Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Rotorua: New Zealand's thermal wonderland

It took a long time for me to make my first trip away from the shores of Australia. So with a 21st wedding anniversary only weeks away, my wife and I treated our family to 12 nights in fantastic Rotorua, New Zealand, otherwise known as Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. For a first time visitor to New Zealand, Rotorua proved to be the perfect place to experience some Maori culture. Afterall, it is home to one of the most photographed buildings in the country, the former Great South Seas Spa (above), which is now home to the Rotorua Museum of Art and History.

One of the most amazing landscapes I have walked through, at the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, New Zealand, with Denise, my wife of 21 years.

As this was our first trip to NZ, we wanted to avoid the temptation many visitors have, which is to cram both islands into their visit. So we chose to visit Rotorua in the centre of the North Island. Rotorua is a relatively small city of 56,000 people nestled on the shores of Lake Rotorua. Due to it's natural beauty and rich Maori heritage, it is also a very popular destination for international visitors. The first thing you notice when entering town however is the smell, the heavy odor of sulphur literally takes your breath away, and despite what people tell you, you don't quite get used to it during your stay. Its just one of those things that come with being in a volcanic thermal hotspot. And when visiting Rotorua, it would be sacrilege to not visit one of the many geothermal parks. We even tried out the Polynesian Spa and the legendary 'healing waters' of the Priest Spa to see what all the fuss was about. Named after Father Mahoney, a Catholic Priest suffering chronic arthritis who bathed in the waters in the late 1800's and claimed to be healed, we were soon joined by a busload of Korean tourists who had come to do the same.

Now when you're sitting in a pool of water while trying to decide if it is mineral particles that are being pumped through pipes from the underground springs, or flakes of human skin that have been shed in the pools, it takes every ounce of self control not to jump out of the water. We just tell ourselves not to look down. After all, the busload of Korean tourists seem content to sit in the pools and liberally splash the water over their shoulders and under their armpits. Being a budget conscious traveler, I'm doing my best to keep my wife and daughter from heading back to the shower blocks to change. I've just paid a hundred bucks and I'm trying to assure them that this is a once in a lifetime experience and we should at least stay a while longer, get our money's worth and head back to Australia with a unique story to tell. Surprisingly it worked, and my wife's dermatitis that she once had from wearing her wedding ring is now amazingly a thing of the past. (Update: 18 months later and there's still no sign).

The Lady Knox Geyser at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, Rotorua, NZ 2013.

While in Rotorua, we visited the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland where we saw the Lady Knox Geyser erupt before spending the best part of 3 hours exploring this amazing geothermal park. There are several thermal parks around Rotorua, and it comes down to personal choice as to which one to visit. We chose Wai-O-Tapu as it was regarded as New Zealand's most colourful and diverse volcanic park, and it did not disappoint.

Face to face with a Maori warrior in traditional dress at the Mitai Maori Village in Rotorua.

The Mitai Maori Village was an evening that will live long in our memories. A chance to experience a traditional ground-baked hangi meal was topped off by a pre-dinner Maori performance that included witnessing a waka, (ancient war canoe) being paddled up a shallow stream by warriors in full traditional dress, and of course, the haka and traditional poi dance.

One of the newest tourist attractions in Rotorua is Railcruising. These self-drive railcars that seat 4 people and travel at 20 kmph along 19km of the former Rotorua railway line, provided us with a fantastic memory of our holiday, (you can read my previous article on railcruising here).

I overheard an American tourist say that he hadn't seen California Redwoods as large as this in all the years he'd lived in the States. This was taken at Hamurana Springs nature walk, Rotorua, New Zealand, 2013.

The Redwoods, or Whakarewarewa Forrest offered some great hiking, and some of the world's best mountain biking tracks, only minutes from downtown Rotorua. I loved the hiking through stands of 219 ft. California Redwoods so much, that I came back a second time for a longer 3 hour hike to the top of the mountain. Skyline, Rotorua's best vantage point for views across the city and Lake Rotorua, is a little easier to scale however, mainly because you ride to the top in a gondola. At the top there is a choice of gift shops, coffee lounges and what all the young at heart come to do, the Skyline Luge. There are 3 different courses to try, and if you don't believe they are fast, my son stacked it at near 60 kmph and came home heavily bandaged. Denise and I found a quiet retreat at the Volcanic Hills Winery to pass the afternoon away talking with Sean Beer, the head winemaker who guided us through his impressive collection while we waited for the Skyline Buffet & Grill Restaurant to open. We've dined at many restaurants over the course of 21 years of marriage, and hands down this was the best buffet dinner we have ever enjoyed. A word of advice before you visit the Skyline however, if you plan on eating at the buffet for dinner, the price includes the return gondola ride to the top and they give you a free return pass for the next day. So go out to dinner the night before you take the kids luging, it saved our family $100 on a return visit.

There was a lot to love about visiting Rotorua. The people are friendly, the scenery is like no other place on earth and the price of eating out compared to Australia was a lot more appealing. Aside from the must-do tourist attractions, we came back with equally amazing stories of free places that we discovered such as The Redwoods, Hamurana Springs and the Okere Falls and Trout Pools, both walks were easily accessible by car and only minutes from our Worldmark Resort. We did enough on our vacation to say that Rotorua was well worth visiting, and there are still enough attractions that we couldn't fit into our 12 days to say that that it would be worth visiting again. The weather during December, when we visited, was cool and mild, meaning jeans and t-shirt throughout the day, (or shorts if you are hiking) and a jumper for the evening. For a family vacationing overseas for the first time, Rotorua was definitely a great choice.

Mum and Dad's wine time, spending the afternoon in the capable hands of winemaker Sean Beer at the Volcanic Hills Winery atop Rotorua's Skyline. The luge track is visible in the background.

What I liked: Everything! The history, the wonder of nature, the scenery, tourist attractions that are actually worth every cent of the admission price and some of the friendliest people I've ever encountered.

What I didn't like: The smell. Just play to old 'who farted?' game with your kids every time you drive into town and then wind all the windows down in the car. They'll die laughing if the smell doesn't kill them first!

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