When you arrive in the sulphurous city that is Rotorua, your first thought is ‘I can’t possibly stay here!’ Yes, the stench really is that bad. Hoteliers and locals alike will promise you that you won’t notice it after a few days. They lie. However, the rotten egg odour that hangs over the city does become less pungent as time goes by. More concerning than the city’s whiff are the unexpected steam vents which puff dangerously but merrily away, oblivious to the 21st Century trying to go about life all around it. Eating into wiring systems, destroying outdoor furniture and dismantling anything constructed with nails (the original Polynesian Spa rusted and collapsed and had to be rebuilt without nails), the acidic sulphur grinds away at everything. Bubbling mud pools, boiling steam and energetic geysers give Rotorua the edge when it comes to being one of the most accessible geothermally lively areas on earth.
Despite the stench, Rotorua is home to fascinating geological sights and a history you’ll be hard pressed to find elsewhere. Ancient Maori villages rub shoulders with geothermally heated spas in this area known as the Pacific Rim of Fire. Even on cold days (I went in NZ winter, July) you can warm up just by visiting any of the thermal features around – both free (Kuirau Park) and paid (Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland and Waimangu Volcanic Valley), or by slinking in to one of the many natural hot spas.
The tourism industry here has well and truly cashed in. You can drink wine in a cable car, explore the remains of a buried village and luge (think Mario Kart) your way down a ridiculously steep hill – all in the same day. Alternatively, you can take a scenic cruise across the lake, swing through treetops and try to get out of an escape room. But all these cost $$$, so instead of a spend-a-lot tourist guide, here’s a rundown of my top free, discounted and fun things to do in Rotorua.
Start your day acclimatising to the smell and navigate your way through Rotorua’s city highlights. Enjoy a delicious breakfast at the Fat Dog Café, and once stuffed, walk it off by heading up Arawa Street and going to Kuirau Park. Weave your way through the thermal delights of this park – prehistoric mud pools, steaming lakes and hissing rocks – until you are spat out at the other end. There are some foot baths in the park, but they were closed when I visited. Follow the signs along Lake Road to the Maori Village of Ohinemutu. Take time to explore this pretty little village, full of carvings and buildings and the by now familiar steamy vents. The village is free to stroll around (donations to enter the Church). Afterwards, picnic by Rotorua Lake and admire the territorial black swans from a distance – don’t feed them!
After lunch, follow the lake front stroll which leads you along fine sights including an intrinsically carved Maori war canoe and beautiful lakeside views of Mokoia Island. This island is home not only to endangered species such as Kiwi birds, but also a famous Maori love legend. In a Romeo and Juliet style story, Hinemoa, daughter of a high-ranking chief from the shores of Lake Rotorua, met the handsome but forbidden flute player Tutanekai of Mokoia Island. Separated by a lake and tribal customs, Tutanekai would serenade Hinemoa across the lake with his flute. Tempted by such tunes, Hinemoa took it upon herself to get more than music and swam to Mokoia Island. The next morning, she was found in bed with the roguish Tutanekai, and now the deed was done, she got her wish and they married. Now that’s girl power.
Continuing along this waterfront walk, you’ll also pass ‘laughing gas pool’, which is accompanied by a whole host of warning signs assuring you that if ignored they will not lead to laughter.
Treat Yourself – Polynesian Spa
What does lead to entertainment, however, are the water squirters set up to spray gulls away from the Polynesian Spa. According to one spa worker, the gulls like to nest by the spa (probably due to the temperature incubating their eggs for them), but they get aggressive when their young are hatched and dive bomb unsuspecting spa visitors. Fortunately, this method seems to be working, so after a day on your feet, treat yourself to a few hours enjoying the healing waters of the spa. It’s not the cheapest in the area, but the views are stunning. If a free option is more up your alley, check the Resources section below. The Polynesian Spa waters derive from the Priest Pool Spring and Rachel Spring, and it is the only spa to get waters from these sources. Both these have vast amounts of healing minerals in them, which cure all manner of ailments. The Priestly waters are apparently a cure-all for everything from arthritis to impotence, whereas those of the Rachel variety bless the bather with ageless beauty. (The Rachel Springs water was named after a Parisian cosmetician who at the time was convicted of making false claims, so take that last statement with a pinch of salt).
When I visited, despite spending several delightful hours watching it play out there was no clear winner it was a battle of gull vs spa. If you visit, please do comment and let me know the updates!
Rotorua has a road called ‘Eat Streat’ (not a typo) which hosts restaurants and bars of all manner of cuisines who are heated by, you guessed it, the geothermal energy beneath. Grab something to eat here, or if it’s a Thursday, head to the lively night market for scrumptious treats and local crafts.
Grab an authentic crepe and coffee at the Parisian café before going beyond the boundaries of sulphur city. A short drive will get you to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, which as the title suggests is rather wonderful. There’s also Waimangu Volcanic Valley which is meant to be pretty amazing, but I didn’t visit so can’t give an opinion on it.
