Rotorua, New Zealand
An Antipodean travel company serving World Travellers since 1983
Highlights of New Zealand | Rotorua
We visit Rotorua during our 14-day long tour of New Zealand. Odyssey Traveller offers this small group tour (typically 6 to 12 people) for senior and mature travellers who are keen to learn about history and culture with the help of our knowledgeable tour leaders and local guides.
Rotorua is a city in the Bay of Plenty region on the North Island of New Zealand. The permanent population is estimated to be around 60 000, but the city is definitely one of the major tourist destinations of New Zealand, both for domestic and international travellers, and it’s easy to understand why.
The city lies on the southern shore of Lake Rotorua providing amazing views. The geography of the area was formed by the Mount Tarawera eruption in 1886, creating all the lakes we admire today. Rotorua also earned the nickname ‘Sulphur City’ because of the geothermal activity of the area with the geysers (most notably Pohutu Geyser at Whakarewarewa) and boiling mud pools. Traditionally, Maori cultural performances and hangi (steam-cooked banquets) are attracting as many visitors as the landscape itself, and many regard Rotorua as a major Maori centre with 37.5% of the city’s population identifying as Maori.
History of Rotorua
The area was initially settled by the Te Arawa Iwi in the 14th century. They named the place Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe (The second great lake of Kahumatamomoe), since this was the second (rua) major lake (roto) chief Ihenga discovered and dedicated to his uncle, Kahumatamomoe. The first European visiting the area was most likely Philip Tassel, trading along the Bay of Plenty coast and Mokoia Island in the 1830s. Rotorua was promoted as a spa destination from 1883 and with the opening of the Rotorua Express in 1894 connecting to Auckland, the town experienced rapid growth in tourism. It was declared a city in 1962, and it’s currently the 10th largest urban area of New Zealand. The Rotorua region is served by the Rotorua airport, giving a further boost to tourism. You can catch flights to Rotorua from Auckland, Wellington, Queenstown, Christchurch, Gisborne and the North Shore.
Experience the Maori culture in a Maori village
Visitors can immerse themselves in traditional Maori culture and experience their manaakitanga (hospitality) and kaitiakitanga (guardianship of this land). You can visit Whakarewarewa, the living Maori village, also home to the Pohutu Geyser and hot pools. The Pohutu Geyser is the largest active geyser in in the Southern hemisphere, shooting up to 30 metres, erupting once or twice every hour normally – but since it’s a natural phenomenon, nothing is guaranteed. Te Puia is home to the wonderful New Zealand Māori Arts & Crafts Institute and a Kiwi House, and also shares the Pohutu Geyser with Whakarewarewa. Tamaki Maori Village is an evening experience, a cultural performance including poi dance and haka combined with a traditional hangi buffet meal, and you also have the option to sleep in the village. Last but not least, the Mitai Maori Village also offers a cultural performance and hangi, and they offered a guided native bush walk with glow worms (yes, they are not exclusive to Waitomo!).
Enjoy the hot pools
Tourism in Rotorua started thanks to the amazing hot pools in the area. The 28 hot pools in the Polynesian Spa are sourced from two different natural springs, creating acidic and alkaline pools. And the packages offered will cater for everyone, from private mineral pools to lakeside views to family areas. Don’t miss the opportunity to relieve aches and pains, nourish skin and relax with amazing views over Lake Rotorua.
Or you can explore the Government Gardens, originally named as Paepaekumana by the Maori, also on the shore of Lake Rotorua. The bath house, built in a Tudor style, opened in 1908. It was one of the first places in the world to allow men and women in the same pool. The gardens are also home to the Rotorua Museum , which is unfortunately closed for now until they strengthen its structure against earthquake damage. Nevertheless, the building is still a sight to behold.
Alternatively, you can stroll around Kuirau Park for completely free. You are in for some spectacular geothermal activity, and you can enjoy footbaths for free, as well as mudpools and hot springs.
Go on amazing walks
Learn about the geothermal activity in the area
Hell’s Gate is home to the largest hot water waterfall of the Southern Hemisphere, and it is also one of the most active geothermal park in Rotorua. You can enjoy a nearly 2 hour long guided walk among the pools and the native bush, learning about the history of the place, and why did it inspire Maori myths and legends. See the sacred waterfall where once the warriors healed their bodies before meeting their families again. You can also enjoy healing mud baths yourself or join a Maori carving experience.
Another popular destination is the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Valley. You can walk on well-defined tracks for maximum protection, while taking your pictures of the world-famous Champagne Pool, mud pools, moon-looking volcanic craters and the Lady Knox Geyser, shooting up to 20 metres daily.
Or you can check out the world’s youngest geothermal system in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley, created by the Mt Tarawera volcanic eruption. For a full experience, you can go on a scenic cruise on Lake Tarawera or on Lake Rotomahana.
The Skyline Gondola opened in 1985. Building this attraction was possible because a piece of land on the side of Tarawera mountain was not in Maori title and was up for purchase. You can enjoy unique views of the city from up top, eat in the restaurant, or get the adrenaline pumping with other rides, such as luge tracks, zip lining, mountain biking and more.
The bravest can take on the largest commercially rafted waterfall in the world, the 7-meter-tall Tutea Falls on Kaituna River with Kaitiaki Adventures. And the best thing about it, you don’t need any previous experience in rafting to be able to enjoy this adrenaline rushing adventure. For those looking for a longer, calmer tour, Rangitaiki River is your place to go with small rapids and beautiful views of the forest and native bush.
Day trips around Rotorua
Once you have done your tour of Rotorua, there is plenty to see around. On the way to and from Auckland, you can visit the Hobbiton movie set. With a 2 hour guided tour, you can learn about the jaw-dropping work bringing the Shire to life in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies.
Another popular destination is the Waitomo caves. The glow worm experience should be on the bucket list of everyone – and even though most associate them with the caves, they are in fact all around in the nearby forest as well, so you might want to hang around for a unique night time walk.
Tauranga, the fastest growing city of New Zealand is about an hour away. The port of Tauranga is the largest port in terms of gross export tonnage and efficiency. On the way you can also stop at Okere Falls, a popular fishing and rafting spot, from where Kaituna River flows north.