The most populated town of New Zealand’s geothermal region (which extends from Bay of Plenty’s White Island down to Tongariro National Park), Rotorua is mainly known for three things – geothermal attractions, Maori culture, and adventure activities. There are so many things to do, but the town has gotten so commercialized that nearly everything costs money now, and it really adds up if you want to see it all. But since we were on a budget, we made the most of our time as cheaply as possible.
Our accommodation (the SilverOaks Hotel Geyserland – more of a budget motel) actually overlooked Te Puia, the most popular thermal park and home to the Pohutu Geyser, so we were able to see that just from our window (normally around $33 per adult). Other free things in Rotorua include Kuirau Park and Government Gardens, so we decided to check those out before any of the paid ones. Kuirau Park was a bit of a disappointment though, with the walkway encircling only bubbling brown pools of mud and a couple of ducks swimming through the steaming muck. Really appealing, I know. The grassy area around the pools could’ve actually been an idyllic place to relax though if it wasn’t for the rotten egg smell wafting about. Oh well, glad we tried it but on to the next.
We found Government Gardens much nicer, with interesting Maori-style architecture, lovely rose-gardens, and perfectly manicured lawns. It’s adjacent to the Polynesian Spa, where you can soak in relaxing lakeside pools, and to the Rotorua Museum, where you can learn about the Maori history and culture. Or for an even more cultural experience, check out one of the hangi (feast) dinners that include cultural concerts with song and dance typical of the Maori.
Wai-O-Tapu is a thermal park about 30km outside of Rotorua (on the way to Taupo) and known to have the most colorful pools in the area. Since we’d been to Yellowstone National Park before, we decided we didn’t need to see them, but we did go to a hot spring nearby that a local recommended us. We pulled over on the side of the road near a bridge, and followed a walkway down through the trees to find a pool of water at the intersection of two streams. Wading in, we were shocked to feel how hot the water was – just like a hot tub! Since one of the streams was hot and one was cold, we’d move around the pool until we found exactly the temperature we desired. Really cool experience, and so much better than any of the manmade pools, in my opinion. Although it used to be a local secret, apparently word has gotten out, so it may be getting more touristy. Make sure to check it out before they commercialize it and start charging money!
While the natural wonders are remarkable, adventure is what I live for, so white-water rafting was the highlight for me. We rafted with Kaitiaki Adventures down the Kaituna River, featuring many exciting rapids and even a grade 5 waterfall – the biggest commercially rafted waterfall in the world! Our guide Joel was absolutely hilarious, and it was such an adrenaline-filled and fun experience, making it one of the best activities not just in Rotorua but in all of New Zealand – at least for me. There are heaps of other adventure activities to check out as well – sledging, the luge, zorbing, canopying, or any of the many water activities on Lake Rotorua.
Overall, I’d say about 2 days is ideal for Rotorua – more if you really want to do everything. It’s a neat place with steam even wafting out of holes in the ground you walk on, but as it’s becoming more commercialized, keep in mind that the free things are not as impressive. To really see and do the best of Rotorua will cost you a fair amount.
As always, keep on livin’ pura vida ✌