Bay of Plenty : Rotorua
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
- Government Gardens is an immaculate park near the CBD, where there is also the city museum (small entry charge) and the famous Blue Baths. Nearby is the Sportsdrome and one of the many golf courses.
- The Lakes - there are 14 to choose from. Lake Rotorua gives its name to the city and boat trips can be arranged to Mokoia Island in the centre. The lakefront has a scenic promenade from where you can see Mokoia Island. From the Lakefront scenic floatplane or helicopter scenic flights can be taken. Alternatively a cheaper option is to take the Amphibious truck from Fenton Street, which does a 90 minute tour of several of the main lakes in the area. All the lakes are stocked with trout and fishing is very popular.
- Motutara (Sulphur Bay) - Fantastic walkway starting just beyond the government gardens. The walkway passes through several geothermal hot springs and sulpher vents (the posted warnings to stay on the pathway at all times are no joke.) The bay itself hosts many waterbirds and other wildlife.
- Whakarewarewa Forest AKA The Redwoods ; accessible either from Tarawera Road (where there is a visitors centre) or from SH5 on the Taupo Highway. Around 1900 New Zealand began a program of planting imported trees here to see which species grows best in NZ. A 6 hectare grove of majestic redwoods is surrounded by forest with other types of trees. Spectacular walks, mountain bike tracks (over 60km in total) and riding trails. Bikes can be hired from bike shops in the city, although Planet Bike also usually have a truck with hire gear at the main car park.
- Rotorua Walkway - A 26km scenic walkway around Rotorua incorporating most of the above as well as several other parks and sights. Pick up a brochure for a map and explanations or download one in PDF format from the district council website in the above link.
Things to See requiring Paid Admission
- Waimangu Volcanic Valley  - born from the massive 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera, is the world’s newest geothermal eco-system, and an exciting and dramatic destination that the whole family can enjoy. Whatever your age or fitness level, you'll find something that suits you - self guided and guided easy walks, advanced hikes and boat cruise experiences, ranging in duration from 45 minutes to over 4 hours. If you want outdoor activity, peaceful New Zealand bush, unique ecology, rare botany and stunning geothermal features, then Waimangu is the 'must do' experience. It is easily accessible, just 20 minutes south of Rotorua, and 40 minutes north of Taupo. Open daily from 8.30AM.
- Okere Falls - approximately 20km out of the city towards Tauranga on SH33 you will pass the end of Lake Rotoiti; most of the 14 lakes flow into Rotoiti, which itself heads off to the Bay of Plenty, descending nearly 1000 feet in less than 30km. For this reason it boasts some of the most spectacular white water challenges available to the intrepid traveller. These range from dual kayaks, to white water sledging (hurling yourself down stream with a life jacket and float), or rafting. Tuteas Fall is the worlds largest/highest commercially rafted fall; with a 7m drop, on average every fourth boat flips! If you don't want to get wet there is a pleasant 6km walk though the forest where you can see the activities at close hand. There are also some small caves where glow worms can be found.
- Te Puia  home to the Whakarewarewa Valley of geothermal activity, including bubbling mud pools and geisers. General admission is $40, but once inside there are regular, free guided tours throughout the park, including the geothermal areas, the marae, and the kiwi house. There are also Maori cultural experiences like traditional dances and meals available for an additional charge. Now under construction to become an even more mega-attraction.
- Whakarewarewa Thermal Village  the main competitor to Te Puia - ironically two Maori iwi competing with similar attractions. Good, and appears less developed and maybe more "authentic" than the next door Te Puia.
- Skyline Skyrides  (Fairy Springs Road) -- located on the outskirts of town, this gondola ride up Mt. Ngongotaha offers a panoramic view of Rotorua and the surrounding mountains.
- Rainbow Springs Nature Park Beautifully landscaped nature park featuring sculptured ponds with cuy fish and gardens including Kiwi birds and other native New Zealand animals.
- The Agrodome  (State Highway 5 North of Ngongotaha) -- An agricultural park with farm animals, shows and exhibitions describing rural life in New Zealand both past and present. Both the sheep show and the farm tour are both exceptional! As well as the farming attractions, the Agrodome is home to the Freefall Experience simulator, the north islands highest bungee jump, a jet boat ride and the ubiquitous Zorb - where you are sealed inan inflatable ball and rolled down a steep hill!
