I had a killer time in Rotorua, and reckon I’d share my rough itinerary in case anyone wants to have a go at it the way I did. If you’re in the Auckland area and have some time to burn, this trip is highly recommended. As a note, though, if you’re a huge geology nerd (like me) then all the volcanic features and scars of recent geologic catastrophism will really get your rocks off (har har). If cool stuff like Maori culture, exploding geysers, lush native forests, and steaming volcanic vents bore you to tears then maybe Roto isn’t the place for you.
A brief background on Roto for anyone unfamiliar (as I was prior to my visit):
Rotorua is a town on the edge of the volcanic crater lake of the same name in the Taupo Volcanic Rift Valley. Around 1,800 years ago, the volcano where Lake Taupo now lies exploded in the most violent eruption the planet has ever seen. It sent more material into the air than any other single event and blanketed Earth with a fine layer that scientists have identified in the Greenland ice core samples and several other places. It slashed a series of gaping craters tracing northeast from Taupo to Rotorua, and farther toward Tauranga on the coast. When you’re in Rotorua the sulfur smell will instantly hit you, but don’t worry it’s not the eggy, farty smell you might be dreading – you get used to it kinda quickly and it won’t really bother you. Despite having a big tourist draw, Roto has a much more lived-in feel, as you’re likely to pass through residential areas during your visit. The population is over 35% Maori, and this is readily apparent as you see more Maori residents here than in most other popular tourist hotspots. Rotorua is also a great place to visit a marae (traditional Maori ceremonial complex) and see a cultural performance in a wharenui (“big house”, the main meeting hall in a marae). It’s worth noting that anywhere else, you can only visit a marae by making prior arrangements – you can’t just pop in and poke around – and these arrangements are super easy at cultural centers around Rotorua.
Day One: Auckland to Rotorua
This day sounds packed but it’s actually pretty chill. Drive from Auckland down to Rotorua, but give yourself time to take a pit stop for at least 4 hours to take the Te Waihou Walkway to the Blue Springs.
What you need in your daypack:
- Togs and towel for a swim (be warned the water can be very cold!)
- Comfortable shoes or something along the lines of Chacos.
- Some device that takes pictures.
- A snack and water.
I went around midday on Boxing Day (26 December) and it was a madhouse with visitors jockeying for parking and such, but regulars say it’s not normally so packed.
If you’re up for a long hike (2-3 hours return, plus stops), access the trail from the parking area off Hwy 28/Whites Rd. If you’re only keen for a short walk and a quick dip, drive around to the trailhead on Leslie Road. If that lot happens to be full, you’ll be able to park along the side of the road (as long as you’re not blocking other cars from passing).
After your hike, you’ll pass through Hamilton (which has beautiful parks along the road overlooking the river) and Cambridge – two cities where you’ll have a good chance to top off petrol or top off your caffeine cravings if you’re running low before your final approach to Rotorua.
Once you get settled into your accommodations in Rotorua, throw on your togs and take a walk to the shores of Lake Rotorua. Go barefoot like a true Kiwi and poke your toes around to find a warm spot in the shelly sand, then dig a shallow pit big enough to sit in and you have yourself a hot water pool! More popular hot water beaches can be found elsewhere in this region of the North Island, but you’re unlikely to be crowded on the shores of Rotorua. If you go into a proper hot pool, remember the warnings posted: do NOT submerge your head; there’s a risk of meningitis. Have a good soak but don’t take that risk.
After your soak, clean up and walk down to “Eat Streat”, the main drag where trendy bars and eateries are mostly concentrated. I really enjoyed Atticus Finch, Fat Dog, and Brew (which also happens to be the main site for Rotorua’s own microbrewery, Croucher Brewing Company).
Day Two: Wai-O-tapu & Lady Knox Geyser
What to pack in your daypack:
- Water and a light snack
- Wear comfortable shoes
Get up early-ish and hit the road out of Rotorua by 8am so you arrive at the Wai-O-tapu visitor center around 830am (when the park opens to visitors). Trust us on this. Buy your tickets to the park and walk around the smoldering vents, steaming hot pools, and gurgling mud pits for about an hour and a half. While on your loop around this part of the park, be sure to catch the renowned Champagne Pools and the Devil’s Bath – a fluorescent greenish pool of dissolved minerals that looks otherworldly. You can cover this area of the park in an hour and a half at a good pace, including time to take some photos and “ooh-ahh” at the geologic features. Around 10am, high-tail it back to the parking lot and scoot over to the super secret location of the Lady Knox geyser (they tell you how to get there once you buy a ticket). Park like a respectable human being, then walk down a very short path to the amphitheater where you can view the geyser. It’s a good idea to pay attention to the wind, because the geyser will soak you and your camera if you sit downwind of it (as we witnessed about a dozen people get drenched). The Lady Knox Geyser erupts every 24 hours at 1015am and shoots a blast of foamy water fairly high. The eruption lasts about 5 to 7 minutes and then there’s a mad rush to get to the parking lot. Most visitors to Waiotapu arrive just in time to see the eruption and then scramble to go see the thermal pools (which you should’ve taken our advice and seen before). After you negotiate your way out of the parking lot by Lady Knox Geyser, you can join the crowd for more sightseeing around the thermal pools in case you missed anything or just want another look (the area near Champagne Pool was our favorite part of the park, to be honest). If you’re on your way out of Wai-O-tapu, you can make one last stop on the right-hand side just before exiting the park, where you can get up close to bubbling mud pits. They’re pretty fun to watch.
