Location: Rotorua is in New Zealand’s North Island, two and a half hours south of Auckland, in the Bay of Plenty region. Rotorua is part of a large geothermal field that stretches across the central North Island and is known for its geysers, bubbling mud pools and volcanic crater lakes. Its geothermal activity has drawn visitors since the 1800s, so it’s a city designed for tourists. Rotorua also has a strong Maori heritage. It’s a hugely popular destination for families as there is so much to see and do. (No one forgets their first time “smelling” Rotorua!)
Bubble and steam
One of the best parts of Rotorua is that the geothermal activity is all around you – you’ll see steam billowing from behind fences and rising off the lake, and the sulphur hangs heavy in the air. There are plenty of places to see the bubbling mud, geysers and steam vents that make Rotorua famous and several are home to local Maori, so also have marae (meeting grounds) where you can experience a powhiri (Maori welcome) and learn more about the region’s fascinating history.
The following geothermal parks have a range of self-guided and guided options, and their own unique attractions:
- Te Puia – a spectacular geothermal valley with a marae and traditional Maori carving centre.
- Whakarewarewa – around 30 minutes from Rotorua, it’s described as a “living Maori village” and home to the famous Pohutu geyser, the largest in the Southern Hemisphere.
- Wai-o-Tapu – its vividly coloured Champagne Pool is a popular Instagram shot!
- Hell’s Gate – geothermal wonders and a spa experience with mud pools followed by a sulphur spa.
- Orakei-Korako – 45 minutes from Rotorua but well worth the trip. Admission includes a short ferry ride to the valley and entrance to the park and New Zealand’s only geothermal cave.
Rotorua also has a free geothermal public park – Kuirau Park is in the centre of town and has secure walkways, a playground and thermal footbaths to enjoy!
Take the Skyline gondola up the side of Mount Ngongotaha for panoramic views of Rotorua. There’s heaps to do up on the mountain with ziplining, a skyswing, mountain biking and lugeing (light tobogganing). Lugeing is fun for all ages as even small children can ride tandem with an adult. The track offers great views on the way down and you can choose how slow or fast you want to go.
Rainbow Springs is a nature park with pools of huge local trout, walk-through aviaries of native birds, including a Kiwi encounter, and all manner of lizards and skinks. There are play areas for kids scattered throughout, and a Big Splash ride that tells the story of New Zealand’s ecological past and then ends with a fast drop and a huge splash.
No family trip to Rotorua is complete without a visit to Agrodome. It’s a New Zealand farm experience with a show (including sheep shearing and lamb feeding), a farm tour (with alpacas and a kiwifruit orchard stop) and a farm nursery where you can cuddle the lambs, baby goats and calves.
For some slightly bigger animals, Paradise Valley Springs is home to a pride of African lions and you can see them being fed every day at 2.30pm. There are also other animals, birds and fish to see, as well as a treetops walkway.
Polynesian Spa is a great way to relax and unwind at the end of the day. The pools use geothermal mineral waters and you can choose from different pools, including family pools or the deluxe lakeside pools where you can sink into the silky warm water and watch the steam rise off the lake.
Learn more about Maori culture at Tamaki Maori Village – an award-winning immersive experience. The evening tour includes a traditional Maori welcome, cultural activities and a traditional hangi (food cooked in an underground pit oven) cooked with geothermal heat!
Adventure and outdoors
Rotorua is packed with adventure activities, whether it’s on land, on the water or up in the air.
Canopy Tours in Rotorua offers a zipline trip high above an ancient native forest that combines eco-adventure with great scenery, or you could hurtle down a hillside in a giant see-through plastic ball at Zorb – the largest downhill ball rolling site in the world.
Mountain bikers are spoilt for choice in Rotorua, which has some world-famous trails. The beautiful Redwoods Forest is home to 130km of free trails ranging from a kids’ loop to seriously advanced tracks. The Redwoods Information Centre off Tarawera Road has trail maps, but if you need to hire bikes or are looking for the kids’ loop, then drive to the other side of the forest, just past Te Puia, where Mountain Bike Rotorua is on Waipa State Mill Road.
Adrenalin lovers should head about 40 minutes south of Rotorua’s city centre where NZ Riverjet has a variety of rides that include thrilling jetboating, geothermal bathing and guided tours.
Eat and drink
If you fancy having a night off cooking then Eat Streat at the lake end of Tutanekai Street has plenty to choose from, while there are great cafes in and around the town centre for breakfast and lunch. If you’re in Rotorua on a Thursday then don’t miss the Night Market which runs every week from 5pm to 9pm (weather permitting) in Tutanekai Street and is full of food trucks and street vendors.
Where to stay
Credit: Destination Rotorua
Rotorua is a tourist-friendly town and there are plenty of holiday parks and several freedom camping spots in and around the city. There’s a dedicated campervan parking site across the road from Polynesian Spa on Hinemoa Street, or lakeside at Ohinemotu (check your favourite camping app for details) but both can fill fast. If you’re happy to travel a little way out of town (about 10 minutes) then you can park overnight at Boyes Beach Reserve by Lake Okareka (take cash for the $10 fee per adult) and wake to beautiful lake views.
If you want to charge your motorhome batteries (and recharge your own) then Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park is close to the Redwood Forest and has hot mineral pools for guests to use, so is perfect if you’ve had a big day on the bikes!