Our neighbouring city has loads of outdoor gems to experience, from hot pools and geothermal parks (many are free!) to glorious lakes and forests. So make like a tourist and hotfoot it to Rotorua.
When you live so close to a tourist mecca like Rotorua, it’s easy to take for granted the array of activities and natural wonders at our doorstep. People travel across the world to experience our neighbouring town and how often do we, as Bay of Plenty locals, make the one-hour trip for a change of scene? For our family of four, it’s actually fairly often as my husband’s parents live there. Recently we decided to re-visit a few favourite spots and share our highlights.
Fun without the Fees
You don’t have to venture out of central Rotorua or even pay a fee if you’d like to check out some geothermal features. Kuirau Park has been revamped in recent years and features barriered walking tracks around steaming lakes, sulphur-covered rocks and boiling mud pools. There’s a playground and picnic area as well as a thermal foot bath. The Rotorua North Rotary Market sets up here every Saturday (7am–1pm) with produce and craft stalls.
Lake Rotorua has a geothermal zone at Sulphur Point that provides a moon-like experience with walkways along the shoreline where milky bubbling waters seep out into the wider lake area. This part of the lake is somewhat hidden — to get there, head to Hatupatu Dr and follow your nose towards the water behind the Government Gardens and the Events Centre.
From Hells gate to Te Puia, Wai-O-tapu, Whakarewarewa, Waimangu, Orakei Korako — if you’re happy to pay an entry fee for a geothermal park, you are spoilt for choice. The whole Rotorua region is nestled amongst active geothermal zones, each with unique characteristics. If I had to pick one, it would be Wai-O-Tapu (sacred waters), 20-minutes’ drive south of Rotorua. The whole Wai-O-Tapu area covers 18-square kilometres and there are tracks of various lengths on offer (one is pram friendly). Snaking walkways lead to some incredible sights, including the aptly named Artist’s Palette and the bubbling Champagne Pool. My kids, at six and eight years, marvelled at the multi-coloured experience and negotiated the walking tracks pretty easily.
Wai-O-Tapu also boasts Lady Knox Geyser, which erupts daily. It was first discovered by British prisoners in 1901. Tasked with clearing land for development, the prisoners came across a hot spring and began using it for bathing and clothes washing. As soap mixed with the geothermal liquid it lowered the surface tension, causing an eruption. Now a host re-enacts its discovery daily to an audience by dropping a surfactant into the crater, causing the liquid to shoot up to 20 meters in the air. If left alone, the geyser would still erupt naturally every one to three days, but in the name of tourism, the experience is set like clockwork at 10.15am daily. The human-aided nature of this spout receives mixed reviews but my kids were certainly impressed by its show.
Soak It All In
For a true Rotorua experience, you must have a soak in a hot pool. For a stylish bathing setting, The Blue Baths in the Government Gardens are a great option. They were first opened in 1933, later closed in 1982 when the building and facility was lovingly restored to much of its Spanish-Mission style glory, then reopened in 2000. The building is now a hireable venue for weddings and events, and the separate pool area is open daily to the public. The pools are filled with geothermally heated water, with one tepid family pool and two smaller soaking pools that are warmer.
Other thermal pool options in the Rotorua area include the Waikite Valley thermal pools (25 minutes’ drive south of Rotorua) with 10 different pools ranging in temperature from 35 to 40 degrees, and the centrally located Polynesian Spa that features a range of public and private pools, depending on your budget. Also, the Lake Rotoiti hot springs are only accessible by boat, which keeps the crowds at bay, and the lake-edge positioning gives it an infinity-pool feel.
There are also numerous free geothermal options on offer in the area too. For the more intrepid, search out Kerosene Creek, 35 minutes from Rotorua, towards Taupo. Head down a short track and you’ll find a small natural hot spring and waterfall that lives up to its name in smell. You’re advised not to put your head under here.
If you have more time up your sleeve, you can hike along the Tarawera Trail to Te Rata Bay (Hot Water Beach) — allow four to five hours. Or you can get there by boat across Lake Tarawera. A hot spring flows into the lake at the shoreline and you can cordon off little areas with rocks for a rustic natural spa.
Take in the Lakes
The Rotorua area is renowned for its magnificent lakes and you could spend a long time exploring them all. Each has its charm and character, but Tarawera is a definite favourite for us, not least because it’s great for a history lesson. We stopped at the lookout on Tarawera Rd where we could see Mount Tarawera across the lake. We talked to the kids about the pink and white terraces and how they were sadly destroyed along with local villages in the 1886 eruption.
Once at the Tarawera waterfront, the kids sat on the jetty and drew pictures of the lake setting — the view across the water towards the mountain makes quite an impact. We finished our Tarawera visit with ice creams from The Landing cafe on the lakefront.
From Tarawera we headed to Lake Tikitapu (also known as the Blue Lake, due to its vibrant colour). We have frequented this spot many times over the years for extended family gatherings. It’s picturesque, sheltered and surrounded largely by bush sloping down towards the lake’s edge. The main beach is great for swimming and water sports are popular. If you’re up for a 90-minute walk, there’s an easy walking track around the entire lake. On summer weekends, the lakefront can get quite crowded, but otherwise you may just end up having the lake to yourself.
Five years ago, Rotorua Lakes Council created the restaurant precinct known as Eat Streat — a strip of restaurants, cafes and pubs in a covered, pedestrianised zone at the north end of Tutanekai St. Eat Streat has more than a dozen options for dinner along with a buzzy collective dining atmosphere, but for an outstanding dining experience, my vote goes to Terrace Kitchen, just down Tutanekai St, towards the lake.
By day it’s super kid friendly with a large grassy area and playground, but by night it transforms into a sophisticated dining experience. The interior is tastefully designed with a subtle nod to the pink and white terraces as the name suggests. Head chef Timo Dicker describes the cuisine as, “Good honest Kiwi food,” but it’s much more than that. The vibrant, flavoursome dishes include the likes of roasted bone marrow with kawakawa crumb, tomato jam and freshly baked bread to soy-glazed octopus straight out of Mt Maunganui. The beef main changes cuts and treatments regularly, and ours was slow-cooked and melt in your mouth. At the heart of it, Terrace Kitchen aims to serve as fresh and as local as possible and from my experience, they did not disappoint.
There are so many attractions in Rotorua and this little travel story can’t do them all justice. But I figure no story about Rotorua is complete without mentioning a spot my family returns to time and time again — The Redwoods. The spectacular Redwood forest draws international attention for its mountain bike trails that are free to access and family friendly. There are also many walking tracks throughout the forest, and plenty of opportunities for hut making and picnicking with the kids. We have had so many great times in this forest and for us, this drawcard alone is worth the short drive inland.
Story and photography by Alice Veysey.
Story published in issue 29 of Our Place magazine.