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Rotorua, in the heart of the North Island of New Zealand, is best known for its areas of spectacular geothermal activity.

But there's a lot more than geysers and boiling mud pools to see and do around the Rotorua area.

 
 
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What to See and Do in Rotorua

Key information for the intending visitor
 

Alternating scenes of unworldly geothermal activity interleaved with unspoiled native bush make a bizarre but beautiful contrast in Rotorua, the center of New Zealand's geothermal activity.

Part of a series on travel to and in New Zealand - click the links in the right hand column for more articles.

 

 

When you enter Rotorua, you immediately sense you're entering a part of the planet entirely unlike any other.  The smells, sights, and sounds of its geothermal activity all combine to convince you of Rotorua's uniqueness.

But, alongside the 'surface of the moon' landscapes you'll find unspoiled native bush and forest, gorgeous waterfalls, sweeping vistas, and native Maori culture; all interwoven in a rich tourist tapestry to make Rotorua a 'must visit' part of your travels in New Zealand.

 

Getting to and from Rotorua

Rotorua is located less than three hours drive southeast of Auckland.  Most people are either coming from (or subsequently going to) Auckland.

You can get to Rotorua by rental car, scheduled inter-city bus service, by air, or as part of a tour - either a formal tour of NZ or a short mini-tour taking you only to Rotorua.  Train service used to run from Auckland to Rotorua, but that was discontinued a few years ago and alas is not expected to be revived any time soon.

If you're driving yourself, we recommend your journey between Auckland and Rotorua include a detour to the Waitomo Caves.  These caves have glow-worms that form a blue/green carpet of lights on the tops of the caves.  After visiting some of the regular caves, you journey through the glow-worm populated caves on a boat (there's a river running through them) in silence and darkness, interrupted only by the glow-worms above.  An amazing sight.

If traveling between Rotorua and the southern parts of NZ's North Island, you could easily do the journey all the way to/from Wellington and Rotorua in a day, but if time allows you should include time in Hawkes Bay on the east coast as well.

If you're on a short tour of New Zealand, you might choose to fly between Rotorua (airport code ROT) and Queenstown, saving you several days of travel time between the two top tourism spots in the country.  Both Qantas and Air New Zealand operate several flights a day between these tourist Meccas; generally the flights include a quick stop en route.

On a clear day, the flight shows you the beauty of New Zealand from the air, and you'll be able to see all across the country from the Tasman Sea on the west to the Pacific Ocean on the east.  Be sure to ask for a window seat, and try to select a 737 jet service (ie with Qantas) that will fly over the sometimes turbulent weather en route rather than a smaller regional plane (more likely with Air NZ) that would have to fly through it.

Where to Stay in Rotorua

Rotorua offers a wide range of accommodation styles, ranging from back-packer hostels to deluxe fishing lodges.

If you're staying just for a night or two, then perhaps one of the centrally located hotels would be a convenient choice.  The Lake Plaza Hotel is Rotorua's largest hotel, centrally located, and of good quality, especially in their recently renovated rooms.  The hotel also has an excellent buffet breakfast, and often has discounted rates available directly from its website.

Another good central hotel is Novotel's Royal Lakeside Resort, and if you have a car, the Regal Geyserland Hotel up at Whakarewarewa can offer stunning views over the adjacent geothermal areas if you request and obtain a room on that side (rather than the less appealing road side) of the hotel.

If you'd like to treat yourself to an exclusive lodge a bit out of town, then Solitaire Lodge would be your best choice.  Not quite so luxurious - and not nearly so expensive - is the still lovely Lake Tarawera Lodge.

Consider motel choices

If you're staying a bit longer, consider staying in a motel, the same way most New Zealanders do.

Motels in New Zealand are not the cheap and sleazy places with rooms rented by the hour that Americans often associate with the word 'motel'.  Instead they are usually of a high standard, and offer some cooking facilities and possibly separate bedroom(s) as well as a living area.  A motel typically doesn't have an on-site restaurant, although some motels will bring you breakfast in the morning to your room.

