Rotorua is known as the thermal wonderland of New Zealand. Its hot springs and geysers have attracted tourists for over a hundred years.
Rotorua sits on the shores of Lake Rotorua of New Zealand. There are several other lakes nearby. Along with the geothermal wonders, there are also the more usual water activities such as fishing and boating. Tourism is a major industry in Rotorua, and for good reason, the tourism services are therefore well developed and visitors should definitely make a stop at the Tourist Information Centre on the main road, Fenton Street.
Rotorua is built over a geothermal hot spot. There are numerous natural vents, hot pools and other geothermal features in and around the city. Many of these are in parks and reserves. Natural eruptions of steam, hot water and mud occasionally occur in new locations. Many places have their own private geothermal bores for heating and water for bathing although private use of naturally occurring geothermal water and steam is controlled. It has recently been refurbished. Wai-O-Tapu is also an entertaining day out.
Geologically, Rotorua is in the middle of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, which is named after Lake Taupo, the largest volcano in the area. There are four major volcanic calderas, which now contain lakes, and several more recognisable volcanoes in the surrounding area. It is this geologically active zone that produces the heat that is needed to drive all the geothermal activity.
Rotorua is about a 3-hour drive south from Auckland, with several nice towns and villages along the way.
There are two main routes, via Hamilton initially travelling on State Highway 1 and then joining State Highway 5 at Tirau, or via Matamata on Route 27. The Matamata route is less busy and probably a more interesting bet for travellers, but sections of the road boast the highest accident rates in NZ, so caution is needed. Matamata has gained notoriety as it is where Hobbitton  was built for the Lord of the Rings. The set is now a tourist attraction.
A third option to get amongst the rural farmland is to travel via Te Aroha and then south along old Te Aroha Road, stopping to see Wairere Falls. Be careful on the narrow windy unpainted roads.
Rotorua also has an small airport serviced regularly by Air New Zealand who fly there from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch (and onwards to Queenstown without changing); a daily Qantas jet service also links the city to Christchurch (seasonal - suspended since late 2009).
There are direct trans-tasman flights from Sydney twice a week, on Saturdays and Tuesdays.
Backpacker coach services tend to do pick ups from the major hostels.
Rotorua is a cyclists paradise; as well as boasting some of the best off road mountain bike tracks in the world, the city has no less than seven quality cycle stores, with six in the CBD and the Outdoorsman Headquarters on Tarawera Road. In addition several shops provide cycle hire, notably Lady Jane's ice cream parlour near the lake front.
Generally speaking cycling in Rotorua is safe; many roads have wide verges, cyclists are possibly at most risk from the many camper vans driven by tourists.
As per the advice for drivers of cars, the same routes apply; Rotorua is 300m above sea level, therefore a trip to the Bay of Plenty (Tauranga, Whakatane or Papamoa will be a mainly down hill trip of between 70 - 100km.
Travelling north towards Waikato also will be downhill to near sea level; conversely a trip to Taupo will be an up and down affair with some challenging climbs.
There is an functional ,if somewhat limited, bus service. They are lime green in colour and branded "CityRide". The main terminus is on Pukuatua Street (opposite side to the ASB bank building). These buses operate several routes from one side of the city to the other, including Ngongotaha (handy for accessing the Skyline, Rainbow Springs and Agrodome attractions), the Institute of Technology or 'Polytech' as the bus will say (Te Puia is across the main SH5 road), and the airport. The standard fare is NZ$2 regardless of how far you travel. Books of tickets can be bought at discounted rates. Note most bus services seem to stop operating at about 6PM.
There are also three or four reputable taxi companies, all metered, and also a shuttle bus operator with trailer for larger groups.
Further info can be found at the tourist information centre on Fenton Street.
As New Zealand's busiest tourist centre there are a variety of attractions ranging from free to quite expensive.
Free Things to See
Things to See requiring Paid Admission
Your best bet is to spend some energy taking in some of the many day-time activities such as land-sledding down Mt. Ngongotaha at Skyline Skyrides Luge Ride, heli-touring or hiking through the abundance of parks often alongside thermal vents. Nearby is the curious forest of California Redwoods that was planted last century and has thrived in the ideal climate so that it appears to have been there for many centuries. The forest in this area has been developed to provide world-class mountain biking tracks, some of which are being used for the 2006 World Championships. Rotorua host several other adventure activities such as Zorbing, indoor rock-climbing and whitewater rafting or sledging. When deciding if spending $20+ per person for entry to "Volcanic Caldera Areas" remember that there are many free parks that have very similiar sights and smells, often with less walking and no charge.
