It's not a road sign, nor information center that makes travelers realize they've arrived in Rotorua. It's the stench of sulphur. It hits visitors long before they arrive in the city and while it may be the kind of scent people usually try to avoid, the reason behind this smell is what attracts so many visitors to Rotorua each year.
Exploding geysers, boiling mud baths and steaming bodies of water, the earth seems most alive in Rotorua. Maoris settled in the area in the 14th century. Today, Rotorua is home to many Maori historical tours and performances. Similar to Italy's Pompeii, one of those tours includes Te Wairoa, which is a village that was buried by the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera. While Rotorua is a natural attraction in and of itself, these days it's equally known for its adrenaline-junky activities, some of which are really out of the ordinary. Sure you can bungy jump and skydive here, but you can also try out the New Zealand invented adventure activity of ZORBing.
The Kiwis are known for their inventive ways of getting a rush, and Rotorua seems to be their science lab. Whether it's geology, extreme sports or a relaxing day at the spa, Rotorua has something different for everyone. And just maybe all these things will distract visitors from the smell of rotten eggs that permeates the city, maybe.
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Destination Rotorua: Getting There
Rotorua is one of New Zealand's most-visited destinations. It's a tentative stop on any tour of the North Island and even a place some visitors stay at for their entire vacation (but we wouldn't recommend this). For these reasons, the Bay of Plenty town located in the heart of the North Island, can be be easily accessed by plane, bus and of course, personal vehicle.
Rotorua International Airport offers several daily domestic flights to and from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Air New Zealand also offers two return flight between Rotorua and Sydney, Australia, each week.
Rotorua International Airport is located about 10 km from the city center. BayBus is the most affordable option for getting to and from the airport ($2.30 from the city center).
Rotorua is very popular, therefore a stop on most bus routes. So it's easy to reach by bus, but important to book early as trips do sell out. National bus companies operate through here as well as BayBus, which covers the Bay of Plenty area. Buses arrive either at Tourism Rotorua on Fenton Street or Pukuatua Street Terminal. Both are located in the city center.
Arriving by personal vehicle is even simpler. It seems all roads on the North Island lead to Rotorua. Activities in Rotorua are spread out, so having a personal vehicle in the city makes touring the area a lot easier.
Destination Rotorua: Hot Spots
There is no shortage of things to do in Rotorua, no matter what type of activity you fancy. Be sure to check out any or all of these spots during your time traveling in Rotorua.
With a fiery and active earth, comes a chilled out day for spa-goers. Several spas operate out of Rotorua using the warmth of the land to heat their pools. Most spas in town offer a range of naturally warmed mineral pools.
Many also have a full service spa offering an array of therapies like massages and body polishes. Those who don't mind getting a bit dirty, or stinky, for the sake of good skin should check out a geothermal mud bath or sulphur spas.
You know those plastic balls hamsters roll around in? Well consider ZORB the human version. ZORB is a plastic, padded ball that people are placed in the middle of and sent rolling down a hill.
It's a silly, fun activity and Rotorua was actually the first place to offer it commercially. Located about a ten-minute drive from the city center, on the top of a hill, they offer three tracks here, Fast Lanes, which is just a straight shoot down the hill, Zig Zag, which is a guided track going back and fourth to the bottom, and The Drop, which starts out slow, then, well, drops.
All of these tracks are offered in a ZYDRO ball, which is where people are left loose in the ZORB with a bit of warm water. The ZORBIT ball, which people are fastened in and stay dry, is only offered on the Fast Lanes track. All of these tracks are great fun, so we suggest trying a few.
Go for the view, stay for the Luge, people could spend an entire day at Skyline Rotorua alone. Located on Mt. Ngongotaha, Skyline offers stunning views of Lake Rotorua, the city and surrounding forest. People take a glass gondola almost 180 meters up the side of the mountain and the excitement doesn't end there.
Rotorua is home to the world's first commercial Luge tracks. Similar to the Olympic sport, patrons get on a slick cart with wheels that is controlled by its handles and race down the mountain on a paved track. Skyline offers ski lifts at the bottom, so people can Luge as many times as they like.
The number one thing people should do in Rotorua is learn about the science behind that ubiquitous scent you can smell and see around Rotorua. This is a fascinating part of the earth, where people can actually see the planet's many natural phenomena in motion.
People can see Rotorua's geothermal activity just by wandering around the area. Parks around town have fenced off areas where inside you have bubbling mud and geysers. Sidewalks steam. Puddles bubble. It's an unbelievable area of the world. Yet Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is one of the best places to see the most and learn about Rotorua's geothermal activity.
The park includes Lady Knox Geyser, which people can see erupt at 10:15 a.m. daily. Three different walks, about 6.5 km altogether, around the wonderland showcase various craters, colorful pools, mud pools, more geysers, even a waterfall. Along the way people learn about the active volcano area, while seeing it work in front of them.
Settled by the Maori in the 14th century, Rotorua is a great place to learn about the first New Zealanders' culture and history. The Buried Village, which is situated on Tarawera Road, allows people to see a past life in Rotorua, literally trapped in time. The village was buried by the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, preserving some of the village's structures and items.
Attached to the village is the Museum of Te Wairoa, which showcases artifacts excavated from the area, explains the history of the village as well as how the two cultures (Maori and English) cohabited in this area.
While The Buried Village displays photos and artifacts from Maori culture in the past, Tamaki Maori Village brings it to life today. At Tamaki, visitors can take part in a hands-on Maori cultural performance. They are challenged by New Zealand's famous haka at arrival, served a traditional hangi meal and more, all in the lush Tawa Forest. This is one of the most highly-rated cultural experiences in New Zealand.
The Redwoods and Whakarewarewa Forest
While Rotorua is quite built-up by New Zealand standards, just along the city border is the amazing Redwoods and Whakarewarewa Forest for those who prefer a more natural outing. While the size, both wide and high, of the forest may lead people to believe it's centuries old, that's not the case.
Prior to 1886, the Maori settlement was basically barren. The 1886 Mt. Tarawera eruption destroyed this area. During the 1890's decade, in an attempt to revive native forest land that was cleared by English for farming, New Zealand government started planting trees here. However, these were trees from around the world, as native trees would take much longer to grow, hence the Redwoods. Native to California, the Redwoods take up six hectres of Whakarewarewa Forest today.
There are several ways to explore this area yet we suggest hiring a bike and checking out some of New Zealand's best mountain bike trails.
Destination Rotorua: Final Thoughts and Recommendations
Whether spending a day or a week in Rotorua, here are some final tips to help make the most of your visit.
First, attractions in this area are quite spread out. It's best to have your own means of transportation here, but there are several ways to get around for those who don't. We recommend booking an activity ahead and checking to see if the company offers free transfers from the city center. Otherwise BayBus, the public bus service, is the next best way to get around the city.
Finally, do not, we repeat, do not, wear any type of jewelry in mineral or sulphur pools. The water tarnishes jewelry. To be safe, keep your jewelry off for about a day after entering these pools, during which you should shower to wash off remnants. Another thing to be mindful of is the type of swimsuit you wear in a mud pool. White is probably not a good option.