The 3 days I spent in and around Rotorua are among the best memories I have from New Zealand. Partly for personal reasons as I met great people there and had an amazing time with them, but also because I found this place incredible and so different from anywhere else I had been before. Have you ever seen a fluorescent green lake? Have you ever been in a street with steam coming out from the nearby gardens ? Have you ever watched a mud pound dancing? All of these things and so much more can be experienced in Rotorua. If you want to understand why I loved it so much and why it might be the highlight of your trip on the North Island, then this article is for you!
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The first thing you will notice when you’ll get to Rotorua will be the smell. A constant odour of sulphur, everywhere around the city, sometimes weaker but never completely gone. Then you might realise as well that smoke is coming out of the drains on the street; a very weird sight but there’s nothing to be worried about as it’s just one of the many manifestations of the thermal activity that made Rotorua famous. Hot springs are everywhere around and even if the sulphur smell might be sometimes inconvenient, it’s a great source of profit for the area.
There are many places in and around Rotorua where you can witness this thermal activity; you’ll have to pay for some of them but if you’re travelling on a tight budget you’ll still be able to see some extraordinary things for free. First of all, direction Kuirau Park.
Right in the middle of the city, this huge park contains many hot springs, mud pools and sulphur-coloured rocks. It’s constantly evolving, and new springs might come out of the ground at any time: watch out for your steps… Luckily fences will protect you from falling by accident in one of the existing pounds!
The most impressive place in Kuirau Park is a warm lake that you can cross on a wooden footbridge. Sometimes the steam rising up from the water is so dense that you can’t even see the other side anymore! At sunset, with the last ray of daylight, the smoke takes a foreboding red colour…
There are other free thermal activities in the Government Garden, next to Lake Rotorua, with more mud pounds and hot springs. You can also find a spa there as well as the beautiful Rotorua Museum of Art and History. It was closed when I went there, but it still made for a great picture – actually it’s supposed to be the most photographed building of New Zealand (but this is a bit controversial).
For more thermal activities in the Rotorua-Taupo area see also Te Puia, Kerosene Creek, Craters of the Moon closer to Taupo or the extraordinary Wai-o-tapu (see below for this one).
More than one third of the population of Rotorua is from Maori origins. You’ll find many places organising shows for tourists to introduce them to the Maori culture and the famous haka for example. I didn’t attend to any of these shows though, fearing a lack of authenticity (let me know in the comments what you thought if you went to one). I preferred visiting the village of Ohinemutu instead.
Ohinemutu is a suburb of Rotorua, between Kuirau Park and Lake Rotorua. It’s an authentic village where Maori still live but it’s not a touristic area so don’t expect to see people walking around in traditional costumes. But you’ll see some beautiful buildings, like the wharenui, the communal house of the village, or the lovely church.
Other really interesting features of Ohinemutu are the countless amounts of hot springs and the steam coming out of every garden, sometimes directly next to the houses. The thermal activity of the area was actually used by Maori people for… cooking! They used to put food in a basket and suspend it above the steam. This cooking method is called the hangi.
The Redwoods and the lakes
Visiting Rotorua isn’t only about thermal activities: nature is beautiful around here and walking below the giant trees of the Redwoods (Whakarewarewa forest in Maori) should definitely be on your list of things to do in the region. You can find many walking trails in this forest or try the experience of the Redwoods Treewalk if you dare.
For a relaxing moment, you can choose between up to 17 lakes in this part of New Zealand. Apart from Lake Rotorua, the most beautiful ones are on the South-East: Blue and Green Lake, Lake Okareka and Lake Tarawera.
Where to stay in Rotorua?
If you’re travelling in a self-contained campervan then you’re laughing as there’s a free parking spot for these vehicles right in the middle of the city, next to the Government Gardens. Well done Rotorua!
I stayed in a hostel called Crash Palace Backpackers and I highly recommend it. It was cheap, clean, the atmosphere was great and last but not least, it featured a little free hot tub! The water in it was actually so hot that it was hard to stay inside more than a few minutes but it was still the perfect place to relax at the end of the day and enjoy a beer or a glass of wine from the bar of the hostel, with other guests from all over the world.
Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland
Halfway between Rotorua and Taupo on State Highway 5, this park is probably the coolest visit I’ve done in New Zealand. The entrance fee is 32.50$ but I found it worth every cent! Completing the whole loop will take you between 1 and 2 hours, depending on how long you’ll spend staring at its incredible wonders: yellow, orange and fluorescent green lakes, mud pounds, smoke coming out of everywhere, hot water… Make some space on your memory card before coming as you will take a lot of pictures.
At 10.15am every day, don’t miss also the eruption of Lady Knox geyser (not directly inside the park, but included in the entry price – you need a ticket to watch it). Why exactly at that time? Because this natural phenomenon needs to be activated with some chemicals… in fact nothing more complicated than soap! The product they use in Wai-o-tapu is completely harmless for the environment. Once started, the geyser might erupt during 2 hours without stopping!
Right next to the park, take the little detour to the dancing mud pools. It’s a really funny and impressive sight: sometimes the mud is projected very high in the air. It’s not part of Wai-o-tapu so you can go there for free if you don’t want to visit the rest of the park.
Also close to Wai-o-tapu, the hike to Rainbow Mountain could be perfectly combined with a visit of the park. My suggestion: go to Lady Knox geyser at 10.15am, then when everyone else starts the loop at the same time go to Rainbow Mountain and come back a couple of hours later. You’ll avoid the biggest crowd by proceeding that way.
The track to the summit of Rainbow Mountain is 2.5kms long and takes between 1h and 1h30. The view over the surrounding countryside is really cool from the top. If you don’t feel like climbing all the way up, go at least to the crater lake: it’s only a 5-10 minute walk from the parking lot and the colour of the water is gorgeous.
If you keep driving south from Rotorua on State Highway 5, your next stop will be at the Huka Falls. There are many different lookouts to stare at their impressive flow; from above a bit further on their left, directly next to them from their right or from the footbridge crossing the river and leading to this second view point. You can even do a river cruise on a boat bringing you as close as safely possible to the falls… They aren’t high, but because the Waikato River suddenly narrows the stream is extremely powerful.
80kms south of Rotorua, welcome to Taupo! It’s located on the banks of Lake Taupo which was created 26,500 years ago by a giant volcanic explosion, which might have been one of the biggest eruptions ever! Hard to imagine when you see this quiet lake today…
Close to Taupo, you can climb to the top of Mount Tauhara to get a really nice view. It will take you 1h to 1h30 (2.8kms, sometimes steep) and on a clear day you’ll have a great view over the volcanoes from Tongariro National Park across the lake… A view that the cows seem to enjoy too!
And you, what’s your favourite activity to do in the Rotorua-Taupo area? Share it in the comments!
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