New Zealand Days: Rotorua

Dwarfed by the trees in the Redwood Forest. The forest was is a must-see for us in Rotorua.

As much as we loved Sydney – and we absolutely loved Sydney – the summer heat and humidity there about did us in. When I climbed on the train out to the airport at 8:40 a.m. on the morning we left, I was quite literally already soaked through with sweat following the short walk from our apartment to the train station, with it dripping off my head and face onto the floor of the train. Everyone around me looked as cool as a cucumber while I felt like a very soggy human Las Vegas fountain.

We had reserved a Toyota Camry but ended up with this bright blue Corolla . . . for $350 less and better gas mileage! We’ve nicknamed it “the Bluebird” – it’s always easy to find. Brett picked up driving on the left side of the road quickly (well, he had to).

But, we got to the airport, got our bags checked, cooled off and eventually boarded our three and a half-hour flight to Auckland. We arrived on time at around 4:00 p.m., expecting to quickly pick up our bags, get our rental car and hit the road. But it was not to be so easy: Brett got pulled over by customs and had to practically unpack his entire suitcase to show that the little jars in his suitcase were really Oregon jam and not honey. That took a while, and then we had to wait for a van to come and pick us up and take us out to the car rental office, which was near to but not in the terminal. Everyone we dealt with was very, very nice, but by the time we finally drove out of the rental lot it was after 6:00 p.m. and we had a three-hour drive ahead of us.

Thankfully, because New Zealand is so far south, it didn’t get dark until around 8:45, so we did get to see quite a bit of beautiful countryside on our way to Rotorua. We arrived at our Airbnb at around 9:15, met our very kind hosts, got settled into our room and fell right asleep.

After a lovely breakfast the next morning, prepared by our hosts, we checked out the notebook of local sights and activities our hosts had prepared for guests and discovered that you have to pay (a lot) to view almost every site in the area, from natural wonders to Maori villages. Free activities were few and far between However, we did find a few interesting-looking places that didn’t charge admission, so we set off to check them out. Our first stop was Kuirau Park in downtown Rotorua.

Kuirau Park had two thermal pools where you could soak your feet – heavenly. My broken toe loved it.
We approached the large, boiling pond that sits in the middle of the park . . .
. . . and then walked across the bridge that spanned the pond. It was like walking through hell -sulphur, heat, steam, and everything around was dead.
The far side of the pond looked even more dead than when we started, if that was possible.

We could smell sulphur the moment we got out of our car at the park, and noticed lots of steam coming out of the ground in different places, as well as lots of low brown fences which surrounded the steam. Fairly soon we were walking around pits of boiling water or mud, or listening to water furiously bubble and hiss beneath piles of rocks. It was fascinating! Eventually we reached a rather large pond of boiling water with a low bridge across it. Crossing the bridge was, I thought, like walking through hell, with its smell of sulphur, dead trees all around, clouds of steam blowing across the water, and moist heat rising up through the planks of the bridge. And, all of this was right in the center of town! There were also large area of grass where we could see small pools beginning to form, and just outside the park and across the street was a motel that had apparently just sprung a leak because there were big clouds of heavy, angry steam coming through its fence out to the sidewalk.

The traditional Maori meeting house. The designs on the eaves and over the door were made with shells. No one can enter without an invitation.
Brett and I shared a big, wonderful slice of lemon meringue pie at a bakery near the lake.

From the park we walked up and looked out over Rotorua lake, and down to a Maori village that sits by the lake, in particular to see the traditional meeting house which is decorated with shells. We could have walked down into the village, but it’s not a place set up for tourists or visitors. We stopped at a small bakery nearby though and shared an amazing and affordable piece of quiche and big slice of lemon meringue pie for our lunch.

Rachel Spring was tapped in 1920. Note the water temperature: 212 degrees, or the boiling point.
Back when Government House was a spa and bath house, men stayed in one wing, women in the other. There was a restaurant and lounge in the middle.
No architectural detail of any kind was avoided or left out in the construction of Government House.

After lunch we headed over to Government Park especially to see Government House, so called these days only because it sits in Government Park, not because it was ever the seat of government. Actually, it was constructed as a large spa back in the late 19th century, and had thermal waters piped into private bathrooms throughout the hotel. The spa, or bath house, also contained large pools for more complex therapeutic needs, and guests could also receive hot water, high pressure shower massages. The architecture of the place was a frothy mix of several architectural styles from gingerbread to cupolas to leaded glass to half-timbering. Out front were lawns for croquet and bowling.

Locals and guest still swim daily in the Blue Baths’ huge thermal swimming pool. It was built in 1933, and the interior is full-on art deco. It remains a popular spot for weddings and other events.

Nearby was the famous Blue Baths, built in 1933 so both locals and spa guests could swim in hot, therapeutic waters. The Blue Baths were infamous for a while as the first place where men and women shockingly swam together at the same time in New Zealand. Both Government House and the Blue Baths are listed on the New Zealand historic register (as is nearby Rachel Spring, where all the hot water come from), and Government House now holds the Rotorua Museum.