- The Buried Village  -- Self-descriptive, the village was swamped with ash by the nearby Mt. Tarawera in the massive 1886 eruption which killed 153 people.
- Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland  -- A great park to see a variety of geothermal landscapes and active volcano activities, including the Lady Knox Geyser, which is a famous geyser that erupts daily to heights of 10 to 20 m.
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.
- Polynesian Spa, Hinemoa Street, ☎ +647 3481328, . 8am - 11pm daily. Provides a fusion of relaxing hot mineral spring bathing, spa therapies and picturesque lake views. Voted a World Top Ten Spa by Conde Nast Traveller magazine at the 2004-2007, and 2009 Annual Spa Awards. Relaxing hot mineral bathing is offered in 26 hot mineral spring pools in four areas – deluxe Lake Spa, Adult Pools & Priest Spa, Private Pools or Family Spa. The Lake Spa offers 4 alkaline mineral pools from 36°C to 42°C. Well appointed changing facilities include towels, lockers, soap, shampoo and hairdryers, plus a lake view relaxation lounge with refreshments available. The Adult Pools & Priest Spa is a popular adult only area with 4 alkaline mineral pools, plus 3 acidic mineral pools with waters from the Radium hot spring. Six of these seven pools have views over Lake Rotorua. Privacy is offered in one of 13 Private Pools, set at 39°C and available for 30 minutes hire. The Family Spa offers one large chlorinated pool (with a small hydro slide) plus two alkaline mineral pools. Set amid native flora, the exclusive Lake Spa Retreat is an inviting relaxation haven, providing an array of enticing massage, spa and hydro therapies. All spa therapies include Lake Spa bathing and start at $85 for a half hour (bookings are essential). Also includes a café that serves light cuisine, and a spa essentials store.
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.
- Hamurana Lodge, 415 Hamurana Road, ☎ +64 21 332 2222 ([email protected]), . Hotel in a two-store building with a restaurant featuring Mediterranean cuisine with ingredents grown in hotel's garden.
- Kiwi paka Backpackers Rotorua, 60 Tarewa Road, Rotorua ph +64 7 347 0931, . Located in a park like setting , the hostel is within easy walking distance of the City Centre, thermal pools and many of Rotorua's Famous Attractions and Activities. Kiwi paka Backpackers is part of the Nomads network.
- Rydges Rotorua, 272 Fenton Street ph 1300 857 922, . Located in a park like setting on the edge of Rotorua's Arawa Racecourse, the hotel is within easy walking distance of the City Centre, Rotorua Convention Centre, Rotorua Churches and many of Rotorua's Famous Attractions and Activities. Rydges Hotels and Resorts is an Australian owned and operated company.
- Ventura Inn & Suites Rotorua, Cnr Fenton & Victoria Sts, ph +64 7 350 2211 . Centrally located within easy walking distance of shopping, restaurant and attractions
- Silver Fern Luxury Accommodation & Spa, 326 Fenton Street, ph 0800 118 808, . Located a short walk from the centre of Rotorua, the convention centre, and the new Rotorua Events Centre. It is is in park-like grounds and spacious accommodation for visitors to Rotorua. Also incorporates a day spa.
- The Springs Luxury Inn, 16 Devon Street (Just off Fenton Street in central city), ☎ 07 348 9922, . checkin: 1500; checkout: 1100. The Springs is an elegant purpose built Bed and Breakfast. Each Guest Room has an ensuite bathrooms and a door to a private terrace giving access to a rose garden. $350.
- Quest Serviced Apartments, 7 Tryon Street Whakarewarewa, Rotorua North Island 3010, ☎ 64 7 347 3333, . Self-contained accommodation in the heart of the geothermal area of Rotorua located just a minute’s walk from the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Resort
- Heritage Rotorua (formerly Park Heritage Rotorua), Corner of Froude and Tryon Streets, ☎ +64 7 348 1189, . Four star plus hotel, with suites available. Pohutu Cultural Theatre with nightly Maori cultural show and Steam Pit Hangi feast. Free shuttle runs from hotel to i-Site office in town from 8am to 9:15pm.
- All Seasons Holiday Park, 50-58 Lee Road, Hannahs Bay, ☎ +64 7 345 6240, . Offers a choice of affordable, self catering accommodation in 3 hectares of peaceful parkland close to Lake Rotorua - motel units, tourist flats, cabins, backpackers lodge, camping & campervan sites
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 Zealands largest lake. North west 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.
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