One activity that is unique is the ability to play a round of golf amongst the mud pools. The Rotorua golf course has a public course where for $NZ10 you can play 9 holes and attempt to avoid the mud pool hazards, a unique experience. The course is at the top of Fenton Street opposite Te Puea, the Maori Arts and Craft Institute and geyser.
There are numerous Maori arts and crafts on sale in the city centre and at the various tourist attractions. The quality varies from extremely professional contemporary artwork to cheap nick-nacks. Popular items include puonamu/greenstone (similar to jade) or bone jewellery, traditional weapons and statues. This selection is accompanied by sheepskins and the normal tourist giftware of t-shirts, caps, mugs and pens plastered with "Rotorua", other words and pictures. More attractive and practical gifts can be found such as simple clothing (jackets, shirts, ties, caps) with abstract maori designs on them.
Rotorua is one of the most common places to try the traditional maori feast, the Hangi. This "earthen oven" technique is similar to the Hawaiian Umu and results in a very distinctive smoky earthy flavour - well worth trying. There are numerous places to try a Hangi around Rotorua.
In the last decade Rotorua has slowly acquired some nice cafes - good options include:Ciccio Italian cafe, Relish, Capers or the Fat Dog.
Restaurants are slightly more scarce but several of the major hotels have good eating establishments (Novotel or Ridges on the raceway). The main centre for eating is lower end of Tutanakei Street (known locally as Eat Street), but beware, even after 9PM you may find little left on the menu.
The usual generic chains for Pizzas and burgers also can be found. Another option would be to go for the buffet at Skyline Skyrides , as this saves the cost of the gondola ride and you can often get a spectacular view of the sunset over the lake. Prices are about NZ$40 per adult, with children charged at NZ$1 per year of age.
Ask the more friendly looking locals for directions.
Rotorua is sometimes referred to as Roto-Vegas because of the many neon-lit hotels along the main street, the numerous venues for gambling and the few brothels. Strangely though, there isn't much night life to speak of. The bar at the Hot Rocks Backpackers - the Lava Bar - is a good bet, alternatively you could try the Pig & Whistle, Fuse or the Fat Dog Cafe.
There are many hotels, rental homes, backpackers, motor homes, camp grounds, motels and bed and breakfasts around Rotorua.
This geothermal wonderland has some hazards. Respect safety signs and barriers around active geothermal locations - they are there for good reasons. The hot water and mud from geothermal springs can be boiling hot. Superheated steam may cause eruptions - after all it is steam that makes the geysers spout.
The sulphurous smell (that rotten eggs smell) in the air means that some toxic gases may also be present. Take care in confined and unventilated spaces, particularly those below ground level or around geothermal pools. Toxic geothermal gases have been known to asphyxiate people.
Avoid bathing in geothermal pools where the water has been in contact with the ground. At the very least do not put your head underwater. Geothermal ground water can carry the bacteria and/or amoebae that cause meningitis - a disease which can be fatal.
While New Zealand is a tourist paradise it should be remembered that as with most countries petty theft is a common occurrence. With so many of Rotorua's thermal wonders being situated in isolated areas it pays to take notice of the warning signs and to keep cars locked with valuables hidden from view so as not to have your visit ruined by petty opportunistic crime. In particular Kuirau Park after dark and Okere Falls are well known for car thefts and muggings. Expensive items taken to places like backpackers also need particular attention.
Heading south from Rotorua takes you to Taupo, a similar town on the side of New Zealand's largest lake. Northwest takes you to Te Puke, Tauranga and the Bay of Plenty coastline, a nice place to soak up the sun. There are two routes; via Te Puke and SH30 brings you into Tauranga via Mount Maunganui. The recently completed SH36 is a shorter in land route that climbs to around 2000 feet before dropping to the coast. This is the route most locals would use and avoids Tauranga CBD traffic if heading for the Coromandel.
Whakatane is another coastal town in the Eastern Bay of Plenty, with empty beaches and one of the best climates in terms of hours of sunshine.