Motels are great if you want to spread out in a more spacious unit, and if you would like to be able to store and serve some food yourself.

Rotorua has a vast number of motels to choose from, most of which being close to the center of the small central shopping area.

Motels are generally less expensive, per night, than hotels, and offer more living space in their units.

Many motels belong to a national rating system called 'Qualmark'.  Look for a motel with a Qualmark rating of at least four stars as an indicator of good quality.

Mineral Spa Pools

Wherever you choose to stay, and whether it be hotel or motel, you should ensure it offers natural hot water spa pools direct from a geothermal bore.

These spa pools are very common in Rotorua, and give you a personal and private opportunity to soak in the mineral rich waters fresh from the depths of the earth.

Some people believe the waters have curative powers; others impute the same values to some of the boiling mud, using it for body or facial mud packs.  Whether or not any of this this is true is subject to debate, but for sure you'll definitely find a mineral spa experience a memorable and distinctive part of your Rotorua stay.

For best enjoyment, select a hotel or motel with private spa pools rather than one with a larger communal pool.  Most properties offer these private pool facilities free to their guests.

How Long to Stay in Rotorua

We recommend three nights as the minimum time to stay in Rotorua.  The first night would be the day you arrive into Rotorua, probably latish in the day after traveling from somewhere else.

The second night gives you a full day to sightsee around the region, and the third night gives you a second full day of sightseeing, prior to departing the next morning and traveling on to your next NZ destination.

If you're staying for three or more weeks, you could consider adding another night to your time in Rotorua.  And if you're on a short 7 - 10 day tour, you could cut back to only two nights.

What to See and Do in Rotorua

Rotorua is bursting with many different things to see and do.  The problem is not finding things to do, but choosing which things to do from the vast range of different activities available.

The following list represents activities that we have on our own personal 'must do' list, and which other people have generally found to be high quality experiences, too.  Use this as a suggested starting point for planning your own time.

Te Puia

The Whakarewarewa area, close to the city center, has long been the best known place to visit and see both some Maori culture and some geothermal activity.

Several years ago the complex split into two separate parts.  The top area, including most of the geothermal park and the Arts and Crafts Center, is now known as Te Puia.  As well as these two major attractions, there is also a Kiwi house in which you can see one or two of NZ's national birds.

Guided tours run hourly at no extra charge and can make your experience more interesting.  Allow a couple of hours to visit Te Puia, and perhaps ten minutes for the roundtrip drive from downtown.

Whakarewarewa

The other part of the original Whakarewarewa is the Maori village down the bottom of the hill.  This retains the original name, and gives you an experience more focused on the lives of the local Maoris and how they live in the geothermal area and use the steam and heat.

Some/most of the guides are very personable and make your experience much more enjoyable.  A guided tour is included in the admission fee.

You can also see across to some of the most distinctive parts of what is know known as Te Puia, immediately adjacent.

Allow 90 minutes to tour around Whakarewarewa, and perhaps ten minutes for the roundtrip drive from downtown.

The Buried Village

In 1886 a massive eruption of a nearby volcano (Mt Tarawera) and the ash and mud which followed obliterated much of the nearby surroundings, including the small settlement then known as Te Wairoa.

Today it is possible to tour around the partially excavated ruins of what can be considered New Zealand's equivalent to Pompeii, at the place now simply referred to as the Buried Village.

You first have a chance to walk through a well presented museum, then you can tour around the open air remains of the former village.  But don't then turn around and walk back.  Instead, continue down along the lovely trout stream, and take the path down to the base of an impressive 100' waterfall and enjoy the walk back up the other side.  This is a lovely bush walk and gives a very different added dimension to the location.

Allow an hour to an hour and a half at the Buried Village, and half an hour for the lovely drive to/from the center of the city.  Perhaps extend your time a bit further with a stop at the Blue and Green Lakes en route - there is a viewing point between these two lakes where you can observe the blue color of one lake and the green color of the other lake.

You might also choose to drive a few miles further to Lake Tarawera, where there are some lovely picnic stops to look out over the lake and to the remains of Mt Tarawera itself (a lot of the mountain disappeared in the 1886 eruption, which was many times greater than the Mt St Helens eruption in the US in the early 1980s).

