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Rotorua, New Zealand

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Did You Know … ?

  • The famous White Terrace, formed by thermal waters, covered seven acres and was 98 feet high.
  • Rotorua’s Bath House is New Zealand’s most photographed building.
  • Lady Knox Geyser can be prompted to erupt by dumping soap down its throat.
  • When a Maori warrior sticks out his tongue, he is saying, “You would taste good.”
  • Until 1886, the now-inactive Waimangu Geyser was the world’s largest (1,640 feet).

Thermal wonderland

Rotorua stinks. Which is to say, the city is in such a hot spot — thermally speaking — that along with the steam rising from parks and just about anyplace, the air is infused with the odor of sulfur. That stinky beginning holds a lot of promise for tourists, for those who seek the comforts of hot springs and mineral-rich mud and for those who get their kicks wondering at the marvels of nature. Those marvels are abundant here.

In addition, Rotorua is a center for the Maori culture. Visitors have a lot of choices, ranging from viewing typical Maori architecture to overnighting in a traditional meetinghouse (marae), from eating at a hangi (where food is cooked in an earth oven) to learning how to do a war dance (haka).

As if that were not enough, this is New Zealand. While other parts of the country have better claims as its extreme-sports capital, the adventurous can risk life and limb here, too.

The Maori settled the Rotorua area more than 600 years ago. They attached fantastical stories to the thermal wonders — and, as they still do, harnessed the hot waters for bathing, cooking and heat.

The Maori also were 19th century tour guides, taking foreigners to the phenomenal Pink and White Terraces, large terraced silica formations. Then, the terraces entered the world of myth, too, when the volcano, Mount Tarawera, blew its top in 1886, destroying the terraces, smothering villages and killing at least 150. The explosion created Lake Rotomahana. Still, mineral-rich waters bubble, boil, gurgle and leap from the ground in and around Rotorua.

The Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve deftly epitomizes the area’s attractions. It has burbling mud pools, and its Pohutu Geyser, almost constantly active, spits scalding water 100 feet into the air. Whakarewarewa Forest is a playground for those who want to stretch their legs or ride a bicycle.

The Whakarewarewa grounds include a model Maori village, site of cultural shows, and the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, where visitors watch and learn as the Maori pursue age-old crafts. Finally, tourists see the national icon in the reserve’s Kiwi House.

Things to do for Venturers

  • Board the gondola to the top of Mount Ngongotaha. Then, if you are confident, luge back down the side of the mountain on a purpose-built track.
  • To learn more about the special aspects of Maori traditions, arrange for an overnight stay in a marae, hosted by an extended Maori family.
  • Learn to do the haka, a traditional Maori dance, at Haka World.
  • Hop on a mountain bike, or a horse, and ride through the Whakarewarewa Forest.
  • Hike around the edge of the crater of Mount Tarawera, then take a scree run (a run through the loose rubble on a mountain slope) into the crater itself. Or for another quick way down a hill, try zorbing. This is a matter of rolling down the side of a hill inside a giant inflated ball.
  • Choose whitewater rafting over the rapids of the Rangitaiki River. Or ride your raft over the waterfall on the Kaituna River, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in New Zealand.

Things to do for Centrics

  • Fish for trout on one of the area’s 16 lakes. Then, ask the chef at your hotel to prepare your catch for dinner.
  • See the now-dormant crater of Mount Tarawera — and a lot of other area natural wonders — on a flightseeing excursion.
  • Visit the excavations at Te Wairoa, the village that was buried by the Mount Tarawera eruption in 1886.
  • Play at the Rotorua Golf Club, and watch out for the boiling mud pots.
  • Explore Rotorua and area on foot, beginning with the 16-mile Rotorua Walkway that envelopes the city.
  • Attend a hangi event (where meats and vegetables are cooked in an earth oven) at the Tamaki Maori Village.

Things to do for Authentics

  • Have a traditional Maori massage or choose the mud bath at the Hell’s Gate thermal park.
  • Take lunch, tea or dinner aboard the Lakeland Queen, a paddlewheel vessel, on Lake Rotorua.
  • See a Maori culture show which includes a welcome ceremony followed by a dance program.
  • Tour the Rotorua Bath House, for a look at older spa facilities, and see a film on the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera that destroyed the Pink and White Terraces.
  • Attend a farm show to watch sheep shearers and working sheepdogs.
  • Learn a thing or two at woodcarving and flax-weaving demonstrations at the Maori Arts and Craft Institute on the grounds of the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve in Rotorua.

Additional Resources

For more information, consult Destination Rotorua at