Diana Clement

Your Money and careers writer for the NZ Herald

New Zealand: The old soak

Diana Clement goes in search of New Zealand's hottest natural wonder and finds there's places for everyone, often hidden away.
Taking the waters at Hot Water Beach, Lake Tarawera. Photo / Destination Rotorua
Taking the waters at Hot Water Beach, Lake Tarawera. Photo / Destination Rotorua

When it comes to best kept secrets, New Zealand's hot springs triumph.

We have more than 100 thermal bathing sites stretching from Ngawha in Northland to Welcome Flat in the South Island.

And while most people know about the "official" baths such as Rotorua's Polynesian Spa or De Bretts Thermal Resort at Taupo, there are many other, more secret and secluded soak holes scattered around the country.

Some are still fresh and chlorinated, but there's also sulphurous water, soda water, salt water, and even mud baths, for those prepared to venture a little further off the beaten path.

Taupo: Most people's first hot swim spot in Taupo is De Brett's but less than five minutes drive from the centre of Taupo in the town's Spa Park, steaming hot water gushes out of Otumuheke Stream into the clear, cold waters of the upper Waikato river.

As a bathing spot it couldn't be more perfect.

If you get too hot, just float away into the mighty Waikato to cool down a bit.

Rotorua: The jewel in New Zealand's geothermal crown, there are several well-swum Rotorua hot spots such as Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, or mud bathing at Hells Gate, and of course, the Polynesian Spa's Lake Spa Retreat which has four natural rock pools in a stunning garden setting overlooking Lake Rotorua. All of these are, I can say from experience, well worth the visit. And they're great for bathers who don't like swimming in more random public places, showering under hoses behind changing blocks, or digging their toes into the mud.

But the Rotorua/Taupo area has at least 35 other, less well-known commercial and non-commercial hot springs - excluding those in hotels and other accommodation.

The free options include Hot Water Beach at Lake Tarawera and Kero, which is a must-visit. Known by the locals as the "secret spot', it's just 200 metres from the entrance of Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.

The soaking spot is at the confluence of hot and cold streams, making it easy to find the optimal temperature.

Just down the road out the back of Reporoa is the Butcher's Pool, a large wooden-sided natural bathing pool maintained by the Rotorua District Council but open to the air and free to use. This is the stuff of childhood memories.

Around the North Island: My children, who must have swum at more hot pools than any other Kiwi youngsters, prefer bathing where they can both see the bottom and splash about.

Their current favourite is the newly renovated Welcome Bay Hot Pools just outside Tauranga, where the crystal clear unchlorinated water is replaced daily.

Others which appeal to their taste include the Te Aroha Leisure Pools, and the Opal Hot Springs in Matamata.

I prefer my hot springs to smell of sulphur or other thermal emissions. This is what the eclectic, heavily mineral-laden hot springs at Ngawha near Kaikohe in Northland have to offer. The Waiariki Pools, run by a local whanau are my favourite of two neighbouring pools and are, as Sally Jackson, author of Hot Springs of New Zealand puts it, 'creatively landscaped', using railway sleepers to plastic pallets.

Around the South Island: Hot springs aren't just a North Island phenomenon.

An Australian friend of mine, who, in fact, sparked my hot pool obsession in the first place, visited a number of the 21 locations mentioned in Jackson's book, and came back raving about the Sylvia Flats Hot Springs. These are a set of soaking pools on the side of a river in an alpine area near the Lewis Pass.

The other South Island hot pools are located mostly between the pass in the north and Westland National Park.

The most southerly, Welcome Flat Hot Pools, are a six- to eight-hour walk from the road.

Having not been there personally, I checked out the 'bather comments' on the website nzhotpools.co.nz: "Absolutely amazing hot pools. The walk in is amazing, only to be surpassed by the hot pools themselves. One of my favourite places in New Zealand," wrote one well-satisfied reviewer.

And the rest: Hot pools can be found in some unexpected locations outside of better-known thermal areas. These include New Zealand's second 'hot water beach' at Kawhia, near Raglan, a single pool in New Plymouth, a couple of small pools on farmland near Naike in the Waikato, Mangatutu in the Kaweka Forest, northwest of Napier, and Awakeri, outside Whakatane.

You can stay the night at many of the commercial hot pools, as a high proportion of them are attached to holiday parks with a variety of accommodation ranging from camping to motel units, and sometimes even hotel rooms.

- Herald on Sunday

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