Rotorua is well renowned as a melting pot of hot pools and geothermal springs. Alexia Santamaria set her sights on discovering some of the other attractions hidden around this unique North Island destination.
Many people only associate Rotorua with geothermal activity. And to be fair, those otherworldly mineral-hued landscapes, ferocious bubbling mud pools and wild shooting geysers are pretty damn impressive. But there are other charms in and around this wonderful Bay of Plenty location that are definitely worth experiencing this summer. It’s the perfect place for a slow, relaxed motorhome holiday, with some interesting options if you feel like picking up the pace. Parking up at beautiful Lake Tikitapu (the Blue Lake) is the perfect way to decompress and enjoy a classic Kiwi camper holiday. Here’s how we did it.
Arriving into Rotorua our first stop was Oppie’s, a local favourite for fish and chips, to pick up some dinner to be consumed lakeside at our final destination, perfect Friday night takeout fare. Lake Tikitapu is such an idyllic spot and the Blue Lake TOP 10 Holiday Park is right across the road from it, with great clean facilities and friendly staff. Calm mornings by the water provide a stillness no meditation app could rival, and as the day unfolds it turns into a lively spot full of kayaks and swimmers and groups picnicking, chatting and generally enjoying the lake vibe. If you did nothing more than just spend a couple of days here, you’d be guaranteed a wonderful, relaxing weekend. There’s a great 5.5km loop around the lake that takes an hour and a half to walk: along the shoreline, through native bush, through part of Whakarewarewa Forest then back to the shore. And the holiday park is only ten minutes from the centre of Rotorua if you want a soak in the hot pools or do the amazing Redwoods Treewalk – even more fun at night, as lanterns illuminate the suspended boardwalks (up to 20 metres high) through these amazing Californian giants. If you’re a mountain biker, you’ll obviously be in your happiest place, with more than 180km of trails in the forest.
Waking up on Saturday morning we grabbed towels and books and headed for the lake. You can hire kayaks from the holiday park but we had a different ‘on the water’ adventure in our sights and after a slow morning of swimming and reading and generally lying about (followed by lunch at our favourite, Atticus Finch, in Rotorua) we readied ourselves to head to River Rats headquarters to embark on our guided evening kayak excursion.
It would be hard for anyone not to like our guide, Justin, from the get-go. He’s owned River Rats for over two decades and is friendly and full of knowledge on the local area and its history. We left our camper and headed out in a van with our group, to the shores of Lake Rotoiti. Once in our double kayak we were off across the lake (hot tip for first timers, lay some ground rules from the outset, especially if you’re a couple – there were some tense moments with my questionable steering skills). The water was a gorgeous sapphire hue and the sun danced on its surface projecting diamond-like sparkles as we progressed. There was a slight head wind but not enough to cause any difficulty – my inability with the rudder pedals did that just fine on its own. The trip took an hour, and the time flew by as Justin entertained us with fascinating Māori history and excellent stories of hosting international documentary and film crews (including big time Bollywood movie stars) who were blown away that places like this even exist.
Even as a travel writer I’m always stunned at the ability of this country to surprise. I thought I had experienced most of the tourist activities in the Rotorua area, but on pulling up to Manupirua Hot Springs, I realised Aotearoa had surprised me again – in the best possible way. It sounds odd but there was even a slight Fiji feel about it with the clear waters, palm trees, jetties, bean bags, and a rustic bar and lounging area, right on the lakeside. Who knew there were hot pools on the shores of Lake Rotoiti you could only access by water? It turns out the eastern shores of the lake have geothermal activity beneath them – not entirely surprising for this area – and are home to numerous hot sulphur springs including Manupirua. Legend has it two sisters called Kuiwai and Haungaroa journeyed from Hawaiki to try and save their brother Ngatoroirangi, who was perishing from the cold on Mt Tongariro. They were bringing warmth from their ancestral homeland to take to him, and whenever they paused for rest, they left part of the fire they were carrying. Manupirua was said to have been one of these places.
Once we tied up, it was time to relax. But not before exploring a very short bushwalk that wound upwards to an elevated position for optimum viewing of this magnificent body of water – I can never resist a good view. We were delighted by the melodic tui call and the company of darting piwakawaka as we ascended and descended. Then it was time to hit the pools. The sign said the abundance of minerals in the water results in multiple health benefits, especially if joint health is an issue. It also said that those who bathe in these soothing waters will have continued good health and ageless beauty. No need to ask me twice, I had stripped down to my swimming costume and was in that water quicker than you could say Bella Hadid. It was a lovely, relaxing experience and the varying hues and opacity of each pool (depending on levels of mineral saturation on the day) were fascinating. The largest pool looked straight out onto the lake, and soaking in it made us feel like we were a million miles away from everyday life.
We spent the next hour going between the pools and the cooling shallows of the lake, while Justin threw some sausages and steak on the barbecue. It was hearty classic Kiwi fare which we washed down with a beer as we pulled up beanbags to take in the sunset view. I started to wonder if I could hide the kayak and never have to go back to reality. But there was one more fun stop on the way home. As the sun descended the cloudless sky, we headed back to where we started (my husband on the pedals this time), detouring via a tiny cave. It actually looked pretty ordinary and quite narrow but we obligingly paddled in single file as directed. On entering we could only see a few sparse pinpoint lights but Justin told us the vibrations of our voices in the small space would soon cause more to illuminate. He wasn’t joking – in under ten minutes we were in the most incredible twinkly glow worm wonderland. It was truly spectacular and much like the hot pools, made us feel so exclusive to have been somewhere many don’t even know exists. Secret glow worm caves, hot springs, only accessible by water or float plane. It was hard not
to feel like the luckiest people on earth.
We slept well that night back at the Blue Lake and in the morning were keen to head to Lake Tarawera to The Buried Village of Te Wairoa before heading home in the afternoon; it’s one of those things we’ve been meaning to do for a long time. It’s so hard to believe New Zealand had one of the most impressive natural wonders of the world right on its doorstep and that its magnificence was snuffed out overnight in the violent Tarawera eruption. I’ve always wondered what it would have been like if that hadn’t happened, and we still had our own Pamukkale or Terme de Saturnia right here in New Zealand.
We had an amazing time poring through the engaging depiction of the events of that fateful night in 1886 – including actual artefacts recovered from the event. We listened to audio diaries of those alive at the time, read interesting facts and accounts, then took a walk around the archaeological site. It was a fascinating peek into one of New Zealand’s most significant historical events.
We couldn’t leave without a visit to Vi’s Tea House. This gem at the Buried Village has survived fire, the Great Depression and two World Wars and I wonder if you can taste that resilience in the delicious tea and scones, as they were truly magnificent. As part of our entrance fee to the village, there was also access to Te Wairoa Falls – and watching its mesmerising waters tumble over the rock face into the pool below was the perfect end to an incredible morning. Feeling like four year olds who didn’t want to leave the birthday party we reluctantly dragged ourselves back into the camper and headed home to Auckland, and reality. This is undoubtedly a very special part of the North Island, one we’ll be returning to as soon as we can.