After returning to Rotorua, I wandered around the area of town near Eat Streat, grabbed some coffee, then ate lunch on Eat Streat and spent the rest of the day lounging around and swimming in hot pools.
Day Three: Adventure Time!
I started my third day in Rotorua by hitting the road (once again around 8am) to arrive at the Waimangu Valley thermal park around 830am (when the park opens to visitors). Tickets are a bit pricey (if memory serves, about $30-35 NZD each), but Waimangu has top-notch hiking and sightseeing with breathtaking long-range views down the volcanic crater-pocked valley, and dramatic thermal vents, hot pools, and streams tucked into the native forest. Waimangu is one of the youngest geologic areas on the planet, being mostly formed in the early to mid 1900s through a series of catastrophic eruptions (the most recent being in the 1970s). It is also the only example in the world of a native forest completely regenerating after total destruction (everywhere else on the planet, invasive pioneer species outcompete devastated native flora). Another one-of-a-kind feature of Waimangu is a crypto-geyser, Inferno Pool, which periodically overflows and empties and then refills (about every 24-72 hours). Waimangu’s Frying Pan Lake is also the largest single hot spring in the world, and most of the first portion of the hiking trail offers stunning views of this lake and the thermal features in and around it.
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous
What to pack in your daypack:
- water and a decent snack or lunch
- good, comfortable athletic shoes or light hiking boots
There is a portion of the hiking trail at Waimangu where you can veer off and take a slightly more strenuous trek up to the summit of a ridge line before tracking back down into the rift valley. This route is recommended for more fit hikers, as the views from the summit are great and you don’t really miss anything notable on the easier route that stays in near the valley floor (I backtracked just to make sure). I hiked all the way to the lake, where visitors can walk out onto a dock and buy boat ride tickets for a guided tour of the lake. I skipped on that because we had other plans on my third day…
After Waimangu, I drove back to Rotorua and grabbed lunch. Then I headed up to the Rotorua Skyline gondola to ride the luge down the mountain. Ignore the fact that it’s a total tourist trap – it’s insanely fun! I closed this day out with a meal prepared back at our room, some fine NZ wine, and some good reads.
Day Four: Te Puia & The Road Home (or Elsewhere)
On my fourth and final day in Rotorua, I packed up the car and once again beat the crowds as we hit Te Puia, a Maori cultural center and thermal park. Tickets for entry to Te Puia are a little steep (around $45 NZD or more per person), but being a college student helped since received a discount for showing my student ID card. You definitely want to pay for the Maori cultural performances if you go to Te Puia. Similarly to Waiotapu, I spent a couple hours meandering through a reconstruction of a traditional pre-contact Maori marae, a kiwi (bird) habitat, and a rugged and very active thermal geologic area. The Te Puia geyser erupts almost nonstop, with just a scattered hiatus here and there that lasts only about 10 or 15 minutes before once again blasting water about 10 meters high and drenching less alert visitors.
After a tour around the thermal park, catch one of the Maori cultural shows for the real highlight of Te Puia. Details will be spared here so no surprises are spoiled, but the entrance to the marae will give you goosebumps and male visitors can learn to dance the haka (Maori warrior dance) in front of an audience. One of the fascinating things about the cultural performances is that visitors really get an understanding of how many aspects of Maori rituals are training for warfare. It’s a beautiful yet intimidating thing to see. Another highlight of the visit to the marae is being able to see intricate wood carving and other art up close.
After all that I took off to Mount Maunganui, about an hour and a half to the northeast, for a few more days of travel but this trip to Rotorua is easy to do from the Auckland area in a leisurely four days. It would be totally doable for three busier days too.
Update: here’s a collection of GoPro footage that includes some of my visits to the thermal features in the Taupo Volcanic Rift Valley near Rotorua. Enjoy!
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