Don’t Skip: Rotorua, New Zealand

Rotorua Bath House

Rotorua Museum, housed in the old Bath House buildings

Intro to Rotorua

Located on New Zealand’s North Island, a 2-3 hour drive south of Auckland, Rotorua is an established attraction for visitors. The town is located on the southern shore of Lake Rotorua and is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. We’d been warned that it might be more “touristy” than we typically like, but there were a number of things we wanted to experience for ourselves. The region is an active geothermal zone, and people have been drawn to the bubbling hot water, spouting mud, steaming fumaroles, and water from geothermal springs said to have healing qualities for centuries. 

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Rotorua Caldera and its Healing Waters

The Rotorua Caldera is one of the several volcanoes located in the Taupo Volcanic Zone. It has been dormant for over 200,000 years, but its last major eruption and subsequent collapse are what created Lake Rotorua. Geysers and mud pools have long attracted visitors, and those seeking relief from a variety of ailments. One of the earliest stories is that of an Irish priest who had to be carried from another city to bathe in the waters of what is now Government Gardens. Able to return home on foot, the priest declared himself cured and Rotorua’s healing reputation grew. The local Maori (Ngati Rangiteaorere tribe) have been using the lake for healing for much longer. The mud here is said to be much finer than in other areas, and it has the power to soothe and soften the skin. Thermal mud in different parts of the world has different concentrations of trace minerals. Around Rotorua, sulphur, sodium, calcium and silicone are the main compounds.

Kuirau Park

Bubbling mudpool in Kuirau Park

Kuirau Park

For a free mini-tour in a relaxing setting, walk around Kuirau, the public park in the middle of the city. It’s filled with bubbling mud and steaming ponds. Kuirau’s numerous walkways lead visitors from one area of geothermic activity to another. There is even an area set aside to soak your feet!  Be sure to take advantage of that before continuing on your way.

Maori History

The Rotorua area is rich in Maori history. There are cultural performances, concerts or hangi (a traditional Maori feast), Māori cultural centers like Te Puia, and even a Maori-owned geothermal park called Hell’s Gate. It was George Bernard Shaw who gave the site its name after a visit to the area in the early 1900’s. Although known as an atheist, he decided that this must be the gateway to Hell, it was called such in English from then on. Te Wairoa is a village buried after the eruption of Mt. Tarawera in 1886. The blast also resulted in the covering over of the legendary Pink and White Terraces by water. The town had been established by Christian missionaries in 1848. From the 1930’s on, several generations of one family painstakingly excavated and redeveloped the model town into New Zealand’s most-visited archaeological site. The Buried Village Museum houses great information about the village as well as Maori culture.

Buried Village

Rotorua Museum

The Rotorua Museum is housed in a former bathhouse.  Original and renovated baths demonstrate the history of how people came from all over the world to “Take the Cure” here. These baths were supposed to relieve many kinds of ailments. Some treatments may seem crazy now, but people, even doctors, apparently swore by them. You can go down into the basement and up into the attic to see the inner workings of the building. The other side of the museum contains an exhibit about the eruption of Mt. Tarawera with survivor stories and details about what the area was like as a tourist destination before the eruption. In those days, local guides led tours for those wanting to bathe at the famous Pink and White Terraces. These terraces were thought to have been destroyed in the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 (see above). Researchers claim to have found surviving pieces of the terraces in 2011 deep beneath the lake, though this discovery is debated by some. The final museum wing holds many taonga (treasures) of the Te Arawa and other Maori people. We enjoyed learning the history of great leaders and legendary figures and seeing carvings in wood, bone and jade/greenstone. Highlights include a massive canoe, doorways and pieces from meeting houses and other buildings, photographs, etc.  One exhibit, called “Precious Women,” featured photos and stories of the female guides to the Pink and White Terraces.

Thermals Rotorua

Craters of the Moon

About an hour south of Rotorua, and also within the Taupō Volcanic Zone, the Craters of the Moon thermal area is an otherworldly landscape of constantly changing steam vents and sulfuric craters, and bubbling mud pools. The creation of the Wairakei Power Station changed the geothermic activity in the region, vastly increasing heat output at Craters of the Moon. The day we visited was misty and rainy, adding substantial drama to the scene. There’s a loop trail that takes about an hour to walk around at a leisurely pace. A lookout offers great views of the craters and blowholes.

Where We Stayed

Almost every night we spent in New Zealand was in our trusty campervan. We were lucky enough to get a great deal on a one-way rental through Allways Rentals. Keep an eye out for these relocation deals in Australia and in New Zealand. They are a way for companies to get their vehicles back to a certain city seasonally, when most people are traveling in the other direction. It’s a win-win situation, as prices are very reasonable for the renter, and the company gets their vehicles delivered where they need them and still make money on the deal. We picked our van up on the South Island outside Christchurch and returned it about three weeks later to Auckland. This gave us a generous amount of time to explore at a very low daily rate! At Rotorua we stayed in one of the Kiwi Holiday Parks, Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park. The Kiwi brand is one of the big players in holiday parks in New Zealand. They’re generally reasonably-priced, clean and have nice amenities including the bathing block and common cooking and entertainment areas.

About the author

Tamara and Donny have wandered together since 2004, with no cure for their insatiable wanderlust. They write about discovering new destinations including beautiful photography, plus budget travel tips and how to give back through travel.