A short break in Waikato's own spa town is just the right tonic, writes Linda Meads
Before Rotorua became New Zealand's most well-known spa town, there was Te Aroha — a small settlement in the Waikato less than two hours south of Auckland, which became popular with European settlers for its healing waters in the 1870s.
Māori, of course, had already been frequenting it for many years, and in the 1880s chief Mokena Hou gifted the land to New Zealand so it could be developed as a health resort.
For a geothermal junkie it seemed ridiculous that I'd never made the slight detour off State Highway 2 to this lovely part of the country, nestled at the foot of a verdant mountain with its well-restored mineral spa facilities.
Te Aroha is close enough to our hometown of Auckland that we could pootle down from the city for the night, with a couple of stops along the way.
We chose to go slightly east en route to visit the secondhand shops of Paeroa and our favourite cafe there, The Refinery.
After a delicious toastie, some smoked kahawai and a couple of coffees to shake off the drive, we made for the Karangahake Gorge. It took a few circuits to find a park up a side road on the grass; it was a gorgeous day in the middle of the school holidays and plenty of others had the same idea as us: exploring the historic railway tunnels and some of the Hauraki Rail Trail.
At a time when we're all feeling appreciative of being able to explore our backyard, it was heartening to see so many families out on bikes and on foot exploring the excellent trail, which is a great stop during a journey through the scenic gorge.
Despite our leisurely pace we were still in Te Aroha with plenty of time to spare before our mid-afternoon appointment at Te Aroha Mineral Spas, so we checked into our Airbnb, had a look around more secondhand shops, and poked our head into the pub to check out the menu for later.
Located in the well-maintained Edwardian-era Te Aroha Domain, you'll find the spa complex, recreational hot pools, the Te Aroha and Districts Museum, a natural thermal foot bath, cafe, sports facilities and more. You'll also find the Mokena Geyser — named after that generous chief — which is the only hot soda water geyser in the Southern Hemisphere.
It's found just to the left of the Mineral Spas building and if the geyser was anywhere else in the world there would be queues of people lined up to see her blow, which she does roughly every 40 minutes.
Instead, I timed my visit just right and had a private show all to myself until a local fellow walking his dog stopped for a look as well.
The spring the geyser comes from feeds the hot pools at the complex where its 75C-85C water is cooled before being released for public use.
At Te Aroha Mineral Spas you can book a well-appointed private chalet-style room (there are seven) with a large wooden tub and changing facilities, including a shower. Early bookings are recommended.
We booked for 45 minutes ($30 each), but you can choose 30 or 60 minutes if preferred. The tub has hot and cold taps and a bubbles function, and it's fun to experiment with all three.
A buzzer sounds to alert you when your time is up, and despite our committed soaking, the minerals in the water left our skin completely smooth (no prune fingers here) and so clean of any smell or residue we even didn't feel the need to shower.
The complex, which also offers massage and beauty treatments, is open until late, and there are candles provided for atmospheric bookings after dark.
Next door at Swim Zone Te Aroha, for $8 you can swim in the 20m outdoor pool (33C in winter), toddlers' pool (35.5C) and outdoor spa (38C), or book a slot in the recently restored Number 2 Bath House (40C, $22 for 30 minutes).
The bath house, built in the 1800s, is a long concrete chamber seating up to six at a time set over a natural mineral warm water spring, which is no longer used.
The long restoration process has retained an area at one end of the chamber below an infinity wall where you can still see the old piles and rocks that cover the original spring.
Mt Te Aroha, where gold was once found, is the highest point of the Kaimai-Mamaku range and many of the area's popular walking and mountain bike tracks start from the Domain.
If you don't have the fortitude or the time to head for the summit, the Bald Spur Track (45mins one way), which starts at the geyser, will get you to the Whakapipi lookout point offering terrific views of the town, river, wetlands and beyond. The summit is a further two hours, over often steep terrain.
If you do have the bike in tow or are wanting more of a challenge than Bald Spur, make sure you leave enough time for at least one more soak before getting in the car and heading home. Your body will thank you for it.
Where to eat:
For a casual brunch or lunch, head to Ironique on the main street; for lunch or dinner and a few cold ones, stop by the excellent Austin's Bar and Bistro. New in town, at West Te Aroha, is The Old Forge Kitchen, a slick cafe, restaurant and function centre housed in a refurbished stagecoach and tractor-wheel factory which offers "paddock to plate" cuisine.