Rotorua: fun at any time of year
- Recommended for:
- Cultural, Winter Sun, Adventure, Expensive, Mid-range
Rotorua is probably the most popular tourist destination in New Zealand, but that's no reason for the discerning traveller to miss it out - in this case you should follow the crowd.
Rotorua is the heart of the area of geothermal activity in the North Island of New Zealand. There is quite literally steam coming out of the ground all over the place. For this reason, it is fun to visit in the winter as well. I have been there in January and in June, and frankly, in January when the temperature is already 30 oC, leaning over to admire steam pouring out of the earth is not really what you want to do, whereas on a chilly damp day in June it is delightful. This is something to consider if you have been deterred from visiting New Zealand because you are only able to take your holidays during the British summer.
Do bear in mind that boiling mud really is boiling and be careful where you are walking. There is a persistent problem with inebriated locals falling into scalding mud on the way back from the pub, and the NZ health service could really do without the tourists copying them. But there is something about the sight of a bubbling mud pool or a spurting geyser that brings out your inner four-year-old and makes you want to peer right into it, shouting, Hey, that's really amazing! On the board outside the Whakarewarewa Thermal Park there is a legal disclaimer which means, in gist, "we've warned you, so if you fall in and are horribly burned, don't even think about suing us". This park is the first port of call for most visitors and is quite easy to get to, at the top of Fenton Street, possibly even within walking distance, depending where you are staying.
A real community of Maori lives and works in this park, and even small children are impressively blase about both thermal activity and tourists. It is a long established tradition for children to jump off high rocks into the river beside the bridge close to the park entrance, and then catch coins thrown to them by visitors. It looked a bit dangerous to me, but the mothers sitting on the bank didn't seem bothered. Rotorua was a major site of early Maori settlement in the country, for the reason mentioned above, that it was a good place to keep warm in the winter. The custom of cooking food in the natural steam still survives, and eating a hangi, as food cooked in this way is known, is one of the classic Kiwi experiences.
The opportunity to learn more about Maori culture is the other main attraction of Rotorua, apart from the steam. Within Whakarewarewa park you can see a traditional Maori village and watch demonstrations of the methods used to make flax skirts and feather cloaks. You should also not miss Ohinemutu, a modern village on the lake shore with a remarkable church built in an entirely Maori style. One of the windows shows Jesus in the traditional dress of a Maori chief, painted on clear glass looking towards the lake, so that he appears to be walking on water. Be warned, though, the church has a very strict No Photography policy. I watched a rather fierce member of staff stand over a hapless tourist while she deleted all the pictures she had taken. There is an interesting cemetery next to the church with both Maori and European graves. It makes you swallow hard when you realise that all graves in this area have to be completely walled in, because the earth is so unstable that coffins would otherwise be thrown back up to the surface. The name Rotorua means "two lakes" or "second lake". The celebrated novel, later a film, "Once were Warriors" by Alan Duff is set in a town called Two Lakes which is a thinly disguised version of Rotorua.
The lake scenery is very beautiful and there are various things to do on and around it. Several companies run boat trips, and you can also go up in a helicopter to admire the scenery of the surrounding area, where there are other lakes and also dense woods. Just call in to the offices on the lake shore to book.
Rotorua is very well set up for visitors of all kinds and there is an excellent visitor information centre at 1167 Fenton Street, where you can book accommodation, change money, buy souvenirs and use the internet, all under one roof. If like me you are travelling by Intercity coach, you will conveniently arrive right outside it. Fenton Street is a sight worth seeing in itself. It is a very long street and the top mile or so of it consists entirely of motels. These range from the seriously swanky to the somewhat seedy, and to be honest just having a look round and picking one that suits you is probably as good a way as any to choose. Generally speaking NZ motels are much better value than accommodation in the UK, because the rooms are a decent size and have kitchen facilities as well as a bathroom. Some motels in Rotorua have facilities for bathing in tubs of the naturally heated water, and some of them also have geothermally powered central heating in the winter. Look out for mentions of this in their publicity - they are usually anxious to tell you about it.
Personally though I would recommend staying on the lake shore. Places at this end of town may be a bit dearer but if you are not on a strict budget I think it is worth it. I stayed in a lodge called Jack and Di's Troutbeck Lodge at 5 Arnold Street. There are no staff on the premises and you have to use a code number to open the door, but this did not bother me, I loved staying there. For $110 I got a small but spotless bedroom and bathroom with use of a communal lounge and kitchen area, with food in the fridge, and a deck outside. The deck had a hot tub and a view of the lake and Ohinemutu. I spent a blissful evening sitting out there, admiring the view and listening to singing coming from somewhere down the hill. Either the local choir were practising or there was an unusually tuneful party going on. By the way, unless you're one of those lucky people who never get bitten by mosquitoes, you should cover yourself in insect repellent before venturing near the lake after dark.
On my first night in the lodge I was sharing the kitchen with a couple of "whinging poms" who thought that $150 (then about £60) was much too expensive for a double room in this lovely place and would far rather have stayed in one of the swanky hotels. There's just no pleasing some people. If your expectations are more reasonable, you cannot fail to have a wonderful holiday in Rotorua.