Rotorua

Rotorua is known as the thermal wonderland of New Zealand. Its hot springs and geysers have attracted tourists for over a hundred years.

Rotorua city and its usual geothermal steam
Lady Knox Geyser
Geothermal water hazard on the golf course
Rotorua with Mount Tarawera in the far background

Understand

The name Rotorua comes from Māori, meaning "two lakes" or "second lake" (roto = lake, rua = two). Its full name is Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe, meaning "the second great lake of Kahumatamomoe".

Tourism is a major industry in Rotorua, so tourist services are well developed. The Tourist Information Centre on the main road, Fenton Street, is a good starting point.

Rotorua is built over a geothermal hot spot. There are numerous natural vents, hot pools and other geothermal features in and around the city. Many of these are in parks and reserves. Natural eruptions of steam, hot water and mud occasionally occur in new locations. Many places have their own private geothermal bores for heating and water for bathing although private use of naturally occurring geothermal water and steam is controlled.

Rotorua sits on the shores of Lake Rotorua, and there are several other lakes nearby. So along with the geothermal wonders, many water-based activities such as fishing, boating and white water rafting are available.

Geologically, Rotorua is in the middle of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, named after Lake Taupo, the largest volcano in the area. This geologically active zone produces the heat that is needed to drive all the geothermal activity. Along with many volcanic hills and mountains, the zone contains several major volcanic calderas (large subsidence craters). These are important for tourism because they host the region's largest lakes (including Lake Taupo and Lake Rotorua), and because geothermal activity tends to occur around their edges. Rotorua caldera, some 22 km (14 mi) across, contains the city and Mount Ngongotaha as well as the lake. It was created in a huge eruption around a quarter of a million years ago.

With Rotorua's concentration of geothermal features, a significant amount of hydrogen sulfide is released into the air and the city has a unique "rotten eggs" smell.

Get in

By car

Rotorua is a 3-hour drive (non-stop) south of Auckland, with several nice towns and villages along the way. There are two main routes: the first is via Hamilton, initially on State Highway 1, then joining State Highway 5 at Tirau. The other is via Matamata on State Highway 2 and 27, leaving SH 1 at Pokeno (50 km south of central Auckland) and rejoining it at Tirau. The Matamata route has lighter traffic and is probably more interesting for travellers, but the road is of a lower standard than SH 1. A third option to get amongst the rural farmland is to travel via Te Aroha and then south along old Te Aroha Road, stopping to see Wairere Falls. Be careful on the narrow windy unpainted roads.

There are two options from Tauranga. One is SH 2 via Te Puke, then SH 33. The other is SH 36 via Pyes Pa, which is now sealed all the way. Allow 1 hour 10 minutes non-stop

From Wellington, follow State Highway 1 north to Taupo, then take State Highway 5. Allow 6 hours non-stop.

By plane

Air New Zealand has regular flights between Rotorua Airport and Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch (and onwards to Queenstown without changing planes). Sunair has flights to Gisborne.

By bus

Bus services are provided by Intercity Coach and Naked Bus. All services arrive and depart from the main tourist information centre, i-SITE, on 1167 Fenton Street. Services can also be booked there.

Backpacker coach services tend to do pick-ups from the major hostels.

By bike

The same routes apply as for car drivers. Rotorua is 300 m (985 ft) above sea level, therefore a trip to the Bay of Plenty (Tauranga, Whakatane or Papamoa will be a mainly downhill trip of 70-100 km (44-62 mi). Travelling north towards Waikato also will be downhill to near sea level; conversely a trip to Taupo will be an up and down affair with some challenging climbs.

Get around

By bus

Cityride, operated by Baybus. Phone number: 0800 4 229 28. There is a limited bus service. The buses are lime green in colour and branded "CityRide". The main terminus is on Pukuatua Street (opposite side to the ASB bank building at Pukuatua Street And Tutanekai Street). These buses operate several routes from one side of the city to the other, including Ngongotaha (handy for accessing the Skyline, Rainbow Springs and Agrodome attractions), the Institute of Technology or 'Polytech' as the bus will say (Te Puia is across the main SH5 road), and the airport. The standard fare is $2.30 regardless of how far you travel. Books of tickets can be bought at discounted rates. Most bus services seem to stop operating at about 6PM (M–F).

A circuit bus operated by national sightseeing operator GreatSights New Zealand visits several iconic Rotorua attractions including Te Puia, Rainbow Springs Nature Park and the Agrodome.

There are three or four reputable taxi companies, all metered, and a shuttle bus operator with trailer for larger groups.

By bicycle

Rotorua is a cyclists paradise; as well as boasting some of the best off-road mountain bike tracks in the world, it has no less than seven quality cycle stores, with six in the CBD and the Outdoorsman Headquarters on Tarawera Rd. In addition several shops provide cycle hire, notably Lady Jane's ice cream parlour near the lakefront. Cycling is generally safe, as many roads have wide verges; cyclists are possibly at most risk from the many camper vans driven by tourists.

See

As New Zealand's busiest tourist centre there are a variety of attractions ranging from free to quite expensive.

