Rotorua: Foraging the gourmet way

By Isobel Marriner

Isobel Marriner eats her way around Rotorua.

Rob French with one of Lake Tarawera's finest rainbow catches. Photo / Supplied
Rob French with one of Lake Tarawera's finest rainbow catches. Photo / Supplied

When you think of Rotorua you think of bubbling mud pools and the luge; cultural concerts and outdoor adventures.

As a former resident, Rotorua had never really been the place that sprang to mind for food-focused activities. I had my two youngest children there, so my focus then was more on baby food rather than gourmet dining. But after hearing of the many great restaurants and food experiences springing up in the city, the chance to sample them was just too good an opportunity to pass up.

We arrived on Friday afternoon - a little late and frazzled after fighting roadworks all the way from Auckland - to a gracious welcome at Wai Ora, perched on the edge of Lake Rotorua. The grounds of this international award-winning resort are secluded but with a stunning outlook across the lake to Mokoia Island and beyond to Mt Ngongotaha - a wild outlook as it turned out, for the wind was ferocious that day and whipping waves across the bay.

Our first stop, lucky us, was at the spa where, after a refreshing cup of manuka tea, we were treated to the signature miri miri massage, a mix of therapeutic massage and traditional Maori methods.

This soothed away the tribulations of our journey but also left us both energised and in the mood for dinner at Mokoia, the in-house restaurant - and one of Rotorua's finest.

Chef Erwin Garde is from the Philippines but locally trained, with a knack for clever incorporation of indigenous ingredients in his dishes.

My husband is a big fan of kai moana and began with tempura kina - tongues of roe encased in a delicate kawakawa-infused beer batter, which he said brought out the flavour - while this little piggy chose a huge platter of sizzling scampi, clams and mussels. Fresh and juicy, they were dressed with a tangy kawakawa vinaigrette. Our mains were sweet venison with Maori potatoes and a horopito relish, and a perfectly cooked eye fillet served with a mini mountain of smoky vegetables, folded with peppery kawakawa and topped with tempura pikopiko.

Our wine for the night, a a Tohu pinot noir, is made by the first Maori-owned wine company and its range features on many menus in Rotorua. We found it a silky, elegant drop.

In the interests of research I managed a tiny pavlova for dessert, served with the house speciality of soft and buttery avocado icecream.

The next day, after a quick detour to the local farmers' market amid the Ngawha hot water pools in Kuirau Park we made our way to Te Puia. The former Arts and Crafts Institute has had a magnificent makeover to become the showpiece for the town's cultural activities. Here you can see carvers and weavers from the national schools at work, admire the meeting houses and listen to a Maori concert.

Hungry visitors to Te Puia can also enjoy hangi, but we were in for a special treat; our chauffeured golf cart took us past trickling warm streams, bubbling, porridgey pools and verdant native vegetation to a marquee perched above Ngararatuatara - the eye of the tuatara - where chef Shane Beattie awaited us, frighteningly close to the pool of boiling hot water.

Between clouds of steam he dipped kete after kete of food into the depths of the pool, bringing out a feast of simply but perfectly cooked sweet and delicious mussels, prawns, kumara and sweetcorn - even spaghetti and pork dumplings.

Our charming host, Sean Marsh, explained the vision for Te Puia: bringing back the people. So many of us "of a certain age" visited the geysers and pools in our youth but have not returned with our own families. To give a new generation this special experience, Te Puia has introduced a special "whanau card" for New Zealand families, which allows two adults and up to four children unlimited visits within a year.

We left vowing to bring our own youngsters back to discover the place for themselves.

Finding a place for dinner in Rotorua is easy, as a good proportion of the central city's Tutanekai St has been transformed into "Eat Streat", lots of good food along a pedestrian boulevard with tables spreading from the eaves of its many restaurants, bars and cafes.

We took solace in Solace - good food at reasonable prices and the Saturday seafood specials were obviously a big hit with locals.

Sunday dawned warm and calm and the lake was now sparkling and inviting, which was just as well, as we had two water-based activities planned. After a hearty breakfast at Capers deli, we headed for the lakefront to catch our ride to the island. Mokoia is now a sanctuary for birds and plant life, so visits must be arranged - we were on a Wai Ora Mokoia Island "experience".

The island climate is several degrees warmer that the mainland and, coupled with its defendable position, was traditionally the foodbasket for Rotorua.

As we stepped off the boat the air was indeed noticeably warmer and thick with birdsong; tui and tieke (saddleback) darted close overhead. Kawakawa vines abound on the island and our guide, CJ, stopped to pick some for us to taste while explaining how Maori had traditionally used the plant for many medicinal purposes, including toothache.

Winding up the hilly bush track we scratched the ground to attract tiny North Island robins that come almost close enough to touch, and identified horopito or bush pepper plants that had seasoned our meals the night before. Waiting for our boat back, we munched manuka muffins while dangling our feet in the thermal pool made famous by the lovers Hinemoa and Tutanekai.

Our last stop this trip was Lake Tarawera, a 20-minute drive out of town, through thick stands of native bush that look primeval but have regenerated since the Mt Tarawera explosion in 1886.

We had coffee at Tarawera's Landing Cafe, in a picturesque spot overlooking the lake to the Mt Tarawera, before meeting friendly skipper Rob French, and clambering aboard our luxury launch.

After showing us local landmarks and explaining the history and geology of the area, Rob took us across the lake to see the pride of the Clearwater fleet, the 50ft Clearwater Spirit, a catamaran that can carry 50 and has hosted a list of impressive guests from all over the world.

Tarawera is renowned as the place to catch "trophy" trout - the clean water helps them grow to a good size. We motored across to a quiet corner of the lake near Hot Water Beach, where you can see plumes of steam rising from the thermal springs. Rob set up our rods and we were off jigging.

But all I managed to catch was the propeller, while about 15 minutes after dropping his line in the water, my husband was reeling in a beautiful rainbow trout, in prime, plump condition.

We disembarked on a quiet beach and strolled to a small thermal pool while Rob set up the smoker on the boat and cooked our sweet-fleshed trout (little bit of raw sugar, plenty of salt).

We'd probably spent about three hours on the lake but out in the fresh air and stunning scenery, it was all too short. We left Rotorua exhilarated by our time on the water, delighted to have caught our own lunch and with an appetite to come back and taste more of what Rotorua has to offer.

Rotorua picks

* Wai Ora Luxury Spa Resort: (accommodation and experiences), 77 Robinson Ave, Holdens Bay, Rotorua. Ph (07) 343 5100, info@waioraresort.co.nz

* Te Puia: Hemo Rd, Rotorua. Freephone 0800 TEPUIA, reservations@tepuia.com

* Clearwater Cruises: Lake Tarawera Landing, RD5 Rotorua. Freephone 0508 CLEARWATER, cruise@clearwater.co.nz

Isobel Marriner was a guest of Tourism Rotorua.

- NZ Herald

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