Travel notes: Exploring Rotorua, New Zealand

Travel notes: Exploring Rotorua, New Zealand

Rotorua is a fabulous place to visit in New Zealand. But beware, there is SO MUCH to do, it’s definitely worth spending quite a few days here.

While many parts of New Zealand appear to be straight out of Middle Earth. Rotorua is not. One thing you may notice is the smell. Don’t get me wrong it is a clean and lovely town, but its proximity to the sulphur pools and geysers make it rather….fragrant. But don’t worry we actually acclimatized quite quickly. On your way to Rotorua, if coming from Auckland, don’t forget to leave time to visit Hobbiton in Mata Mata.

Sulphur Bay

On arriving in Rotorua I suggest a drive out to Sulphur Bay and then the Redwoods. Sulphur Bay will still be there. On our last visit there was a fabulous Sculpture Trail, which commemorated the 100 years of ANZAC. But I am unsure what is there currently. Still, it is a lovely spot to go for a wander. It’s a great introduction to the whole geothermal area and the smell!

Redwood Forest

The Redwood Forest was not as orderly or as mystical as some, but there was a lot more light. There were plenty of walking tracks, plus they have these really cool treetops walks, which were a little expensive.

Sadly I did not find out until afterward, but these get lit up at night, which would have made such a pretty photo. They also have these giant cicadas there, which seemed to be everywhere and very loud.

Tamaki Village Cultural Experience and Hangi

Not to be missed is the Tamaki Village Cultural Experience and a Hangi dinner. Fabulous entertainment and great food. We’ve done two and took a community bus to one and drove ourselves to the second. I’m going to be honest, the bus was much more entertaining (just a thought).

This truly is a cultural splendor in Rotorua not to be missed. Learn about the Maori Culture, experience village life and join in the fun.

Lady Knox Geyser and Mud Pools

Apparently, it was accidentally discovered a long time ago that laundry soap can set off geysers. Once the startled would-be washers recovered their senses and clothes, they had much fun with the Lady Knox Geyser. They made it even more astonishing by building the sides up with rocks. After decades the sides are totally encrusted with mineral salts and the rocks are no longer seen. However, they still set the geyser off with laundry soap!

This erupts every day at 10:15 a.m. with a little help from a Park Ranger, not to be missed, although I don’t think it got as high as our first visit. Read all about how, why and who here. There is a little amphitheater with seating, I suggest getting there a little early to grab some good seats for the show. It is named after Lady Constance Knox, the second daughter of Uchter Knox, the 15th Governor of New Zealand. 

You can do the Geyser first and then head off for the Mud Pools (if running short on time). Oozy, gooey, muddy, disgusting, smelly pools of cool! Fun as watching all the bubbles explode and trying to capture the action are, at the end of the day how many photos do you really need? 

Wai-O-Tapu thermal pools

Visiting Wai-O-Tapu is like visiting an Alien landscape. There are weird rock formations, craters, over-the-top saturated colors and REALLY awful smells … but it is SO COOL! If you are not into weird geology then perhaps move one, but look a little closer and there is so much beauty to be found. Visit the website for a little more info. We visited the Champagne Pools, the Artists Pallet, The Craters, Devils Bath, Lake Ngakoro and a few other strange and wondrous features, all-natural occurrences here in the park.

The brilliant colors are caused by various minerals in the water such as sulphur, iron oxide, manganese oxide and cinnabar. It’s quite a walk to cover the whole park area, but totally worth it. Allow yourself several hours, at least. On our first trip here we only had 45 minutes on a bus tour. It was enough to pique our interest and get us to come back. But we were not leaving until we had seen every bit of the park.

Wai Mangu Geothermal area

It is more expensive and not quite the drawcard tourist-wise as Wai-O-Tapu for a few very obvious reasons. The cost is triple the price, plus there’s the optional boat cruise. It does not have quite as many attractions, and there are really only a few key spots. The rest is basically a pretty hiking track. There is more history here. You have to either walk a fair distance to see any activity (at least 1 km) or catch the shuttle bus between bus stops, at Wai-O-Tapu. There are the artist’s pallet and champagne pools right near the entrance and it is all wheelchair accessible at the start. Nothing about Wai Mangu is wheelchair accessible.