Free attractions

Pay attractions

A boiling pool in Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

Do

Your best bet is to expend some energy taking in some of the many day-time activities such as land-sledding down Mt Ngongotaha at Skyline Skyrides Luge Ride, heli-touring or hiking through the abundance of parks often alongside thermal vents. Nearby is the curious forest of California Redwoods that was planted last century and has thrived in the ideal climate so that it appears to have been there for many centuries. The forest in this area has been developed to provide world-class mountain biking tracks, some of which are being used for the 2006 World Championships. Rotorua host several other adventure activities such as Zorbing, indoor rock-climbing and whitewater rafting or sledging. When deciding if spending $20+ per person for entry to "Volcanic Caldera Areas" remember that there are many free parks that have very similar sights and smells, often with less walking and no charge.

One activity that is unique is the ability to play a round of golf amongst the mud pools. The Rotorua golf course has a public course where for $10 you can play 9 holes and attempt to avoid the mud pool hazards, a unique experience. The course is at the top of Fenton Street opposite Te Puea, the Maori Arts and Craft Institute and geyser.

Buy

There are numerous Maori arts and crafts on sale in the city centre and at the various tourist attractions. The quality varies from extremely professional contemporary artwork to cheap nick-nacks. Popular items include pounamu/greenstone (jade) or bone jewellery, traditional weapons and statues. This selection is accompanied by sheepskins and the normal tourist giftware of t-shirts, caps, mugs and pens plastered with "Rotorua", other words and pictures. More attractive and practical gifts can be found such as simple clothing (jackets, shirts, ties, caps) with abstract Maori designs on them.

Eat

There are numerous places to try the traditional Maori feast, the hangi. This "earthen oven" technique is similar to the Hawaiian umu and results in a very distinctive smoky earthy flavour - well worth trying.

In the last decade Rotorua has acquired some nice cafes - good options include: Ciccio Italian cafe, Relish, Capers, Zippy's or the Fat Dog. The usual chains for pizzas and burgers can be found: they're generally on Amohau Street (SH 30A in the central city) and on Fairy Springs Road (SH 5 heading north out of the city).

Restaurants are slightly more scarce but several of the major hotels have good eating establishments (Novotel or Ridges on the raceway). The main centre for eating is lower end of Tutanekai Street (known locally as Eat Street), but beware, even after 9PM you may find little left on the menu. Popular restaurants on Tutanekai Street include: Triple 1 Five, Indian Star and Wild Rice.

Drink

Rotorua is sometimes referred to as Roto-Vegas because of the many neon-lit hotels along the main street, the numerous venues for gambling and the few brothels. Strangely though, there isn't much nightlife to speak of. The bar at the Hot Rocks Backpackers - the Lava Bar - is a good bet, alternatively try the Pig & Whistle, Fuse or the Fat Dog Cafe. Heaven & Hell is the only nightclub in Rotorua and is popular with local adults.

Sleep

There are many hotels, rental homes, backpackers, motor homes, camp grounds, motels and bed and breakfasts around Rotorua.

Hotels

Motels

Bed and breakfast

Hostels and backpackers

Short-term apartments

Camps and caravan parks

Stay safe

This geothermal wonderland has some hazards. Respect safety signs and barriers around active geothermal locations - they are there for good reasons. The hot water and mud from geothermal springs can be boiling hot. Superheated steam may cause eruptions - after all it is steam that makes the geysers spout.

The sulphurous smell (that rotten eggs smell) in the air means that some toxic gases may also be present. Take care in confined and unventilated spaces, particularly those below ground level or around geothermal pools. Toxic geothermal gases have been known to asphyxiate people.

Avoid bathing in geothermal pools where the water has been in contact with the ground. At the very least do not put your head underwater. Geothermal ground water can carry the bacteria and/or amoebae that cause meningitis - a disease which can be fatal. If you develop flu-like symptoms after coming into contact with geothermal water, immediately contact a doctor.

While New Zealand is a tourist paradise it should be remembered that as with most countries petty theft is a common occurrence. With so many of Rotorua's thermal wonders being situated in isolated areas it pays to take notice of the warning signs and to keep cars locked with valuables hidden from view so as not to have your visit ruined by petty opportunistic crime. In particular Kuirau Park after dark and Okere Falls are well known for car thefts and muggings. Expensive items taken to places like backpackers also need particular attention.

Go next

Heading south from Rotorua on SH 5 takes you to Taupo, a similar town on the side of New Zealand's largest lake, and Tongariro National Park. Around 15 km south of Rotorua, SH 38 branches off to the southeast, leading into the sparsely populated and ruggedly beautiful Urewera National Park.

Heading east on SH 30 leads you to Whakatane, a coastal town in the eastern Bay of Plenty with empty beaches and one of the North Island's sunniest climates. Beyond lies the remote East Cape.

North takes you to Te Puke, Tauranga and the western Bay of Plenty coastline, also a nice place to soak up the sun. There are two routes; via Te Puke and SH 33 brings you into Tauranga via Mount Maunganui. The recently completed SH 36 is a shorter inland route that climbs to around 610 m (2000 ft) before dropping to the coast. This is the route most locals would use and avoids Tauranga CBD traffic if heading for the Coromandel.

The Waikato region, including Hamilton, Waitomo and Raglan, lies to the west.


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