Rotorua is one of the most exciting tourist destinations in New Zealand despite the fact that it smells like rotten eggs! This is because Rotorua is a city bubbling with geothermal activity: hot pools, mud pools and geysers release hydrogen sulphide into the air, which is responsible for the sometimes pungent aroma. Far from being a repellent, the smell adds to the Sulphur City’s charm. It is a constant reminder that you are in another world. Besides, I never thought the smell was that bad – eggs, yes, but not necessarily rotten eggs. One thing's for sure, whenever I’m in Rotorua I start craving a hearty cooked breakfast!
The best way to get to Rotorua is to drive yourself, as you don’t have the cost or hassle of flying, it doesn’t take as long as in a coach, and you can pull over and get out whenever you see an interesting attraction on the way. You can hire cars cheaply in New Zealand, or, even better, you can hire a campervan. This gives you a great amount of freedom, as your accommodation is already taken care of.
There are heaps of holiday parks in New Zealand where you can park your campervan for the night and take advantage of the facilities, and Rotorua is no exception. They’ll all have fliers in their receptions advertising Rotorua’s top visitor attractions, but – take it from me – the best places you can go in Rotorua are FREE.
My family takes a walk through Kuirau Park every single time we go to Rotorua. It’s free to enter, and contains wonderful examples of exactly what you come to Rotorua to see. The park is an uneven patchwork of steaming, yellow rocks, native scrub, boiling pools, geysers and wonderfully smelly mud pools. These are my favourite: imagine blowing bubbles in a massive glass of molten chocolate, each bubble swelling and then bursting with a tremendously satisfying, gloopy pop. New vents open up in the park all the time, so there is a slight risk of having your skirt unexpectedly blown up in full Marilyn Monroe-style, although, if a new vent were to open up beneath your feet, this would probably be the least of your worries. There are barriers separating visitors from the dangerous patches of the park, but these don’t seem to mean much to small children and idiots, so, if there is a small child or idiot in your party, it is important not to let them out of your sight.
ROTORUA MUSEUM & GOVERNMENT GARDENS
One of my favourite buildings in the world is the one that houses the Rotorua Museum. It’s essentially Tudor in style, with magnificent windows and a warm, terracotta roof, topped with a spire of the sort I always seem to associate with Venice. Walking up to it, you’d almost think you were in Victorian England; the paths are lined with old-fashioned lampposts, traditional-looking flowerbeds and perfectly manicured bowling greens, but the towering presence of palm trees reminds you that this definitely isn’t England, rather one of “the colonies”. On a sunny day, one can feel completely at peace there.
The building used to be a Bath House, which I find both romantic and creepy: romantic for the image of Edwardian elite taking to the geothermal spring waters; creepy for the image of mental patients being held down in pools and subjected to electroshock therapy. The museum, while not free, is well worth a visit. The Tarawera exhibition in particular is a must-see, as it brings to life the most disastrous volcanic eruption in New Zealand’s recorded history. If you don’t want to pay to get into the museum, however, it’s still worth a visit to the area it’s in, and not just to gaze upon the building. The museum is situated in the historic Government Gardens, which are free to enter and very nice to walk through, with an array of beautiful flowers and geothermal features. It’s another thing my family always does in Rotorua. We like doing free things!
Here’s another thing you can do for free in Rotorua: take a walk around Lake Rotorua. The water at the edge of the lake is a strange colour – a sort of creamy turquoise – from the sulphur. Steam rises from it in places and, as you walk, you will stumble across miniature hot pools. Plant life at the rim is stunted and burned from the acid, but there are lots of seagulls around and, on the cooler parts of the lake, swans drift serenely along. If you look out across the lake, you’ll see an island in the middle, which, aside from being as beautiful as a painting, is the setting of a really sweet Maori love story.
Essentially, there once was a fair maiden called Hinemoa, who lived on the shores of Lake Rotorua. She was in love with a guy who lived on the island, but her father didn’t want them to marry, so he made it impossible for her to access a canoe. But Hinemoa was clever. She made herself a raft out of sea turtles or something and reached the island, falling into her lover’s arms. I’ve never been to the island, but there are guided tours and such there.
Okay, so I may have lied a little. My favourite place in Rotorua isn’t free, but it sure is FUN.
The Luge is operated by Skyline. There’s one in Queenstown as well, but Rotorua was the first. To me, a luge looks like a giant jandal. (New Zealanders call flip-flops jandals, which may sound silly, but Australians call them thongs, so there you go!) This giant jandal is basically a cross between a go-kart and a toboggan, and with it you can go hooning down the side of Mt Ngongotaha, winding through a picturesque forest and taking the corners as fast as you dare. Don’t worry, there’s a “scenic” track for wusses, and there’s plenty else to do at the top of the mountain, which is reached by a pleasant gondola ride. Apparently, there’s been even more added since I was last there, including a winery tasting place and a 4D motion theatre. But the Luge – oh my gosh!
There are, of course, countless other tourist attractions in Rotorua, but I think as long as you see at least a few geysers, hot pools and mud pools, you won’t go away disappointed.
By Abigail Simpson, author of POMS AWAY! - a blog about what it's like to live and holiday in New Zealand.
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