We took the optional boat cruise around the large Lake Rotomahana, which used to be an active volcano. It is one of the very first tourism areas with people traveling to see the Pink and White Terraces and bath in the healing qualities in the mineral pools — all of them now many, many meters below water level. This area was one of the largest natural disasters in NZ history in June 1886, when Mount Tarawera erupted and actually created most of this geothermal valley we now know today. So we caught the bus down to the lake and then boarded the boat for our 45-minute cruise. It was not overly exciting for the first half as we leisurely made our way across the lake. All of them are very pretty, but slow and not too much to see.

The second half was much more exciting as the skipper brought us is closer to land and the terraces and small geysers and such. It was great fun watching the geyser go off, which was happening about every 15 minutes or so (If I remember correctly). This is a not naturally formed lake and is completely landlocked. Its only source of water is rain. It’s slowly gaining levels unseen ever before, and they have lost some of their lower walking tracks. They have now dug a trench to let some of the water runoff to a nearby lake system before the valley is completely flooded and lost. We then took the shuttle back to the base camp and started our overland trek.

I suggest taking the bus and hopping off at each stop and then waiting for the next bus. Notable attractions are Frying Pan Lake, Birds Nest Terrace, Inferno Crater, Clamshell Spring, Warbrick Terrace, and The Wetlands.

Museum Gardens

The Museum Gardens are truly amazing. Sadly, the museum itself is closed indefinitely after severe earthquake damage. We were lucky enough to see this building ourselves on our first trip in 2015. So sad to see it all blocked off. It truly was a gorgeous building. Still, the gardens are beautiful and a popular spot for walking.

The Polynesian Spa

After a few days of trekking around the whole geothermal area of Rotorua, there is nothing better than visiting The Polynesian Spa! Spend an hour (or two) going from pool to pool in the private spa area. There is also a general public pool but trust me the private area is much better. The pool temperatures ranged from 36 C, 38 C, 40 C, and 42 C (very hot!). Then, why not re-energize with a luxurious 60-minute relaxation massage? 

Wai-O-Tamo Glow Worm Caves

It was a long drive out there (2.5 hours). With my excitement building, we proceeded underground. They are not the biggest cave system, nor the most spectacular (and they made no claims to that effect), but they do have glow worms. I have no photos to show, as you are not allowed ANY photography, but I can state that I was quite disappointed. I thought we drove 2.5 hours for very little.

There were quite a lot of worms and silk. But they did not really glow all that blue or bright, and there were not as many as I thought there would be. The boat ride through The Cathedral was not as awe-inspiring as I had seen in pictures. I actually left quite disappointed. So many people rave about these caves. I’m not sure what they saw we didn’t. Perhaps we went at the wrong time of the year?

Te Puia Cultural Centre

Visit the Pohutu Geyser and Wairewarewa Mud pools, very interesting. Visit the weaving and carving schools, where students still learn these crafts. I did find this whole area, while close to town a little more commercial than many of the other attractions in Rotorua. We didn’t even bother to visit on our last trip. But if you have the time it might be worth a visit, you can find out more here.

Travel tips

These are just some of the tourist attractions in this very popular part of New Zealand, but I feel they are the “not to be missed” parts. But there are a few things to consider:

  • No real public transport here, so either hire a car or book bus tours.
  • There will be LOTS of walking to do, so wear good sturdy shoes. Take a hat, sunscreen and water.
  • When trying to capture the fun at the geysers, mud pools and such, a nice fast lens is handy to have and use quick shutter speeds (at least 1/250 seconds).
  • I also found having a zoom (at least 200mm) very handy as not all subject matter is close at hand. The telephoto lens helped me to capture close-up details I would not have otherwise caught.
  • A Circular Polarizing Filter (CPL) can help minimize reflections in water and capture the details below.