Wear comfy shoes and be prepared to hit the ground running to make the most of your time.
I arrived on a warm, sunny Thursday night, just as the weekly Rotorua Night Market was kicking off. Good timing – it’s also just a 5 minute walk to Pullman Rotorua, my accommodation for the night.
Pullman is a global brand but everything about Pullman Rotorua, which only opened in January 2020, feels like New Zealand; from the first ‘Kia Ora’ greeting, the fabulous Maori artwork throughout the hotel – even the carpet was inspired by the local bubbling mud pools -and I loved the walk in shower room.
First stop, a 5 minute walk around the corner to the Terrace Kitchen & Tonic Bar, beside the lake, for coffee. In addition to being an all round great cafe, it’s very child friendly with balance bikes and trikes, a kid size blackboard and comfy outdoor furniture for adults to relax in while the kids wear themselves out. Perfect!
Te Puia is an introduction to Aotearoa New Zealand culture and history. A guided tour is included in your entry fee. Do the tour, you’ll learn stuff you didn’t know. You’ll meet the students learning traditional Maori carving and weaving, see bubbling mud, boiling water, spouting geysers and feathered kiwi birds then at the end of the tour, eat steamed pudding, cooked outside on the hot rocks. Delicious!
Our guide, Jimah, is the 6th generation of his family to guide tourists and share their stories in Aotearoa. His ancestors guided tourists at New Zealand’s original tourist attraction, the pink and white terraces which were decimated by the eruption of Mt Tarawera in 1886! Growing up in New Zealand we made poi’s at school – tightly scrunched up newspaper balls covered in bright cellophane attached to a piece of string then flung round in circles. Jimah shared the history of the poi – originally a rock on a string used by Maori men and women to strengthen their wrists before they went to battle, this gave them more flexibility with their weapons! When the musket was introduced the poi became redundant and was reinvented as a performance art, the swinging of the poi represents the flight patterns of birds! So many fascinating stories shared.
I like to dangle off swingbridges and fly through the air attached to a cable high above the ground. Ziplining is a fun adventure for all ages (as long as you’re not scared of heights). Canopy Tours combine their zipline tours with conservation and have built two routes in an original forest, amongst some very old native trees.
When they started, in 2012, possums, stoats and other introduced pests had made themselves comfortable feasting in the forest. Canopy have made it their mission to eradicate the pests and let the forest regenerate. It’s a work in progress but they’re doing a great job and it’s feels good to support a local business doing their bit to conserve New Zealand. Another highlight was hand feeding a tomtit, a native New Zealand robin, that has returned to the forest as it regenerates.
Canopy Tours are one of only two tour companies in New Zealand with permission to hand feed native birds. With the longest zipline at 220 metres and the highest at 45 metres, allow minimum three hours for this adventure.
A pedestrian precinct lined with cafes and restaurants, and a geothermally heated pavement, Eat Streat is in the centre of town but also the centre of Rotorua’s social scene, perfect spot to end the day. There’s something for everyone here but the warm roasted cauli & kumara (sweet potato) with curried coconut yoghurt, pickled mango and spiced turmeric roasted cashews from Atticus Finch hit the spot!
Night two was at The Regent of Rotorua, a chic boutique Hotel, 5 minutes from Eat Streat. Decor is contemporary, black and white, very smart! Note to self to make time for a cocktail by the pool on my next visit!
Another sunny day in Rotorua, a hearty breakfast, pick up coffee and morning tea (snickers slice 10/10) from local café, Scope, and off to Waimangu Thermal Valley.
Rotorua’s the heart of geothermal activity in New Zealand, steam rising from the ground is the norm. The landscape that is Waimangu Thermal Valley was created when Mt Tarawera blew it’s top in 1886, smothering the famous pink and white terraces and creating this valley. It’s a one way walk, downhill, through native bush (with birds song as entertainment) past bubbling mud and hot water pools.
The Inferno Crater is mesmerising, amazing blue blue water that rise and falls, heats and cools on a regular cycle as it’s linked by a unique hydrothermal system with the nearby Frying Pan. At the end of the trail – it’s a 4km walk but there are regular shuttles if you get tired – there’s a quaint little cruise boat ready for a journey around Lake Rotomahana with it’s steaming cliffs. Download the Waimangu Thermal Valley app – the augmented reality technology recreates the pink and white terraces which disappeared in the eruption.
Except for the pathways and fences, nothing’s changed since 1886 but remember this is an active geothermal area so follow the signs and don’t leave the trail!
