Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomo [the large lake of Kahumatamome, discovered second]
Rotorua’s land is alive, and its people connect so deeply with it. Descending from centuries of guides and storytellers, New Zealand’s rich indigenous culture explains a way of living utterly unique to this world. One fundamental Māori value is called Kaitiakitanga; seen as a profound sense of respect and guardianship for the natural environment. While the concept of Mana refers to nature’s spiritual power (i.e. a forest’s mana is shown by its abundant blossoms and fruit, and birds arriving to feed), Mauri describes life force. Therefore, the mauri of the forest must be protected for its mana to flow. Isn’t this a beautiful way to identify with Mother Earth? A visit to Rotorua allowed me to do just that. To dive into New Zealand’s cultural heart and connect with nature in its raw elements. Let’s go!
Kaituna River Rafting Outdoor enthusiasts will find plenty to appreciate in Rotorua. This river, in particular, is home to the casual 7m Tutea Falls, the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall. The invigoratingly bouncy raft down the sparkling waters is equally soothing and electrifying. In fact, there are very few experiences on my travels that have lived up to both the sense of adventure, the cultural heritage, and the scenic vistas my eyes were feasting on for the hour or so we spent manoeuvring down the river. As tourists numbers soar over summer, try to catch a glimpse of said serenity by getting in one of the early morning slots with River Rats.
Hell’s Gate Here, geothermal forces are found wild and loud. Hell’s Gate has long been known for its healing mineral mud, with the local Ngati Rangiteaorere Tribe having sworn by it for more than 700 years. The grey substance has antibacterial, detoxifying, and moisturising skin care benefits. Before you quite literally soak it all up, wander along the track to get staggering views of erupting geysers and the Kakahi Falls; Southern Hemisphere’s largest hot waterfall. Tip: Light-coloured swimwear and dark, sulphurous mud don’t go well together. Dress like a true Kiwi and wear black.
Polynesian Spa The quest to rejuvenate continues at this Rotorua institution. All its awards aside, the private spa pools are everything you need after a long day of exploring. Water feeds of two old springs. The Priest Spring is said to do wonders for aching muscles due to its acidity levels, while the Rachel Spring with its alkaline waters soothes dry and irritated skin. One question that does remain, though, is who these springs were named after?
Redwoods Treewalk By now, you would have already gathered that Rotorua is superbly unique in its tourist offerings. So it only makes sense that some of the region’s best views are tucked away inside a forest. The German-engineered (no surprise there, right?) 500-ish metre-long suspended walkway through its ancient redwood forest is made of 100% local materials, embraces its surroundings perfectly and leaves the traveller to gain new perspectives; three of the things I am value most when on the road. No protective gear or guide is needed. Instead, let the birds do the talking. Closer to the ground, a myriad of excellent walkways invites keen runners, photographer, cyclists, and/or lovebirds looking for the ideal picnic spot.
Te Puia New Zealand culture deeply entrenches with its evocative indigenous people. Few other attractions in the country live up to Te Puia’s ability to trace it back to the unfeigned beginnings of their nation’s ancestors and link them seamlessly with their modern identity and surroundings. I suggest making a day out of it by first wandering alongside the boiling grounds of the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley as part of the Te Rá experience, and, second, by going a step further and spending your evening here. The Te Pō experience allows travellers to get a glimpse of traditional dance and music, kai (food), and watch the hypnotising geysers at nighttime. Again, it’s not often I rave about guided tours or ‘traditional experiences’, but I truly was astounded by the attraction’s authenticity.
Green and Blue Lake Once you’ve seen enough of giant redwoods, head up the road passing by the rather appropriately named Green and Blue Lake. If you feel a like some exploring, grab your bike or hiking boots. Otherwise, a book and a beach towel will do the trick, too.
Lake Tarawera Rise early for sunrise and thank me later.
The Library Store This has become a regular pit stop whenever I pass through town. Superb vegan selection for breakfast or lunch. Its sister store, the Okerere Falls Store, is located just north of Rotorua.
Fat Dog Cafe & Bar The food is reliably tasty, with cheap daily specials making for a great lunch stop. An eclectic mix of tourists and locals might give you a new friend or two, as well.
Artisan Cafe Does what it says. Homemade, simple, good food.
Rang Mahal Restaurant: Feeling like a good curry? This is your place.
Leonardo’s Pure Italian Give the taste buds a break for the Kiwi pies and stack up on pasta at this local favourite.
Shadehouse Cafe A fabulous local spot with a cosy feel and lots of pot plants.
Get There and Around
Self-driving through the sulphurous world of geysers and boiling mud pools towards forests encircling one of the 18 lakes is half of the fun. You can fly into Rotorua with Air New Zealand or Jetstar, or experience this magical place as part of a North Island roadie.
When to Go
Winters are mild and wet, although big crowds are to be expected over the summer period. Shoulder season (March – April, September – October) are ideal.
Don’t come for the town itself. Rotorua has all the necessities and tourist traps one would anticipate. To experience the extraordinary slice of New Zealand you have just been reading about, head out of town and get amongst nature.
I hope you can make great use of my Rotorua travel guide. Click here to see my Rotorua photo diary.