Set plum in the middle of one of the most vigorous fields of thermal activity on the planet, and surrounded by a necklace of 17 lakes, out-of-towners largely come to Rotorua to marvel at the thermal cauldrons, bubbling mud, and the other wonders of nature’s handiwork; or explore the forests; and fish or swim in the quiet lakes that have formed in the craters and crevasses left by ancient upheavals.
For more than a century people have come to marvel at this other-worldly place, where steam vents from grills in the street and tiny fumarole hiss into life in lawns and gardens.
The city’s layout and buildings are mostly unremarkable but in the centre is an oasis of visual delight in the Government Gardens, with their manicured lawns, blooming flowers, and the one-time Government Bathhouse (1907). This eminently recognisable building, with its Elizabethan affectation, was built to bring to Rotorua some of the flavour of the elegant European spa towns of the day.
In an innovative move the lake-end Eat Street has been closed off to vehicular traffic and a covered walkway with retractable roofing allows for all-weather outdoor alfresco dining, where patrons of the restaurants that line the street can mingle while they eat. Underfoot, is geothermal heating to keep the area warm during winter.
On the west side of the urban area is the 25-hectare Kuirau Park. As you drive its perimeter, small clouds of steam from the vents dotted through the gardens often waft across your route to underline what an uncanny, compelling sort of place you are driving through.
Things to see and do
Lakeland Queen: take an hour-long cruise around Lake Rotorua on the paddlewheel steamboat, running daily with a selection of times available.
Mokoia Island (Hinemoa’s pool): out on the lake is an accessible wildlife sanctuary, home to some rare New Zealand native birds. Boats leave the wharf daily to take visitors to the island.
Whakarewarewa Forest: the famed redwoods are located just south of the city. A network of trails criss-cross the forest, dedicated to walking, mountain biking (130km of trails) or horseriding. Free maps are available from the Redwoods Visitor Centre.
Lake Tarawera Scenic Reserve contains walking tracks, boat tours, and campgrounds. Visit Tarawera Landing, the Orchard, Hot Water Beach, and Humphries Bay.
Te Wairoa – The Buried Village: on the edge of Lake Tarawera is a Maori and European settlement completely destroyed in 1886 by the Tarawera eruption that killed over 150 people. The ruins have been partly uncovered and with excavated relics and an account of the event, now comprise a museum. You can also see the Wairere waterfall here.
The Blue and Green Lakes are popular with boaties, swimmers, and water skiers. Walking tracks, sandy beaches, and grassed areas with barbeques beckon a stopover.
Hells Gate is New Zealand’s most active geothermal reserve with a Maori history tracing back 700 years. Here you can see the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere and slip into the only mud baths in New Zealand.
Thrillseekers can go white-water rafting, luging, bungy jumping, and skydiving. Visit i-SITE for different operators.
Places to eat and drink
Mamaku Blue Blueberry Farm grows blueberries and gooseberries and turns them into a wide range of delicious products. If you want to become berry-wise, there’s also a
Okere Falls Store: the food hub for Lake Rotoiti on SH33 is no ordinary dairy. Filling the shelves is local produce and artisan foods from all over New Zealand, and interesting gourmet products from all over Europe.
Kuirau Park Farmers’ Market has a good selection fresh local produce. It’s held every Saturday morning, offering a variety of hot food stalls.
The Rotorua Night Market is held every Thursday evening on a closed section of Tutanekai Street, between Pukuatua and Haupapa Streets. It’s a more high-end type of market, with offerings such as olive oils, artisan cheeses, pasts, wine and mussel fritters.
Hangi: the best places to taste hangi are Tamaki Mãori Village, Te Puia, and Mitai Maori Village.