We came back to our Airbnb from that outing feeling a bit tired, but rested for a bit and then headed into town to eat at a highly-rated place called Ali Baba’s, which served Tunisian food. Our dinners were some of the best food we have had since we began traveling – fluffy rice with falafel,  tasty sauce and fresh salads – and the price was pretty good too, with our two huge plates of food and some baklava costing less than $25US.

The spiral path up to the suspended bridges and tree platforms for the night walk. A couple of the artistic lanterns hang above.
The giant hanging lanterns were designed and made by a local artist using resin made from recycled pine trees.
At one stop, the giant ferns on the ground were lit from underneath – gorgeous!

Then it was out to the Redwood Forest to experience the night walk through the trees. We paid $20US each, and for around 50 minutes we walked from platform to platform in the trees in the dark on suspended bridges high above the forest floor. Each platform contained information about the redwoods and the forest. Large, artist-made lanterns, fairy lights, holograms and other types of lights decorated the forest – the experience was absolutely magical, and we left feeling very glad that we had decided to go.

A kayaker drops down over Okere Falls, but the guy behind him didn’t do as well and got tossed around a bit until he finally got himself righted. This section of the falls was the site of a hydro-electric power plant for a while – the remains can be seen in the foreground.
A white water raft shoots through one of the lower falls. The rapids through the area are Class V.

We slept in this morning, and at around noon drove up north to visit Okere Falls (because they are free to visit!). We were able to watch kayakers and a raft or two, loaded with people, go over the falls. The 22-foot high waterfall is said to be the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. We ended up doing quite a bit of hiking in the area when we took what appeared to be a short loop trail and instead had to walk nearly two miles through the woods to get to the other end.

Our first stop at the Redwood Forest was to check out the bridges we had walked on last night and were surprised that we weren’t as high up as we had thought we were. We also could find none of the lanterns – during the day they are disguised and hidden in the trees.
California redwoods are the tallest trees in the world. These towered above us, and yet are mere babies compared to the ones in California.
We learned last night that “New Zealanders love their ferns” and the Redwood Forest is filled with them, many of them quite large and towering high above the forest floor.

Leaving the falls we took a short drive back to the Redwood Forest to see what they all looked like in the light. The redwoods came from California, and were planted in 1900 – New Zealand is the only place outside of California where they grow. The forest was magnificent, with towering redwoods and huge ferns along the way, and there are several different hiking trails to choose from, depending on how far you’d like to walk (we chose the shortest, supposedly 30 minutes but it took us more like 45). The trees are nowhere near as big yet as the ones in California, but give them a few hundred years and they will be!

Tunisian pizza at Ali Baba’s – who would have known that apricots and cream cheese on a pizza would taste so good?

Dinner tonight was back at Ali Baba’s, where we shared an extremely delicious Tunisian pizza topped with chicken, apricots and cream cheese among other toppings. It sounds weird but it was fabulous. Our big pizza was just $12, and we still have half to take with us for lunch on the road tomorrow.

We’re heading to Napier tomorrow, located on the south coast of New Zealand’s north island. We’ll stop to visit some more waterfalls on the way, and hope to get into town early enough to stroll around to see Napier’s most famous site, an amazing collection of art deco buildings located throughout the downtown area. We can’t wait!

21 thoughts on “New Zealand Days: Rotorua

  1. Laura, how long will you be in New Zealand? I’m particularly excited about this leg of your journey in that we plan to return to New Zealand for at least a month in early 2021, having visited there fairly briefly by cruise ship previously. Hoping for lots and hints/ideas from you and Brett here as a result. I think I’m most excited by the excellent USD to NZD exchange rate!

    One of the things I do remember from our first trip there is how cautious customs was about any food products being brought in. I had a batch of packaged granola bars that were looked over very carefully before being allowed to remain them in my purse. They are so isolated, of course, they are highly vulnerable to detrimental spread of exotic plants and species. Do they still have those very cute ‘sniffing’ Beagles in the customs area? Quite entertaining when they get a hit, and someone sheepishly pulls out a piece of forbidden fruit.

    Oh, and be sure to pick up a package of Tim Tam cookies, kind of the NZ version of Japan’s Kit Kats – more flavors than you can imagine, though our favorite was the Mint version. 😊

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    1. Sorry, as an Aussie I must raise my hand and say – while NZ might have Tim Tams available to purchase.. “Tim Tam is a brand of chocolate biscuit made by the Australian biscuit company Arnott’s.” 🙂 You can also get Tim Tams in the US these days, Costco being the most likely suspect though they tend not to have the flavoured ones.

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      1. We got hooked on TimTams in Australia, and brought several packages with us when we flew to NZ. We told the first person we saw in customs that we were bringing them in and he laughed and told us where to find them here. We’re hooked on them – the iced coffee is the BEST cookie ever! We will be taking a case of them with us when we fly to Japan next week. We did see them at Costco in Hawaii, but they were expensive so we never tried them.

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      2. I think we overdosed on TimTams because neither Brett nor I can barely stand to look at them now. Today we discovered Golden Fruit (like one of my childhood favorites but no longer available in the U.S.) and Gingernuts – yum!

