Every year, tourists travel to Rotorua, New Zealand to witness its geothermal activity, natural hot springs, shooting geysers and pristine lakes. More importantly, the town is home to a popular cultural center for Maori history and present day life, which is the main reason Lucas and I wanted to visit, given our love for culture. Naturally, Rotorua made it onto our list of things to do in New Zealand after a few web searches and suggestions from our friends in Auckland.
Considering that we wanted to explore more of the North Island, we decided to do a road trip in order to see as much of the country as possible before our departure. Since the road trip was an easy 8 – hour drive from Auckland to Wellington, we decided to extend the trip by making Rotorua an overnight pitstop. Even with the limited amount of time in this bustling town, we felt content with the activities that we chose despite not seeing every natural wonder. Truthfully, as long-term travelers, we aren’t particularly interested in seeing all of the touristy stuff the first time around since it gives us an excuse to return and see something new.
We agreed hands down that experiencing a Maori cultural show was an absolute must and at the suggestion of our Air BnB hosts, we opted to explore two hidden treasurers that were off the beaten path. Since we caught wind of the insider tip after our arrival to Rotorua, our overall travel route around the area may not be ideal if outlined on a map, but we couldn’t let a meagly 30 – 40 minute drive outside of the cultural hub deter us from having a once-in-a-life-time moment. If you are short on time like we were, use the 24-Hours in Rotorua Guide below to see the sights without feeling overwhelmed!
1. Kerosene Creek
Travel time: 30 minutes South of Rotorua
Kerosene Creek is a naturally heated outdoor wonder where the hot spring and freshwater currents meet. Contrary to its name, the creek1 is more like a semi-powerful rush of water that is quite therapeutic when it flows against your back. We kicked off the day with a visit to Kerosene Creek because we wanted to get as close to the hop-out-of-the-bed-into-an-outdoor-bath experience as possible. The geothermal stream is one of the common sulfur baths around Rotorua that is famous for its warmth and rotten egg smell. Personally, people make the smell a bigger issue than it really is. Sulfur smells like decomposing eggs- get over it! You’ll quickly forget the smell when you realize that you are soaking in a rather lush-looking amazon rainforest without any fear of predators or animal nuisances in the water or on land. The absence of animals may lead you to believe that you are basking in this steamy sanctuary by yourself however you may want to arrive a bit early to claim your spot and beat the crowd. Even though there is plenty of stream and waterfall for everyone, there are a few spots that are prime location for soaking and taking a photo op or two. [Edit: Speaking of which, Lucas took amazing sultry photos of me in all of my glory with the steam rising from the sulfuric surface but the photos and video were destroyed! Ughhh. Thankfully, I happened to catch a few video snippets and photos on my phone].
Wear your swimsuit underneath your clothes and disrobe by the water. It’s worth noting that this is not a popular tourist location, so the site’s amenities are very limited. There are no showers to wash the sulfur off of your skin (which we didn’t do until the end of the day) and the closest thing to a bathroom are the available porto potty stalls in the parking lot. Like any cool hide-away, the site’s bare basics mean the area is left in its natural state- untouched and preserved, so make sure to keep it that way by taking your trash with you. If you’re not stuffy enough to think twice about a perfect placed towel rack, go with the flow and hang your minimal belongings in a nearby tree branch and soak until you are pruned. Overall, it was worth the visit and an indescribable experience to feel gallons of warm water in what felt like a jungle!
*Before any adventure, make sure to eat a good breakfast and bring a few snacks for afterwards. Swimming and sunbathing can be taxing on the body and uses up more energy than you think!
*There is a short 3-minute walk to get to the creek. The stones create a make-shift path however the walk is suitable for even semi-fit folks like myself!
*Bring your bath suit suit/swimming trunks, a towel to dry off.
*We would recommend wearing water shoes for the small stones at the bottom of the stream. We were fine without them but it would have been helpful.
*Be sure to leave valuables behind in your accommodation and not in the car where the parking lot is unattended. Don’t worry, the area is safe- just don’t give anyone a reason to break into your car.
*As with any thermal pool, it’s advised not to place your head underwater. Yea…we saw that warning after Lucas submerged his head during his descent down the waterfall but he was completely fine. It could explain why he was delusional after our swim and thought he was a male model in our video.
2. Whakarewarewa: The Living Village Tour
Travel time: 24 minutes from Kerosene Creek
Our next stop was to the Whakarewarewa Village Tour which is home to Maori history and cultural experiences. Guided tours are offered daily at 11:15 am and 2:00 pm, so we attended the second performance of the day. The village leads visitors through a traditional experience to learn how people live and use the natural resources to cook, bathe and heat their homes. Unbeknownst to us, we didn’t realize how living the village was until we saw people performing everyday routines from mowing the lawn to gathering at a neighbor’s house like most of us would do in our own neighborhoods back home. Turns out, people really do live here, hence the key word ‘Living Maori Village’.
3. Blue Spring
Highlight: Inexplicable natural beauty, rarely visited by tourists, only known to locals Cost: Free
Travel time: 49 minutes from Whakarewarewa
At first glance, the entrance to Blue Spring seems desolate and abandoned at best and the unwelcoming gate across the path doesn’t give anyone a clue as to what may lie beyond the trail. But after a 20-25 minute hike, the landscape opens up leaving you nothing short of breathless, but not from the physical exertion. The water’s clarity and its ability to produce an vibrant blue colour, despite it’s transparency, leaves you in awe of its majestic beauty. Blue Spring at Te Waihou Walkway is off the beaten path away from overly crowded tourist attractions. The land is comprised of rolling hills, small waterfalls, and is the very definition of Fern Gully4 meets Avatar5 – very green, very serene, and very pristine which is probably why it supplies 70% of New Zealand’s bottled water. The water from the spring flows at rate of 42 cubic meters per minute that could fill a 6 lane (25 meter) swimming pool in around 12 minutes. Since the water appears incredibly still and nonthreatening due to the clarity of the water, the constant movement of plant life just beneath the surface is subtle proof of how quickly the current is moving. We couldn’t believe how remarkable and undisturbed the area was. It was so majestic that I was literally waiting for Ariel6 to fluttered the edge of the bank to invite me for a swim. I would have happily obliged despite the constant 51 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees celsius) water temperature.
*The location is off the beaten path with limited amenities. Restrooms are available at the spring.
*If you are courageous enough to brave the cold and the currents, there are stairs that lead you to the water right from the bank where your friends can cheer you on in plain view.
4. Enjoy a Hangi
After a pretty adventurous day, we knew that we couldn’t leave Rotorua without eating a traditional cultural dish. By this time, the adrenaline rush from the day wore off as we quickly became hungry and located a restaurant in town to enjoy a hangi. The Kiwi Kai restaurant serves Maori and Kiwi food with the option of dining in or grabbing a dish to go. If you miss the opportunity to eat a hangi at the Whakarewarewa Village, this is a great alternative to order a dish. The staff member who waited on us was patient enough to explain the menu and provided great customer service. If you plan to be in the area, be sure to keep up on the latest menu and operation hours through the Kiwi Kai Facebook page.
Conclusion: Indulge in the natural beauty of Rotorua and its residents. Support local tourism by purchasing craft items from local artisans and plan to attend a Maori cultural performance!
3. The haka is a traditional war cry, dance, or challenge from the Māori people of New Zealand. It is a posture dance performed by a group, with vigorous movements and stamping of the feet with rhythmically shouted accompaniment.