel (particularly on grey days, so don’t put off your visit here, whatever the weather decides to do). The bizarre landscape, which is part of the Whakarewarewa geothermal region, is only one of the attractions here. There’s also an engaging and informative Māori cultural component, and Te Puia is home to the National Carving School and National Weaving School. Tours are offered throughout the day and if you’re lucky, you’ll see the renowned Pohutu Geyser shoot steam some 20 or 30 metres into the air.
2. Enjoy a soak in a thermal spring
While the sulphuric aroma may not be to everyone’s liking, one of the plus sides of all that energy under the Rotorua landscape is the hot springs that are dotted across the region, and they’re a chance for world-weary visitors to soak away their cares. Bathing in these mineral-rich thermal pools has long been reputed to have therapeutic effects (and let’s face it, who doesn’t feel better after a nice warm bath). The award-winning Polynesian Spa is located right on the shore of Lake Rotorua and features 28 bathing pools across four separate zones (including an adults-only retreat). If the waters alone aren’t enough to rejuvenate you, there are various spa treatments on offer.
3. Visit Mitai Māori Village
Next to its geothermal goings-on, Rotorua is also renowned as an important centre for Māori culture. With a 1,000-year jump on European settlement, Māori heritage in New Zealand is extensive and complex, and there are several attractions around Rotorua that will give you some of the backstory. The Mitai Māori Village offers an evening experience that incorporates music, dance, a traditional hangi feast, and a good dash of humour to keep things moving along.
4. Reach for the sky with Skyline Rotorua
If you’re travelling with the family and struggling to keep all age groups entertained, you’ll love Skyline Rotorua. Hitch a ride in a gondola up the side of Mount Ngongotaha and enjoy stunning views of Lake Rotorua, the city and surrounding region. You can then turn your attention to the various activities on offer, including the fabulous Luge (which has three separate courses), the Zoom Zipline, and the Skyswing. There are food options aplenty, and the Volcanic Hills Winery tasting room offers adults sanctuary from the fast-paced craziness outside.
5. See a kiwi at Rainbow Springs Kiwi Encounter
Located adjacent to Skyline Rotorua’s gondola terminal, Rainbow Springs Nature Park will introduce you to the elusive, exceptionally shy and surprisingly large kiwi (they can grow to around 50cm tall depending on the species). The park is home to the National Kiwi Hatchery, which is charged with the task of future-proofing the flightless and much-loved national bird. The centre hatches eggs taken from the wild, then reintroduces the youngsters back into the wild once they’re large enough to take on predators, like the stoat. The park offers a 40-minute guided wildlife tour, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the hatchery for an additional fee.
6. Walk with giants in the Whakarewarewa Forest
Located just south of Rotorua, a meander through the Whakarewarewa Forest of towering California Redwoods (actually a plantation) will have you feeling a million miles from anywhere. There are walks of various lengths and durations depending on your fitness level. Start at the Redwoods i-Site and Visitor Information Centre and work out your itinerary from there. If you want to get a bird’s eye view of the forest, you can opt to take on the Redwoods Treewalk – a walkway composed of suspension bridges and decks that encircle the 100+ year old trees (not dissimilar to the Ewok village in Star Wars’ Return of the Jedi!). The Redwood Nightlight Walk sees the forest illuminated by large colourful lanterns.
7. Put the pedal to the metal on Lake Rotorua
There are few tourist activities as thrilling as jetboating. This proud New Zealand invention has been exported to the world, but it remains a quintessential NZ experience and is offered at various locations across the North and South Islands. Jetboating on the sublime waters of Lake Rotorua with Katoa Jet ensures plenty of room for high speed twists and 360 degree turns. You can take up the option of combining your ride with a stop at picturesque Mokoia Island in the centre of the lake. The island is a significant Māori site, and as it’s free of predators, is also home to a thriving colony of kiwis.
8. Enjoy tasty street eats at the Rotorua Night Market
If you are looking for the chance to mix and mingle with the locals during your stay in Rotorua, time your visit for a Thursday and head along to the Rotorua Night Market – which is held along Tutanekai Street (between Haupapa and Hinemoa Streets). Expect lashings of tasty local specialties and ethnic-style eats, along with a smattering of arts, crafts, handmade jewellery and the like. The vibe is friendly and welcoming.
If you’re looking looking for a place to stay, the nearest Choice Hotel is an hour drive from Rotorua in Tauranga. Located at the crossroads of two major highways, Comfort Inn Academy is only five minutes from the centre of Tauranga and the atmospheric restaurants, bars and cafes of the harbour. Discover top things to do in Tauranga or road trip ideas from Auckland to Tauranga.
About the writer
Adam Ford is editor of The Big Bus tour and travel guide and a travel TV presenter, writer, blogger and photographer. He has previously had the opportunity to travel the world himself as host of the TV series Tour the World on Network Ten.