Allow 60 - 90 minutes at the Buried Village, and 45 minutes roundtrip traveling time to and from.

Wai-O-Tapu

Eighteen miles south of Rotorua is the Wai-O-Tapu geothermal area.  Billing itself as NZ's most colorful geothermal area, this site does indeed have several pools of intensely colored water, plus a wide variety of other sights, including a large geyser that erupts every day at 10.15am, large silica terraces, and lovely walks alternating between bush and geothermal sights.

Note that the Lady Knox geyser is actually situated a short distance away from the rest of the area.  You probably will choose to drive back to the geyser site after buying your tickets at the main entrance facility.

If time allows, take the longest of the three walk options.  Plan on two hours for this, and possibly more if you're not in a hurry and want to savor every sight along the way, plus about 45 minutes travel time roundtrip between Wai-O-Tapu and downtown Rotorua.

This should be high on the list of places you visit.

The Agrodome

Depending on who tells the story, there are anywhere between about 18 and 22 different breeds of sheep in New Zealand.  Some are bred for wool, others for meat; some for high country, some for warmer areas.

At The Agrodome you'll see just about every type of sheep there is (19 different breeds), plus the amazing sheep dogs that are tasked with controlling the sheep.  An entertaining show tells you about this vital part of NZ's agricultural economy, and you even see a sheep completely shorn of its fleece.

Audience members have a chance to milk a cow and feed lambs on stage.

There are typically three performances each day.  Allow 60 - 75 minutes for your visit, plus half an hour to get there and back from town.

Tamaki Maori Village

Most of the larger hotels offer Maori hangi feasts and concerts in their hotels.  Don't waste your time and money attending one of these very artificial events.  Instead, you absolutely must include an evening visit to the Tamaki Maori Village as part of your Rotorua experience.

This is an evening tour.  You'll be collected from your accommodation at about 7pm and returned back at about 10.30pm.  You're driven out to their village, about 15 - 20 minutes out of Rotorua, where a traditional welcoming ceremony greets you.  You then walk through the village - an atmospheric recreation of a Maori village prior to the arrival of European settlers, nestled in among the trees of the forest.  Local Maoris demonstrate traditional crafts as you walk through.

Next you're invited in to their meeting house where a concert is presented.  And then the part of the evening you've probably been waiting for - a Maori hangi feast.  A hangi is prepared by placing food in an earthen oven with white hot stones at the bottom providing heat, and damp mats over the layers of food providing steam and temperature control.  A range of meats and vegetables are offered, buffet style, and you're welcome to eat as much as you like.  Lovely desserts complete the meal.

After some free time in the village, a closing farewell ceremony ends the experience and you're driven back to your accommodation.  All in all, a marvelous and complete Maori experience.

Other Sights and Attractions

Rotorua is full of geothermal areas.  As you drive around the city, you'll see wisps of steam coming out of drains by the side of the road, from people's back-yards, and just about everywhere else.  Kuirau Park is a lovely nature preserve close to the city center which has pockets of geothermal activity all the way through.  Further out of the city are places such as Hell's Gate (with some communal mud baths) and Waimangu, both of which are worth a visit if you have extra time.

The historic (but modernized) Polynesian Spa offers a range of health and beauty treatments using the geothermal muds and waters from the area.  It has been rated one of the top ten spas in the world, two years in a row (2004 and 2005) by Conde Nast Traveller magazine.

Rotorua is a fisherman's delight, with 15 fishable lakes in the immediate vicinity.

Many other activities and sights can be found around the Rotorua area.  A luge ride down the slope of a hill, flightseeing, water sports, fine dining, and bizarre things such as the Zorb are all there to tempt you.

For more information

See this website - the official Rotorua Tourism website - for more information about Rotorua.

For more information

Click the links in the top right of this page for additional helpful information about travel to and in New Zealand.
 

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Originally published 11 Nov 2005, last update 02 Jul 2017

 
 
 
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