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Overview: Rotorua

From crystal-clear streams and magical forests to epic biking trails and explosive geysers, Rotorua has it all. Experience Māori culture, hospitality and food here – try a hangi feast cooked in the steaming ground or take a tour of an authentic pre-European village.

Sitting within the Pacific Rim of Fire, Rotorua is a geothermal wonderland with bubbling mud pools, clouds of steam, and natural hot springs perfect for bathing and relaxing in. After marvelling at the distinctive landscapes and volcanic activity within a geothermal park, enjoy a simple soak in a natural hot stream or indulge in a wellness getaway at a luxurious spa.

The city offers a raft of attractions and experiences for everyone, from adventure-seekers to those just looking to unwind. There are family-friendly attractions and accommodation throughout the region, which caters for children of all ages.

For thrill-seekers, Rotorua is home to the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world and offers everything from bungy jumping and luging to zorbing and ziplining.

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Couples can enjoy secluded spots and romantic getaways while solo travellers and backpackers will find the destination safe and easy to travel around solo. There is even space here for business travellers to relax but still get work done.

You can visit Rotorua year-round, but most people prefer to visit during the summer, making it the peak season here. While the long hours of sunlight make summer the best time to visit Rotorua for sightseeing and outdoor explorations, spring brings great weather to Rotorua with the least crowds around.

How to get to Rotorua

Located in the heart of the North Island, Rotorua is also the gateway to other central destinations – it’s less than two hours to the Mt Ruapehu ski fields and less than an hour from the nearest beach towns. Rotorua is a leisurely and fairly direct 3.5 hour drive from Auckland and 6 hours from Wellington.  From Taupo it’s just over an hour, while from Tauranga it’s an hour 15 minute drive.

Baybus is the public bus service that runs regular services throughout the Bay of Plenty and Rotorua region. There is even a bus from Auckland that will take you to Rotorua. There is an airport at Rotorua that handles domestic and international flights.

Top things to do in Rotorua

Rotorua – Te Puia – Image: Kate Webster

The city is surrounded by mountains, rivers, native forests and 18 freshwater lakes, making it the perfect place to reconnect with nature. Rotorua is a mountain biking mecca with world-class mountain bike trails. Walking, horse riding and swimming or fishing in the lakes and rivers are some of the best ways to see the wildlife, breath-taking scenery and discover the region’s hidden gems. It’s also a big trout fishing area with fishing on the lakes and tributary rivers, and if you’re unlucky there, you can sight some of the huge trout (but, alas, not catch them) at Rainbow and Fairy Springs. 

Discover geothermal wonders

Explore Rotorua’s geothermal valleys from the air with Volcanic Air and step foot onto the summit of Mount Tarawera or view the Orakei Korako Geothermal Park and Cave. You can enjoy a scenic floatplane flight over Lake Rotoiti and experience a water landing, then soak in the secluded hot pools, usually only accessible by boat or a five-hour walk.

Get the adrenaline pumping at Velocity Valley

Head to Velocity Valley for a day of jam-packed family adventure. Here you can ride a BMX bike into a huge airbag, try a reverse bungy, Swoop from 40 metres in the air or race your mates on the Shweeb Racer, the only pedal-powered monorail track in the world. Zip through the water at a speed of 100 kilometres on the Agrojet or try the Xtreme Freefall – it’s like skydiving without the plane.

Explore Waimangu Volcanic Valley

Enjoy an up-close-and-personal experience of the geothermal wonderland at Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Explore the valley with a self-guided eco-tour along crater walkways and a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana – the home of the Pink and White Terraces. Kayak your way around the lake and weave your way through Steaming Cliffs on a guided tour.  

Raft down a seven-metre high waterfall

The Kaituna River meanders its way through the Rotorua and Bay of Plenty regions and is home to Tutea Falls, a thundering seven metres high waterfall. Kaitiaki Adventures can take you over the edge during their Grade 4 or 5 white water rafting trips. No rafting experience is needed – just a sense of adventure and a change of clothes.

Rotorua – Te Puia – Image: Kate Webster

Learn about the Māori culture

Gain insight into Māori culture and the myths and legends of the Whakarewarewa Geothermal Valley at Te Puia. Here you can witness Pōhutu Geyser explode hot water into the air, and see students create traditional carved masterpieces at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, then top off the day with a hearty hāngī. 

Zipline through an ancient forest for conservation

Zipline your way around the prehistoric native forest with Rotorua Canopy Tours and weave your way through the trees as you walk across 20-metre high suspension bridges. If you’re wondering what to do at night, head to Redwoods Treewalk and step into a captivating world of colour and light on the Redwoods Nightlights tour. This is an experience the whole family will enjoy.

Mountain bike the Whakarewarewa Forest

The network of nearly 200 kilometres of purpose-built mountain biking trails in Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Forest is world-famous and received Gold Status from the International Mountain Biking Association. They have also been voted the best mountain biking in the Southern Hemisphere by Red Bull. Let the team at Mountain Bike Rotorua take care of all of the logistics and get ready for some epic riding.

Take a dip therapeutic hot pool

Settle into the lakeside setting at Polynesian Spa and soak in the mineral spring hot pools that can relieve aches and pains and nourish the skin. Or cleanse your mind and body with the ancient practice of lathering geothermal mud over the body, followed by a soak in the sulphur spa at Hell’s Gate. 

Top tips for first-time visitors to Rotorua

Rotorua – Te Puia – Image: Kate Webster
  1. It can get smelly due to the geothermal activity, so be prepared for the ‘rotten eggs’ smell.
  2. Here you will find some amazing Maori culture, so do spend some time learning and engaging in it.
  3. You must have a soak in a thermal hot pool at some point – just remember to take off any jewellery as the minerals can affect it.

Disclosure: The writer explored Rotorua with assistance from Rotorua Tourism & Accor Hotels

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