Shandelle Battersby slathers herself in thermal gloop and waits for the magic to happen.

Nicola, from Hells Gate, needs to be more careful. Standing between us - two women in our late 30s - and some of Rotorua's bubbling thermal mud, she says the gloop has anti-ageing properties.

Frankly, she was lucky we didn't barrel her out of the way in a rush for some of that gloopy goodness to slather on our faces.

Instead we waited patiently until the end of her informative tour around some of the 20ha property, careful to stick to the paths in case the ever-evolving thermal activity had moved, then had the recommended 20-minute soak in one of the park's three open-air mud baths - a much safer, and far more pleasant, way of doing things.

The idea, Nicola explained in the bath, as she scooped up a handful of the light grey mud and covered her face, neck, arms and shoulders with it, is to let the paste dry on you so the benefits of its minerals and antioxidants seep into your bloodstream. It's worth getting dirty to get clean.


Hells Gate was named by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who visited the area in the early 1900s and declared it the gateway to Hell.

Shaw, an atheist who didn't actually believe in the afterlife, also named several of its features, including the Sodom and Gomorrah pool, which is hotter than 100C. If you fell in that, you'd be lucky if any part of you survived.

A wander through the park, either self-guided or as part of the free twice-daily tours, will reveal steaming fumaroles, sulphur crystals and a bubbling mud volcano, and you'll learn about Maori legends, history, and native flora and fauna.

A highlight is the largest hot water waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere, beautiful Kakahi Falls, where warriors bathed after a battle to heal their wounds and remove the tapu of war.

We were in Rotorua for a couple of days to "take the waters" (or more accurately, the mud and waters) and try out some of the different spa treatments the city - less than a three-hour drive from Auckland in our snazzy loan car, a BMW X3 35d - had to offer.

After the authentic experience at Hells Gate, we headed back into town for a luxury beauty treatment at another of the area's best-known facilities, the Polynesian Spa, which has operated in some form or another since 1878.

Bypassing the family pools, we had an hour to enjoy the Lake Spa mineral pools right on the water's edge - fed from the Priest and Rachel Springs - then headed inside for an Indulgence Mud Therapy. Following a full-body application of mud (this time more fragrant), we were wrapped in a sheet, and given a facial and a scalp massage. After a shower came head-to-toe moisturising. We floated out of the Polynesian Spa on a cloud. Highly recommended.

The next morning brought another unique experience, this time at the Spa at QE.

Located in a former convalescent hospital used to rehabilitate soldiers returning from World War II, these days QE is a non-profit organisation that continues to treat those with arthritis and chronic pain. It also offers a range of beauty treatments, from reflexology to aix massage (where the lucky recipient is showered with thermal water via jets while being massaged with oils). We were down for a paraffin wax bath for our hands and feet, said to alleviate joint pain and stiffness, increase flexibility and soften skin by removing the top layer of cells.

After a few dips in the wax baths, each hand and foot is wrapped in cling film, then encased in a mitt or bootie. After 25 minutes it has firmed and is easy to peel off, leaving hands and feet feeling silky and smooth. A dip in the onsite Rachel Pool, also used on a casual basis by locals to relax and reduce pain, topped off the experience.

Did we head home from Rotorua looking younger, less stressed and healthier? Perhaps not younger (that would take more than a couple of applications of mud unfortunately), but we were definitely rejuvenated, chilled out, and our skin felt amazing.

Next time, I'll be adding an aix massage, mud pack, manuka honey facial...

Relax with a Volcanic drop
Who knew Rotorua had its own winery? Volcanic Hills was started about seven years ago by winemaking pals Brent Park and Sean Beer at the Skyline Rotorua adventure complex at Mt Ngongotaha.

The pair predominantly use grapes grown in New Zealand's main wine regions to make their own vintages but have a few vines planted at their winery - Rotorua's first vineyard - which you can tour.

Better still, catch the Skyline Gondola up the mountain and after a cracking buffet lunch or dinner at the recently refurbished Stratosfare Restaurant (which also offers cooked-to-order crepes, cuts of meat and a tidal mussel tank), head to the winery's very cool tasting room in the former gondola-turning bay.

Here, you can usually sit down with either Park or Beer and have a good yak about what they do, while sampling some of their wines (five for $12.50 or three for $7.50) and enjoying the 180-degree views over Lake Rotorua and the city. The pair make around 4000 cases a year now, and Beer says their goal is to make "interesting wines".

The tasting room is open seven days a week from 11am to 6pm, can cater for groups, and offers a platter menu.


Details: Hells Gate: SH30, Tikitere. Spa at QE: Cnr Fenton and Wakaue Sts. Polynesian Spa: 100 Hinemoa St.

Accommodation: The spacious Holiday Inn at 10 Tryon St overlooks the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve.

Where to eat: The Eat Streat precinct on Tutanekai St has a range of restaurants and bars, one of which, Brew, showcases the craft beers made by Paul Croucher and Nigel Gregory from Croucher Brewing.

For more information: Visit

The writer travelled courtesy of Destination Rotorua and BMW New Zealand.