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    2. Tamara – I am laughing because I was just finishing a mint TamTam as I read your comment! They are good, but our favorite flavor is the iced coffee, which are even better when they’re chilled! There’s a white chocolate we want to try and supposedly a raspberry flavor that sounds pretty good too.

      And yes, I did get to see a sniffing beagle in action and he got a hit (looked like half a sandwich someone hadn’t finished and forgot about.

      We’re just visiting the north island while we’re here. Our host told us so many head straight for the South Island and skip all that the north island has to offer. Although the exchange rate is very good right now, so many places charge to get in and those fees can add up quickly. It is a very beautiful place though – We’re both glad we added it to our itinerary.

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    3. KJ
      Our favorite thermal park was Orakei Korako about 69 km from Rotorua. You did have to pay to get in, but it was worth it. Plus no tour buses when we were there in 2015.

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      1. We are sadly out of Rotorua and now in Napier for the night – our schedule only gives us a day or two in each city/place. Orakei Korako sounds like a great place to visit – do they have geyers? That was the one thing we really wanted to see but didn’t. We were kind of surprised overall by the price of admission at most places but know the money is needed for upkeep, protection, etc.

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  2. The humidity this year has been off the charts. But even when it is just normal, in Sydney I can need to change clothes 4-5 times in the space of a day. It isn’t quite so bad down here on the South Coast but we’ve been having a lot of afternoon thunderstorms which make it super sticky and steamy in the afternoons and evenings. 🙂

    I think I would like to visit NZ after reading this post. 😉

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    1. I gave up trying to apply sunscreen in Sydney – I would sweat it off in a matter of minutes! I still managed somehow to avoid getting sunburned, something of a miracle I think.

      It was the worst humidity I have ever experienced, and I lived in Japan where the humidity can be so bad your shoes and/or other items grow mold overnight.

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  3. So gorgeous! Not one for long plane rides, but would love to see New Zealand. We’re heading to Kauai tomorrow and most of our things to do, see and eat were gleaned from your blog posts. Thank you!

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    1. I am so glad we decided to add New Zealand to our itinerary – it’s absolutely beautiful here, and we’re just touring the North Island! I know the South Island is equally if not more beautiful, but we’re saving that for a future visit. We’d love to rent a camper so we can drive around and see it all.

      Will you write after you get back from Kaua’i? I would love to hear about what you did, where you stayed and where you ate! I really miss that place!

      I am just about over the long flights as well, but we have learned that it’s worth it to upgrade if possible and the cost isn’t too prohibitive. These days we try to get exit row seats for the extra legroom – it makes a lot of difference.

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  4. 212 degree water. Did the Maori ever use it for cooking? I didn’t realize they had Redwoods, I wonder if they would be allowed into the country with their current rules. Considering how messed up Florida is with invasive species I don’t blame them for being careful.
    Will you be doing any white water rafting? Wonderful pictures.

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    1. I don’t know if the Maori used the hot water for cooking, but I would assume that would be one way they would have used the very hot water coming from the ground.

      They are VERY strict here about possibly bringing in invasive species – very thorough checks at the airport. Florida should be a lesson to the whole world!

      No white water rafting on this trip, although the people going over Okere Falls sure looked like they were having a good time – if we had had the time (and money) I’d have given it a try!

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  5. In Napier, if you want some free things to do, drive up to Bluff Hill Domain which has beautiful views of the Napier harbor. The walk along the waterfront near downtown Napier is also well worth it. Better yet is to bike all of it. Another trip outside of Napier is a drive to Te Mata Peak for incredible views. You can also hike up to the top of peak instead of driving; but I’ve never been a fan of hiking somewhere when there is a perfectly good road that gets you to the same destination.

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    1. Sadly we are only in Napier for one night – as soon as we arrived we knew we should have planned to stay longer. This evening we walked around the downtown area to check out the art deco buildings and they did not disappoint! Brett and I felt like a couple of kids in a candy store! We did walk along the waterfront for a while as well – there was a stiff wind, but it was still very beautiful, and made us (briefly) homesick for Hawaii.

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  6. Interesting re: the Redwoods. I had no idea they were brought over. I’m reading The Overstory, so trees are on my mind. 🙂

    That night walk looks really cool! Lots of great pics as always. Thanks!

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    1. I didn’t either! It was fascinating though that this place in NZ has been the only place outside of California where these redwoods will grow – just doesn’t happen any place else. The NZ ones will be monsters one day, just like in California.

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  7. I love NZ. I’ve only been to be North Island. Twice. You’ve made me want to return. Everyone says I should see the south, as if the North isn’t worth visiting. I will make it to the South Island someday, but I think the North Island is not to be missed. The geyser parks are amazing, aren’t they?

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    1. In our opinion, the North Island has been absolutely beautiful – scenery, cities and towns, and the people too. We’re having a great time, and wish we had booked a longer stay in one place and made day trips from there. We’re going to try to see the South Island someday, but have no regrets about only doing the North Island this trip. It’s splendid in its own right.

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