In the latest instalment of our monthly column, Sarah Bennett finds Rotorua's mountain biking scene is on fire
When it comes to cycling, Rotorua talks a very big game, claiming itself "undisputedly the mountain biking capital of New Zealand".
When I ask deputy mayor, Dave Donaldson, to back up the boast, he comes back with some pretty serious creds.
"We've hosted Crankworx six times, the UCI Mountain Bike and Trials World Champs, and the Singlespeed MTB World Champs twice. Our mountain biking manaakitanga is globally renowned."
But hey. Lee and I aren't here to win the Slopestyle. We're middling off-roaders in town for four days of fun. Let's see how much riding there is for mere mortals.
The lay of the land
Between its big lake, shooting geysers, steaming vents and bubbling mud pools, Rotorua is a dramatic backdrop for outdoor activity.
On the city fringe, Whakarewarewa Forest (also known as the Redwoods) is a mix of heritage trees, native bush and pine plantations. It's big, mostly beautiful, and incredibly popular for walking and biking.
There are key entrances: the main one with an i-SITE on Titokorangi Drive, the Waipa MTB hub just south of town, and an impressive new Pūtake o Tawa hub on the road to Tikitapu/Blue Lake.
Getting your bearings
The excellent Whakarewarewa Forest Mountain Bike Tracks map ($5) details the trail network stretching to all corners.
The free Rotorua city map shows a few urban cycleways including Te Ara Ahi ("the pathway of fire"), the off-road trail linking the town with Whakarewarewa Forest and geothermal parks further afield.
For ride advice and directions, check in with one of Rotorua's bazillion bike shops, many of which offer bike hire.
A town tour
Rotorua's visitor mag claims biking is the best way to see the city sights, but we beg to differ. The car is king here, and cycleways seem thin on the ground. (Google "Rotorua Cyway" to find an interactive map of available options.) You're better off exploring the centre on foot.
Our town cycle tour was pretty much limited to riding around Sulphur Point and along Te Ara Ahi via the must-see Government Gardens. We also took a spin around Kuirau Park where you can see geothermal activity for free.
This is where it's at, with a whopping 200km of purpose-built trails. Since the last time we rode here, the park has undergone some major improvements courtesy of iwi, council, Rotorua Trails Trust and a generous contribution from the Provincial Growth Fund.
As well as new wharepaku/toilets, car parks and other public amenities, there's also a terrific new entry level trail, the Forest Loop. It's 35km long, generally smooth and wide, mostly grade 2, with reasonably gentle hill climbs. E-bikers will love it.
A satisfying sightseeing tour taking 3–5 hours, the loop passes through various forest types and skirts neighbouring lakes, Tikitapu and Rotokahaki. The loop also follows a stretch of Te Ara Ahi along busy State Highway 5, which we avoided by taking well-marked alternative MTB trails.
A second day saw us tackle a fairly sticky climb up As You Do before flying down Tokorangi and the Dipper trails to the Waipa hub where we soaked in the Secret Spot hot pools. It was an awesome afternoon out.
But we barely scratched the surface. Whakarewarewa's trails range from super-easy and wheelchair accessible, to extreme downhills and everything in between. There are skills areas, bike washdown, picnic spots, and cafes. You need a week.
The Redwoods has never looked better, but there's more mahi in the pipeline. A series of new interpretation panels will share the pakiwaitara/stories of this richly historic area.
The naming and renaming of forest landmarks advances this kaupapa. Longmile Rd is now Tītokorangi Drive. The new Tarawera MTB hub is Te Pūtake o Tawa. And the whole forest redevelopment project comes together as Moerangi, a name gifted by mana whenua in honour of a forest maunga.
Upping the fun factor on this trip was the luge at the top of the Skyline gondola. Gravity-fuelled go-karting down a tight, winding track, at high speed, egged along by some healthy competition from the husband. I turn 50 this month, but the luge made me feel 10.
The views from the Skyline are pretty epic, too, stretching over Lake Rotorua, Mokoia Island, the city and surrounds.
Daring downhill mountain bikers may also be tempted by the 12km of challenging singletrack accessed via gondola uplift. We opted for a cuppa in the cafe instead.
Eastwood is a stylish new cafe housed inside the Whare Nui o Tuteata building at the main Redwoods entrance. Architecturally splendid, airy, and big on triangles, the whare is essentially the foyer of Scion, the Crown's timber research institute.
Bunches of dishevelled bikers did little to detract from the clean lines of layered and laminated wood. It's chic-as.
As well as brunch, pizza and nibbly things on the menu, there's a cabinet with tantalising food good to go. Our chicken bagel, healthy salad and peanut caramel slice were scrumptious. We'll be back for pizza next time around.
In a not-very-secret spot at the Whakarewarewa's Waipa entrance, the Secret Spot is a flash hot pool-cum-pub complex that opened in 2019. Lush, leafy landscaping provides a modicum of privacy for 12 hot tubs, leading off from a central garden bar with great afternoon sun. Pretty Puarenga Stream babbles by.
We were totally sold on hopping straight off the bike and into a hot pool, especially once we discovered the call button for more beer.
Hazards and cautions
Whakarewarewa may have trails for everyone, but not everyone should ride all the trails. Get above grade 2 and you could be tackling slippery roots, rocks, ruts and drops. And then there are the accidents that just happen, often at slow speed.
The Rotorua Mountain Bike provides a standby paramedic service during busy riding times. How cool is that?
Bike Town Rating
A few years ago Lee and I went to Crankworx in Rotorua where we interviewed US MTB legend, Jill Kintner. She said she loved riding Rotorua, not only for its great trails and geothermal landscapes, but for the way the community supported and developed mountain biking.
Comparing it to other riding destinations worldwide, Jill remarked that mountain biking is often seen as an "outlaw sport".
"Mountain biking is embraced here," Jill told me. "Everyone in town seems to ride. The community seems to get it and support it. I think Rotorua is ahead of the curve."
Based on our visit, it looks like it still is.