Using silly names like ‘Champagne Lake’ and ‘Devils Bath’, this attraction has successfully and safely enabled travellers to experience all manner of weird and wonderful formations, geological wonders and, yes, stenches. Champagne Lake happens to be nothing like champagne, and I certainly wouldn’t recommend drinking from it, but it does boast heady hues of bright orange and turquoise. Steam puffs across its expanse and smogs up camera lenses, whilst behind tourists totter on a wooden walkway dubiously positioned over volcanic ledges. Devils Bath is a gloriously lurid colour, and is one of the only places in the world where wearing hi vis is camouflage.
There are three routes you can take through the wonderland, and bonuses include an off-site mud pool and a Geyser who erupts abruptly precisely at 10:15am (with a little help from some organic soap). Wandering through the wonderland, you begin to wonder if this is what earth was like for the dinosaurs. If so, it must have really sucked being a dinosaur, because everywhere would have smelled like Rotorua. My one complaint about this attraction was the lack of dinosaurs (fake, obviously), as for me it would have made the experience all the more exciting. But I am probably the only adult who actively seeks out such things. (There is, I later discovered, a Dinosaur Kingdom on the outskirts of Auckland…)
When leaving wonderland, it is worth having a drink at the Waiotapu Tavern opposite the driveway. Here the beer is cheap, the chips are hot and you’ll be the only out-of-towner in there. Described as ‘a country pub full of character and characters’ by a local policeman, random memorabilia decorates the walls, and it seemed strictly locals when I went which was great to experience. And here’s an interesting but silly fact: Fred Batten, a Rotorua dentist, would go to Waiotapu Tavern once a month to sort out the teeth of locals and prisoners, turning the adjoined hotel in to his waiting room. But that’s not the fact. The interesting bit is, he was the father of Jean Batten, who was the first woman to pilot the return flight from England to Australia and established 4 solo flying records in the 1930’s.
Back in Rotorua, have a brew at the Pig & Whistle, a former police house with handcuffs and other police paraphernalia in cabinets. The pub also happens to be the oldest in Rotorua, having opened in 1993. How’s that for ancient! They do standard pub grub in here, so if that doesn’t tickle your fancy head to one of the many other restaurants in town.
A cure for smelly pits is deodorant, but alas the smelly pits of Rotorua need more than a dose of the scented stuff. However once you get over the smell, Rotorua is an absorbing and enthralling place to visit and a definite must-see on any New Zealand visitors list.
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If you’re going to Rotorua, you’ll want to spend some time soaking up the soothing minerals in a spa. Rotorua has plenty of spa’s, from the pricey Polynesian to cheaper alternatives nearby. Swim wear is essential (no nudism here!) and if you don’t bring it, you’ll regret it – the relaxing waters have healing powers as well as being great for r ‘n’ r. Most hotels and hostels in Rotorua also have their own spas and reviving waters. It’s a win-win!
I never travel without a Microfibre towel – it’s just so useful, for absolutely everything. Lightweight, quickdrying, anti bacterial and compact, they are the perfect travel companion. I know that at the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua, there’s a charge for hiring one of their towels, and I imagine it’s the same at other spas – so pack your own microfibre towel and skip the fee!
Marmot Essence Jacket
New Zealand is known as the ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ – aka – it rains. A lot. So regardless of whether you want a raincoat in hi vis for this photo op, or just want to keep dry, packing rain gear is a must! I reviewed the Marmot Essence Jacket, and asides from being an awesome raincoat, the yellow one is also great for camouflage at the Devils Bath in Wai-O-Tapo!
You Can Do It!
- Getting around Rotorua is easy – you can walk around the city (avoid the steam vents!) and day 1 can all be done on foot.
- If you don’t have a bike/car, there is easy transportation to Wai-O-Tapo Thermal Wonderland from Rotorua – just ask at the i-Site tourist info at 1167 Fenton St.
Top free attractions
Lake Rotorua walk
Top paid attractions
Note, Rotorua museum is supposed to be incredible, but due to earthquake damage is now unsafe to visit and is closed until further notice.
I ate breakfast at the Fat Dog Café, which does ridiculously huge burgers (think Man vs Food size, but without the time challenge) and the Parisian Café, which is a little slice of France, even boasting a Frenchman who makes crepes in a corner. I had dinner one night on Eat Streat and another night at the Pig and Whistle. There are tons of restaurants and cafes lining the gridded roads of the city, including a cat café complete with furry residents.
I stayed at the Sudima Hotel. It’s in the perfect position – right next door to the Polynesian Spa and with glorious views over Sulpher Lake. The only negative is the proximity to aforementioned sulphur. You won’t want to be sitting on your balcony without a clothes peg on your snout. It’s also pretty pricey so not ideal for those travelling on a budget.
There are plenty of cheaper alternatives and lots of hostels. You can use my TRVL site to find your perfect accommodation. I get a small commission when people book accommodation through this site, so would appreciate it if you do!
These websites are awesome and with a bit of forward planning can save you lots of dollars on food and attractions.