Childhood memories of Rotorua are revived and surpassed, writes Alexia Santamaria
It's hard not to think of Rotorua without thinking of tourism, and rightly so - that kind of water-shooting, mud-bubbling, crazy-coloured, steaming thermal activity is found in only a handful of places in the world.
It's also easy to think that as locals we should avoid the big tourist operations as they are only for overseas visitors; but they're popular with them for good reason, and that's worth investigating. Our family found playing tourist in our own country was a ton of fun.
We started with possibly the biggest tourist attraction of all: Te Puia. I have memories of coming to Whakarewarewa as a child but now it's certainly a lot flasher.
We were prepared to feel underwhelmed by the famous Pohutu geyser (we're a bit taller and hard to impress these days) but the experience actually exceeded all expectations, erupting two minutes after we arrived in a spectacular display of white, frothing, geothermal power - shooting at least 20m into the bright blue sky.
Almost as gorgeous was the resulting steamy, crystal clear waterfall that cascaded down the Jurassic-looking silica-coated rocks nearby, after each "blast". Our boys were equally mesmerised by this force of nature and didn't beg, or even ask, us to move on to the next attraction as they usually do.
We had a great morning walking around the park, experiencing Mother Nature at her maddest, and checking out the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute that is also part of Te Puia.
In the afternoon we visited Rainbow Springs Nature Park, also a trip down memory lane. The kids loved the trout, tuatara, kākā and kea and were so excited by the mother duck who followed us around quacking loudly at her chain of unruly babies walking behind (I felt her pain).
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Perhaps the most fascinating part for us all, was the Kiwi Hatchery where we learned that, sadly, most kiwi chicks don't survive in the wild due to predators; to help out, DoC staff uplift the eggs and bring them to the hatchery until the birds weigh 1kg and can be returned to nature, big enough to fight off stoats and other enemies.
Rows of kiwi incubators may just be one of the cutest things I've ever seen and there was a collective "aww" when they brought out a three-day-old chick – behind glass – for us to see.
We finished our day in the family pool at the Polynesian Spa, where we relaxed in Rachel Spring alkaline mineral hot pools while watching our boys splash and play in the bigger heated indoor swimming pool.
The next day we embarked on a Rotorua Duck Tour of the city and lakes. As the guide handed us our yellow "duck whistles" on this amphibious vehicle tour (these trucks that become boats are actual landing crafts from World War II) we definitely felt like total tourists, and far too cool to be doing this cheesy-looking ride.
By the end we had laughed ourselves stupid, blown our quacky whistles at countless random passers-by – even though I swore I wouldn't - and learned a whole lot of interesting stuff about Rotorua and the lakes surrounding it.
Our hilarious guide was amazing, imparting a wealth of cultural, geographical and local information, and the kids weren't the only ones who got excited at that all important moment when we drove down the boat ramp and suddenly found ourselves floating peacefully on the sparkly waters of Lake Tikitapu, and Lake Okareka.