GUEST ARTICLE: Be prepared for an all round sensory experience as you drive into Rotorua or ‘Roto Vegas’ as the locals aptly admit.
The sulphurous smell will hit you first, followed by the sight of billowing steam vents and then a conga line of motels/hotels as far as the eye can see, many promising you access to a private sulphur pool.
Make careful and informed choices of which attractions you want to visit because over the past four years some ticket prices have doubled or tripled, with many sites offering similar hyperbolic experiences with optional extras at a hefty price.
None of the brochures will have ticket prices, so visit their website or go the friendly I-site and find out first. A good money saver is the 5 Star Super Pass, from the I-site for $68 ($25 total saving). It combines entry to the Skyline Gondola, Te Puia Maori Cultural Centre and the Polynesian Spa – 3 principal attractions which you are sure to visit.
If you’re on a tight budget and all you want to see is the ‘classic quartet’ of geothermal features – small mud pools, steaming vents, a large bubbling hot pool, and a geyser you can do it all for free if you know how! Visit Kuirau Park – not your ordinary neighbourhood park.
It showcases a taster of all these things (minus a geyser), but its still a remarkable experience knowing that its very similar to what you will see in an expensive tourist swarmed geothermal reserve, all located in a residential area! Signs encourage you to keep an eye on your car though as it seems to be a thief magnet – I didn’t have any issues though.
Drive into the front entrance of Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Park and check out a huge bubbling mud pool spitting violently and then see the Lady Knox Geyser erupt about 20 metres into the air at 10:15am after the grounds keeper adds some soap into its spout!
They don’t tell you, but these exciting features are actually not part of the reserve entry ticket ($27.50) because they’re naturally occurring outside the boundary of the main reserve. Wai-o-Tapu is worth a visit though to see a range of yellow, neon green, orange and white geothermal activity up close without obtrusive fences.
The view of Lake Rotorua from the Skyline Gondola is okay, but it seems that the main reason why people come is to ride the Luge (discounted to NZ$5 with the Super Pass). There are three tracks to cater for all skill levels. Its an exciting way to ride down the side of Mount Ngongotaha and come back up in a chairlift. It can become addictive as the ‘just one more go’ factor looms large.
Don’t fall into the trap of forking out for an exclusive private pool at the Polynesian Spa. I almost had the whole complex to myself even though it was peak Christmas season. Sure I went in the morning, which was supposed to be quieter, but from 10.30am to 1:30 pm, a total of 15 other people visited the four pools (out of six) that were open.
Take a dip in the hottest sulphur pool (42 degrees Celsius) situated near the edge of Lake Rotorua and you’ll have the company of a dozen or more seagulls having a sip while you relax. To prevent severe dehydration, don’t stay for too long without a large water bottle handy.
A visit to Te Puia, located in the Whakawerawera Valley is worth it because you can get a free guided tour and experience a Maori concert, the ‘haka’ war dance, a mini village setting, kiwis in a dark enclosure, geysers, small mud pools, hot springs, blue pools, cooking pools and an interactive audio visual educational room.
Grab lunch at Burgerfuel, a Kiwi gourmet burger chain with a difference. The choices are both creative and delicious. The ‘combustion vege’ was a taste sensation for a good price. They’ve even invented a clever cardboard burger holder to catch any drips or slips!
2 hours at Rotorua Museum ($11) is an excellent way to learn about the tactical roles played by the Maoris in the WWI and WWII and gain an historical understanding of the geothermal and volcanic activity that has made Rotorua what it is today.
Catch a short movie screening to learn about the healing powers of natural sulphur and mud spas and then visit the basement and rooftop spa exhibits – after all the Museum was originally a bath house!
Don’t waste time on the commercialised Maori village experiences unless you’re hung up on sampling a traditional Maori ‘Hanngi’ feast. Instead, drop by Ohinemutu, a tiny, but real life working Maori village on the edge of Lake Rotorua. There’s an authentic meetinghouse and steam spews out of the river inlet, gutters and even backyard vents!
This article has been written by Pranav Bhatt. He is a graduate of the Faculty of Economics and Business at Sydney University. He has an interest in world travel, cricket, politics, technology and the media.
If you’ve travelled somewhere off the beaten track, can write well and have good quality photos I encourage you to contact me and I’ll consider publishing your travel diary here including generous attribution and links back to your website as thanks for your contribution