Since my visit, Paddleboard Rotorua have commenced operations on SUPs and kayaks for up close viewing of the steaming cliffs.
I’m happiest on a bike, so very excited about my next stop at Whakarewarewa (pronounced Fock-a-ree-wa-ree-wa) Forest. This is 5600 hectares of native bush and Californian redwoods with trails for mountain bikers, hikers and horse riders – separate trails for all! I’d not ridden an electric mountain bike so trusted my friendly local guide to show me her favourite Grade 1 trails– sooo much fun, especially those uphills. Who else is hooked on the e bike revolution? If you’re travelling without a bike, you can hire one at the MTBRotorua site, adjacent to the Forest – they do tours too. And yes, that’s me on the bike!
On a previous visit to Rotorua my teenage son and I LOVED the Redwoods Treewalk which is also part of the Whakarewarewa Forest) – 28 suspension bridges between 27 seventy five metre high redwood trees, 20 metres above the forest floor. We did it in the daytime and loved it so much we went back in the dark.
After hiking and biking a quick recharge required! Tucked into the edge of the Whakarewarewa Forest, with a ‘secret MTB entrance’, a shinny dip at Secret Spot Hot Tubs with a local cider was the answer. There’s more action to be had but next time I’m staying for the afternoon or evening – the Kiwi made cedar hot tubs filled with the purest natural hot spring water take up to 6 people, bookable in blocks of 45 minutes. #nzmustdo
Okere Falls Store is a great story of an old petrol station reinvented to become New Zealand’s most eco friendly general store – with a reputation for great burgers. Fortunately our evening kayaking trip departs just around the corner we popped in for a burger. My photography doesn’t do the Kim Jong Supreme Burger justice but it was the perfect energy food for a 10km paddle on Lake Rotoiti….beer brined Korean chicken thigh, miso maple bacon, lime + coriander slaw, sesame sriracha aioli, kimchi, crispy shallots & roasted peanuts on a brioche bun with roasted potatoes.
I love a good paddle, on flat water, and as the only way to get to Lake Rotoiti Hot Pools is by air or water, paddling seemed like a good idea. We left early evening, paddled out across the lake, arriving at the Hot pools just before sunset. A welcome soak (and warm up as the wind got up half way across) then back in the kayaks and across the lake in the dusk/dark. Waimarino Kayak tours suggest you’ll be paddling guided by the moon and the stars – it was a cloudy windy night so we followed our trusty guide, Ollie’s light on the back of his kayak.
Just when I was thinking I’m beginning to get tired we float into a glow-worm cave, in the dark. There is no way you’d find this without a local guide, and when you glide silently into the cave it’s amazing, lit up by hundreds of glow worms lining the cave walls and ceiling. Glow worms aren’t the most romantic insects – New Zealand glow-worms are the larvae (maggots) of a species of fly called a fungus gnat – but they make a great show! Back at the car by 10.30pm, a big day!
The end of a big day and I’m at Aura Accommodation for my last night. Check in is ‘contactless’, they’d sent a text earlier in the day with instructions for accessing my room. It’s the attention to detail that makes Aura aura-mazing, like their Aura-some Activities blackboard with local recommendations, the milk in a bottle (no tetra packs here), their commitment to recycling, composting and sustainability is everywhere, geothermally heated swimming pool and inroom heating, mineral pools, free scooters and bikes for guests and a geothermal steam box for cooking (which I didn’t get to use but have noted for next time). Let’s call it 5 star budget accommodation.
I packed a lot into 48 hours, but there’s so much more to do….like rolling down hills inside giant plastic bubbles (zorbing), mud wraps at the Polynesian Spa, wine tasting at the top of the Skyline luge, jet boating out to Mokoia Island, paddle to the steaming cliffs of Lake Rotomahana, bike riding the ‘Thermal by Bike’ trail, visiting Whakarewarewara – a living Maori village …. 48 hours is not long enough!
The three accommodations I stayed at cater for all types of travellers on varying budgets, singles, groups, couples and families.
Rotorua is a great place to use as a base to explore this region, it’s an hour from the Bay of Plenty beaches of Papamoa and Mount Maunganui, an hour from Hobbiton, an hour from Huka Falls jet boating and an hour from the numerous activities available around Taupo.
If you’ve two weeks, or longer, for a North Island road trip, Rotorua is mid way between Auckland and Napier on the “Thermal Explorer” route.