Rotorua is a real hot-spot on the tourist trail in New Zealand (excuse the pun!)
With around 3 million visitors per year, this unique and memorable city was my New Zealand 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.
James and I split our time in Rotorua over two days – we arrived in the afternoon and left the following afternoon – but you can see all the major sights in a day. Here’s what to see and do for a day in Rotorua!
Morning: Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland
Plan your trip to coincide with the eruption of Lady Knox Geyser, which explodes every morning at 10:15am.
Wai-o-tapu Thermal Wonderland opens at 9am. This park is recommended by companies such as Trip Advisor and the Lonely Planet. It’s 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.
Lady Knox Geyser spurts jets of water up to 20m high every morning, so don’t miss it!
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!
You can walk around the park as you wish; you don’t need a tour guide. There are maps available at the ticket office and signs everywhere, so you won’t get lost.
We spent around 1.5 hours in the park, but there are short or long routes to choose from on the map, so it’s a place that’s suitable for everyone.
Without giving too much away, we saw bubbling mud pools, neon-coloured lakes and steaming hot springs – things I have never seen anywhere else in my life!
- Website: www.waiotapu.co.nz
- 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
Midday: Hamurana Springs
Take a drive north of the city to Hamurana Springs – pack your lunch and take it with you, or cook it up in your campervan!
These natural freshwater springs are the deepest on the North Island, and although the water is crystal clear you can’t see the bottom! One of the springs here – the Kauaenui Spring – is known as “Dancing Sands” because the sand does seem to dance around on the floor of the Spring. We were shocked at how little coverage they have considering their beauty – there were so few tourists here!
There is a short walk that goes around the water, taking 45 min to an hour. 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!
- Location: Situated just off Hamurana Road, next to the golf course.
- Cost: Free
Early Afternoon: Okere Falls
There are four waterfalls along this stretch of the Kaituna river and a short walking track allowing you to enjoy them all, the first is home to a historic hydropower station that began operating in 1901 and closed in 1939.
There are viewing platforms as Okere 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!) If you have longer than a day in Rotorua, get your adrenaline rush ticked off here.
- Location: Okere Falls Road, Rotorua
- Cost: Free, unless you choose to go rafting!
Mid afternoon: Kuirau Park
If you are looking for a free dose of geothermal activity, head to Kuirau park in the city centre. There was a volcanic eruption here in 2003. The park is abundant with natural hot springs and bubbling mud pools – and 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
- Cost: Free
Late Afternoon: 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 the above 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, the stench of sulphur was really strong! Residents’ gardens were home to steaming bubbling springs – with a bit of landscaping, some had fashioned the springs into water features; in other gardens the water was running loose down the driveways!
St Faith’s Anglican Church
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.
- Cost: Free
- Note: the Tama-te-kapua meeting house is not open to the public.
Evening: Rotorua Night Market
This famous Night Market hits Tutenakai Street every Thursday evening.
The market isn’t huge, but there is live entertainment and 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 an Indian curry. We lingered to watch the live band before heading to a nearby campsite to catch some sleep.
- Opening times: 5pm – 9pm on Thursdays
- Location: Tutenakai Street, Rotorua 3010
- Cost: Free
- Parking: often free after 6pm or 8pm in the city
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!
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