With around 3 million visitors per year, Rotorua is undoubtedly a hot-spot on the tourist trail in New Zealand – and it was on our itinerary from the start.
Situated in one of the most geothermal locations on the entire planet, the ‘Sulphur City’ is home to smoking geysers, bubbling mud pools, boiling neon-coloured lakes and a strong whiff of rotten eggs – it’s even got its own highway dedicated to its geothermal nature!
It’s also an important area in terms of New Zealand’s Maori heritage; first settled in the 14th century by Tamatekapua, the region has a rich history of conflicts between tribes and during the Waikoto Land War of 1863-4.
I’ve entitled this post “How we spent a day in Rotorua”, but in actual fact the time we spent there was split over two days: we arrived in the afternoon and left the following afternoon, so we spent around 24 hours there in total. Here’s an insight into what we got up to!
We came into the area (which is also known as Okere Falls) from the east, having arrived arrived from Tauranga via Te Puke; the more direct route on the SH29 incurs a $1.80 toll fee (more info on the NZTA website here).
There are four waterfalls along this stretch of the Kaituna river. We followed the easy walking tracks to the viewing platforms of each waterfall, one of which is home to a historic hydropower station that began operating in 1901 and closed in 1939. The falls are very popular place for experienced kayakers and white water rafters, though beginners can experience these water sports with various rafting companies (just have a google!) we watched the rafters and kayakers as they tumbled down the rapids – James silently wishing he was on the raft, me happy to be on dry land…!
Location: Okere Falls Road, Rotorua
Situated to the north of Lake Rotorua, these natural freshwater springs are the deepest on the north island. We were shocked at how little coverage they have considering their beauty! Arriving at around 4:30pm, we enjoyed the 45min to 1 hour long stroll around the water. The path passes through a redwood forest where the trees tower above you, and the reserve is a wildlife sanctuary home to many bird species – you can hear them as much as you see them! At 15m deep, Te Puna-a-Hangarua Spring is the deepest on the North Island, and although the water is crystal clear you can’t see the bottom! The Kauaenui Spring is also known as Dancing Sands; the sand does seem to dance around on the floor of the Spring.
Location: Situated just off Hamurana Road, next to the golf course.
Rotorua Night Market
We left the Springs and headed into the city; as we approached Rotorua, the first thing we noticed was definitely the smell! A creeping, lingering odour of rotten eggs wafted about
as we drove towards the city centre. We parked up and were pleased to find a free spot; parking is often free after 6pm or 8pm in the city – but check with the local council or on their website if you’re unsure.
We headed into town to visit the famous Rotorua Night Market which hits Tutenakai Street every Thursday evening. The market isn’t huge, but there’s a great variety of food from around the world, as well as many market stalls selling arts, crafts and fresh produce from across the region. Being the foodies that we are, we wanted to try everything, of course! I settled on a noodle dish and James chose an Indian curry. We lingered to watch the live band, White Chapel Jack, before heading to a nearby campsite to catch some sleep.
Opening times: 5pm – 9pm
Location: Tutenakai Street, Rotorua 3010
Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland
The next morning, we arrived at the Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland just after 9am. Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland is recommended by companies such as Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet, and is described as “New Zealand’s most colourful geothermal attraction” by tourism website newzealand.com; its unique landscapes have been sculpted by years of volcanic activity.
Our first port of call was the Lady Knox Geyser, which spurts jets of water up to 20m high every morning at 10:15 am. In 1901, the true power of the seemingly sleepy Lady Knox was discovered by prison inmates when they were working in the area; they decided to wash their clothes in the liquid at the top of the geyser, added some soap and left the clothes to soak… Or so they thought! They returned to find their clothes metres away from the erupting geyser!
A self-guided tour of the park takes around 1.5 hours, and there are short or long routes to choose from, so it’s suitable for everyone. Without giving too much away, we saw bubbling mud pools, neon-coloured lakes and steaming hot springs.
Opening times: Apr-Oct 8:30am-5:00pm, last admission 3:45pm; Nov-Mar 8:30am-6:00pm, last admission 4:45pm; Christmas Day 8:30am-5:00pm, last admission 3:45pm.
Location: 201 Waiotapu Loop Road, Rotorua 3073
Cost: $32.50 per person
In the afternoon we headed back into the city centre to see some of Rotorua’s free sights. For a second dose of geothermal activity, we headed to Kuirau park, where there was a volcanic eruption in 2003. The park is abundant with natural hot springs and bubbling mud pools. Whilst there are lots of pretty flowers, you can’t escape the lingering smell of sulphur!
Location: On the corners on Ranolf and Pukuatua Streets, Rotorua 3010
Marae & Maori Villages
There are many Maori villages dotted around the city all promising to give you an insight into authentic Maori life. The more popular ones are Te Puia, Whakarewarewa, Mitai and Tamaki, which offer a variety of activities in their packages, ranging from tours of the villages, tastings of the authentic Maori dish hangi, evening performances and lessons in flax weaving and carving.
We chose against attending one of these experiences as our budget didn’t stretch. Instead, we opted to visit Ohinemutu, a Maori village which is located in the city and is free to visit. As we walked through the neighbourhood, we noticed the familiar stench of sulphur, and were bemused to find that the residents’ gardens were home to steaming bubbling springs. With a bit of landscaping, some residents had fashioned the springs into water features; in other gardens the water was running loose down the driveways!
The beautiful St Faith’s Anglican Church dominates the scene as you walk toward the village, looking out over the vast stretch of water that is Lake Rotorua. We were only able to walk around the church courtyard as unfortunately the building itself was closed, but we were able to see the image of Jesus on the glass windowpane, draped in a Maori cloak, seemingly walking on water if viewed from inside. This church is significant because it is one of very few sites in the whole of New Zealand which depicts European and Maori cultures on shared turf.
Built in 1905, the sacred Tama-te-kapua meeting place is another fascinating structure which overlooks a large courtyard. We giggled at the sight of three traffic cones which cordoned off a small area of the courtyard where a steaming spring was beginning to surface through the bricks – it seems Rotorua’s geothermal activity is bursting at the seams.
Location: Access via Kiharoa, Haukotuku or Korokai Streets off Lake Street.
Note: the Tama-te-kapua meeting house is not open to the public.
Where to stay in Rotorua
There are heaps of accommodation options in and around the city, from campsites to backpacker hostels, basic motels and more upmarket hotels. Airbnb is also a good shout – click here for a discount off your first booking. Freedom camping is permitted only at certain campsites; check with the local council if you’re unsure where to camp to avoid a fine of up to $200.
How to get to Rotorua
- By car: Rotorua is accessible by car on the Thermal Explorer Highway (SH5) from Auckland (3 hours) or Taupo (1 hour), SH36 from Tauranga (1 hour), SH33 from Te Puke (50 mins), or SH30 from Whakatane (1 hour 15 mins).
- By plane: Rotorua airport currently only facilitates domestic flights from Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch; the closest international airport is Auckland.
- By bus: Services such as the Manabus, Nakedbus, and Intercity all run regularly from other large towns and cities.
Have you visited Rotorua? Would you be able to live in a place that smells like rotten eggs?
Thanks for reading and happy travels!
Note: All of the photos used in this post are my own.