The small town of Rotorua on New Zealand’s North Island is one of the earth’s most unearthly places. It sits inside of a collapsed volcano crater known as Rotorua caldera. About 220,000 years ago a violent eruption of the ancient supervolcano obliterated all life in its path and reshaped the landscape, leaving behind a 22-kilometre wide crater that is not filled by lake Rotorua. On a clear day, you can see the rim of the crater framing the town and the lake with a dark jagged line.
If like me, you enjoy the extraordinary landscapes, then Rotorua will not leave you disappointed. The entire region is a full sensory experience. The sulphurous scent clings to the air, plumes of steam waft through the town’s streets and the surrounding countryside, boiling mud pools dot the city parks and hot springs erupt on the sidewalks as a constant reminder of just how thin the earth’s crust is underneath your feet.
You could spend weeks exploring the geothermal wonders of Rotorua region. With only three days in town, I will barely scratch the surface, and with New Zealand’s unpredictable weather even the scratching opportunities could be limited. So armed with my bucket list of the top things to do in Rotorua I take it one day at a time.
My first morning in Rotorua came bright and sunny and I immediately headed to Wai-O-Tapu – the most colourful geothermal park in the Rotorua region. Lying only 27 km from town, it looks like it would be more at home on an extraterrestrial world at the other end of the solar system. It is home to boiling waterfalls, psychedelically bright acidic and alkaline lakes, scorching-hot vents and sulphurous mounds. But first, you must see the Lady Knox Geyser.
I wondered what made this geothermal event so unexpectedly punctual – it erupts each day at 10.15 am. Turns out the eruption is not an entirely natural occurrence, it is induced by dropping surfactant into the vent of the geyser as part of the morning ‘show’. The story of the discovery of the geyser involves a bunch of naked convicts running for their lives when the hot spring they used for washing their clothes erupted in a 20-meter jet of boiling hot water.
Insider Tip: Pre-purchase your Wai-O-Tapu park entry tickets online (NZ $32.50) before your visit. There are no ticket-selling booths at the Lady Knox Geyser and you will have to go to the visitor centre to purchase them. For general tips on travelling around New Zealand, check out this epic guide to New Zealand for first-time visitors.
The main park at Wai-O-Tapu can be explored via a network of three interconnected walking trails that meander between the visitor center to the milky-green Lake Ngakoro. The first part of the walk follows an elevated walkway through an area of collapsed volcanic craters filled with boiling acidic hot springs and mud pools. From this inhospitable, grey-hued environment the trail ducks into a patch of mossy forest and emerges above the dramatically-coloured Artist’s Pallette Pool with the view of the Champagne Pool in the background.
The world’s largest hot spring, the Champagne Pool is a deep-green acidic pool rimmed with bright orange sinter terrace. It bubbles with carbon dioxide at 74 degrees Celsius at the surface and over 500 degrees below, churning up a mineral stew of gold, silver, mercury, sulphur and arsenic. In other words, you should really stick to the path.
The nearby psychedelic-green love heart-shaped Roto Karikitea is much cooler but only slightly less acidic than sulphuric acid.
Moving further away from the visitor centre the wooden walkway is replaced by a natural trail that meanders through the forest past eroded cliffs, boiling waterfalls, alkaline and acidic pools and a large sinter terrace that from a distance looks like the steaming rice terraces.
Amongst all this alien beauty, New Zealand’s native birds are in the midst of the breeding season hovering conspicuously in an attempt to attract potential mates. But there is a better place to spot some of the local birdlife – the shorefront of the Lake Rotorua.
Sulphur Bay Reserve, Lake Rotorua
The second largest lake on New Zealand’s north island, Lake Rotorua is warm and quite acidic due to the geothermal activity of the region. The south-eastern corner of the lake, accessible from Rotorua town centre and known as Sulphur Bay is made up of a Wildlife Refuge and a Wildlife Sanctuary.
Due to high geothermal activity around this part of the lake, its water in the bay is low in oxygen and quite acidic. Some parts are particularly acidic like the Sulphur Point where bright yellow sulphurous hot springs pool on the shore. Buy the time I arrived at the lake, the sky turned moodily overcast which gave the lake a rather apocalyptic appearance.
Despite these challenging conditions, the lake it is home to an array of bird species including the threatened New Zealand dabchick and the world’s most threatened gull species – the black-billed gull. Most of the birds have to look for food elsewhere, as not many insects and aquatic organisms can tolerate the acidic conditions. Even the birds’ feet become corroded by the acidic water. Yet the warmth and the refuge provided by the lake seem to outweigh the inconveniences, as far as the birds are concerned.
