Rotorua is a delight when you have kids to entertain, writes Elizabeth Binning.

I clearly remember visiting Rotorua with my family as a child. We visited all the usual attractions and laughed at how smelly it was.

The memories have remained and it was something I've long been keen on replicating with my own children - Caleb, nearly 7 and Megan, 3. Now, after spending three nights in Rotorua we've come away with our own memories - and a scrapbook full of tales that the kids have since shared with classmates, friends and family.

That smell

Pohutu Geyser.
Pohutu Geyser.

No matter how old you are, you can't go to Rotorua without making jokes about the smell. For young kids on their first visit it's funny, but only for a while.

On our first night we went for a drive around Sulphur Bay, an area one tour operator later told us was "one of the smelliest parts" of town. Inside the car wasn't too bad but outside was a different matter and any trace of curiosity was replaced with, "Gross, that smells."


So started the jokes: "'Caleb, was that you?" "Man that stinks." He giggled at first but the joke quickly became old. By the next day our noses had adapted - slightly - and by the time we reached Te Puia we were down to just one or two jokes.

Te Puia is surprisingly less stinky than expected given its geothermal nature. It is home to the Pohutu geyser, which erupts up to 20 times a day, sending steam 30m skyward.

The tourist attraction, which is home to carving and weaving schools, also features bubbling mud pools and cultural performances where you are invited to show off your skills.

For the blokes that's the haka. For the girls it's using poi during song and dance. Swinging the poi with one hand, catching it with the other in time with the music proved a challenge.

I am, however, shamelessly blaming my daughter - she got stage fright and was clinging to my leg, which clearly put me off beat.

Or maybe it was the smell.


Feed 'em to the lions

In hindsight the threat of feeding the kids to the lions if they didn't behave might not have been my best call as a parent.


As we pulled into Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park on the outskirts of Rotorua we could hear the big cats roaring - it was feeding time and they were hungry. By the time we got inside they were lazing in the afternoon sun with paws wrapped protectively around the remains of whatever animal they'd been thrown.

Unfortunately we had just missed feeding time - although Caleb and Megan weren't convinced the lions were done.

Despite the electrified fence and even bigger outer fence the kids were worried they were next on the menu and, regretting my threats in the car, I tried to convince them there was no way the lions could escape. They were perfectly safe.

To prove my point I crouched down next to one of the big boys as he licked his paws. I was about half a metre away and thinking how amazing it was to get that close when he suddenly leapt up, letting out a deep throaty roar and making it perfectly clear he wasn't in the mood to have me up close and personal.

My attempts at "they won't hurt you" - despite my heart thumping in my chest - were fruitless after that. Megan backed into the trees and Caleb took off. When we finally caught up with him his only comment was: "Let's leave, these lions are giving me a heart attack."

Fortunately, the rest of the visit went without further hiccup.

The kids were fascinated by the trout and loved being able to feed them. The kea were "cool".

Caleb loved drinking from a spring - despite losing his footing on the wet rocks and nearly ending up in it. The walks through the bush past old hunting huts and alongside the streams were a great experience and several hours later when we emerged from the park the encounter with the lions was long forgotten.

"Hmmm, this place is actually quite nice. I like this place," said Caleb, giving his seal of approval.


Winners and losers

Skyline Gondola and Luge.
Skyline Gondola and Luge.

"The girls are the winners, you boys are the losers."

No modesty there. Megan was making sure everyone riding the chairlift back up the hill knew who made it down the luge the fastest - and it wasn't her brother and father.

The luge was all Caleb could focus on from the moment we exited the gondolas at Skyline. As we enjoyed pizza and chips at the refurbished Stratosfare Restaurant and Bar, Caleb stood watching others fly down the track. When we wanted to stop in at Jelly Belly - a very cool gourmet jellybean store - he groaned, saying we should do it later. He was on a mission.

Our ride started with quick instructions then Caleb jumped into one trolley with his dad and Megan rode with me. I vaguely remember doing the same with my parents as a kid but had forgotten just how much fun it is.

The girls quickly took the lead. The first time down the track we were cautious, abiding by recommended speed limits and quietly casting judgment on those who pushed past on narrow bends. The boys couldn't keep up and Megan was stoked when we beat them across the finish line.

They got ahead of us on the second run but my skilful driving quickly saw us overtake them on one of those narrow bends and we flew to a second victory. Again, Megan took great delight in letting the entire valley know as we rode back up the chairlift that we had crossed the line first.

By the third and final race it was war. Unfortunately, the boys gained an unfair advantage when someone blocked us at the start. That delay was added to by a "first-timer" on the bend. I'd become the impatient driver but there was nothing to be done and we crossed the finish line second.

Caleb has since declared the boys are the overall winners as only the final race counted but I'm going with Megan. The girls are the winners.


Other highlights


The ­record for finding your way around this maze sits just under seven minutes. The longest time is more than four hours. Caleb and Dean made their way through the maze in about 12 minutes and Megan and I needed several more to break through to the final inner layer. This is a must-do for families with young children.

Thermal pools
When you've finished racing down the luge or through the maze, head 25 minutes south of Rotorua and take a soak at Waikite Valley Thermal Pools. The kids loved the big pool and I took a liking to the garden and soak pools. They say thermal water is good for your skin and I have to agree. I came away feeling great.

Rotorua duck tours
For something different we headed out in a genuine amphibious World War II vehicle for a tour around Rotorua and the lakes. The transition between land and water was fun for the kids and Dean and I enjoyed learning more about the history of the area.