While the lake itself is the domain of the waterbirds, the forested lakeshore is home to a variety of passerines, or the singing birds, both native and introduced. Some of them are so intent on their courtship displays that if you stay still for long enough, the fantails, in particular, might attempt to use you as a display perch.
Exploring the lakeshore became one of my favourite things to do in Rotorua. A good way to do it is via the Lakefront walkway that takes you from Rotorua Lakefront Reserve to Moturara Point where it joins the Moturara Walkway that runs past the Sulphur Point and to the Polynesian Spa in the Government Gardens.
On my second morning in Rotorua, I woke up to on overcast sky and drizzling rain. The on-again-off-again rain pattern called for explorations closer to home. Thankfully there are plenty of geothermal wonders to explore within a 5-minute walk of downtown Rotorua. First, I headed to Kaiuru Park heralded as New Zealand’s only public geothermal park.
The park is an unexpected mix of manicured lawns and steaming boiling pots of geothermal activity. There are vividly-coloured alkaline chloride springs, boiling mud pools and murky acidic pools hiding underneath the thick canopies of old trees, shrouded in mist and sulphurous fumes.
Walking tracks lead to a steaming spring with a boiling waterfall and a misty lake with lush moss-covered banks. Almost every group of trees seem to be hiding a gaping hole into the gurgling hissing inferno below. All of these hot-spots are surrounded by safety fences, but new, unexpected eruptions do occur from time to time. In 2001 mud and rocks the size of footballs were hurled into the air snapping tree branches as if they were mere twigs. Two years later, another new steam vent erupted in front of delighted visitors.
No such calamities happened while I was in the park, but the soggy grass, the slippery mud, and, at times heavy, rain contributed a little towards the sense of adventure.
The public foot baths in the park were occupied mostly by the Asian visitors which made them look like little onsens concealed among the moody misty scenery. The sight of them made me want to find out for myself what is so special about soaking in a 40-degree acidic pool. After all, have you really been to Rotorua if you haven’t soaked in one of its hot springs?
There are a few options for hot spring bathing in town, two of them are in the Government Gardens right next to the Prince’s gate hotel where I was staying.
The site of the gardens lies above an active geothermal area with several therapeutic pools. In the early 1900s, the government built an opulent bathhouse here in the Tudor architectural style. And in the 1930s, another building, the Blue Baths, was added to the complex. The main bathhouse is now a museum, but the Blue Baths are still open for business. For NZ $11 you can soak your worries away in a Great Gatsby style.
Apart from the baths, the gardens have their own menagerie of geothermal sites. Acidic lakes, alkaline springs, boiling mud pools, are all here as well.
The gardens back out on to the Lake Rotorua and there is a walking leading to the Sulphur Point Reserve and onto the Moturara Walkway. And there is just the spot that combines the historic aesthetics of hot spring bathing in Rotorua and the dramatic beauty of the lake – the Polynesian Spa.
From the smorgasbord of bathing and treatment choices, I picked the simplest option that promised 3 acidic and 5 alkaline pools for NZ $30. It was about 10 degrees outside as I stripped down to my swimsuit and briskly walked across the courtyard of multicoloured pools to the one with the sweeping view of the lake. The steaming hot milky-green acidic water was instantly relaxing and within minutes everything outside of the present moment melted away.
By now, the rain had stopped and I whiled away the rest of the morning alternating between the acidic and alkaline pools. Acidic springs are said to soothe the muscle and the joints while the alkaline water allegedly does wonders for your skin. But regardless of the springs therapeutic properties, simply soaking in hot pools on a cold day in such an unusual environment was entirely rejuvenating.
Gazing at the thick plumes of steam rising off the calm surface of the lake and wafting towards the jagged walls of the crater’s rim, it was hard to remember that this peaceful paradise is a result of extreme geological violence.
By the early afternoon, the sky had cleared and for a break from the geothermal theme, I took the tour to Hobbiton with the official Hobbiton movie set tours. Located on Alexander’s farm about halfway between Auckland and Rotorua, Hobbiton is an easy half-day tour (NZ $119) from Rotorua. After exploring the various LOR filming locations on the South Island, it was time to see the Shire.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Hobbiton and I was prepared for feeling disappointed – I am not a fan of mass tourism. But Hobbiton surprised me. Instead of a static set up and inevitable queues, Hobbiton felt like an entire little world. A massive hillside is peppered with 44 individual hobbit holes complete with hobbit gardens, orchards and washing lines.
Yet the Hobbiton is even more than the hillside. It is a bridge over the river and the Green Dragon Inn, Bilbo’s party tree and the green rolling hills that run towards the horizon in all directions. There is so much detail in the hobbits’ world that it feels deceptively real. As if the hobbits could emerge from their holes any minute.
We spent a couple of hours wandering from one hobbit hole to another until we reached the Bag End – Bilbo’s hole at the top of the hill. The view from Bilbo’s porch sweeps over the river and the bridge that Gandalf rode across at the very start of the Fellowship of the Ring.
On the way down the hill, we passed Rosie’s house where she and Sam settled in at the very end of the Return of the King film. By that point, I seemed to have lost the line between a memory and a fantasy which I suppose is the idea behind visiting the set.
Before leaving, we spent some time drinking ale at Green Dragon Inn like the good old hobbits.
After leaving the Middle Earth, I found myself in James Cameron’s world of Pandora that he brought to life in the Avatar movie. Walking across the suspended bridges of Redwoods treewalk strung between 27 giant redwoods 20 meters above the forest floor was certainly a change of perspective. And as the darkness fell, the forest came to life with colour and light that made the ancient tree ferns below appear as if they were bioluminescent.
Part of Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua’s Californian redwoods grove was planted in 1901. So while they are still young by the redwoods standards, some of these magnificent trees are over 70 meters tall. It takes about 40 minutes to complete the 700-meter walk and you can do this during the daylight hours or after the nightfall. Better yet, visit at dusk and do the walk twice! The combined day and night walk is only NZ $39.
But if you only have the time to visit the redwoods once, then try to visit it after dark, when the towering trees are light up by 30 lanterns wooden lanterns created by the award-winning designer and sustainability champion, David Trubridge. The lanterns are concealed among the trees, their lichen-covered raw wood surfaces blend in perfectly among the mighty tree trunks.
To peek behind the tourist scene of Rotorua, I booked a night walk with Stephen Julian from Real Rotorua. It must’ve been my lucky day – I was Stephen’s only customer that evening, which meant I got a private VIP tour.
We headed to a native forest reserve about 30km out of town where Stephen proceeded to reveal to me an astonishing variety of primeval-looking ferns. New Zealand is home to 200 different species of these ancient plants. There is a 20-meter tall tree fern, the curious silver fern, a tiny umbrella fern and a hound’s tongue fern. Somewhere along the trail, Stephen stopped and suggested that I turn around. I glanced back and discovered that we are standing next to a beautiful waterfall snatched out of the darkness by the beam of Stephen’s spotlight.
The next time he stopped along the trail, I anticipated another great reveal. We turned off our torches and the blackness in front of us is transformed into a starry sky with thousands of tiny blue lights glowing in the dark. Only they were not stars but the bioluminescent insects clinging to the dark cliff wall. Glow worms are typically found in caves, but they are as content on any moist surface in the forest as long as there is an overhang to shield off the sunlight. Their glowing bums are designed to mimic the stars to confuse nocturnal insects and attract them into the trap of sticky strings – the glow worm’s answer to a spider web. They certainly had me fooled at first sight.
Where to stay in Rotorua
Princes Gate Hotel
One of the more unusual spots with ample character is the Princes Gate Hotel. Dating back to 1897, the hotel was originally built in Waihi, about 150 km north of Rotorua. Yet in 1917, the hotel’s owners took it apart and nail by nail and board by board transported it to Rotorua where the hotel was reconstructed to its original appearance. It would appear that the rooms at the Princes Gate Hotel have not changed much since it’s reconstruction.
One of the best things about the hotel (after the fireplaces in the lobby) is its location – right opposite the Government Gardens and Polynesian Spa, within a 2-minute walk from Rotorua bus terminal and a 5-minute walk to Lake Rotorua.
Other things to do in Rotorua
For those looking for more adventurous activities, there are plenty of options in Rotorua
- Skydiving – Taupo Tandem Skydiving
- White Water Rafting – Kaitiaki Adventures
- Jet Board Ride – River Jet
- Sledge the Kaituna River – Kaitiaki Adventures
- Claybird shooting – Adventure Playground
- Horse trekking – Lake Okareka
- Zip-lining – Rotorua Canopy Tours
- ZORB – Inflatable Ball Ride
- Mt Tarawera Crater Walk – Kaitiaki Adventures