It's renowned for being New Zealand's second busiest tourist city (after Queenstown), but there's plenty of affordable luxury for Kiwis to appreciate in Rotorua too. As entertaining in the depth of winter as it is in summer, it's also a city for all seasons, and made for a relaxing weekend getaway, just three and a half hours from Auckland.

Arriving in darkness, we marvelled at how much the city has grown in recent years, but as you drive towards the Millennium Hotel, which lies close to the lake shore with steam pouring from the edges, you feel like you're getting back to Rotorua of old.

The Millennium was built in the 1980s, and while a little old-fashioned, it's also delightfully comfortable. It's conveniently central, and offers spectacular views of the lake and naturally steaming springs, from its fifth floor balcony rooms.

It's also a mere hop across the road to the Polynesian Spa, a place that's been synonymous with relaxation and therapeutic qualities since the 1880s, when it's said that a Catholic priest from Tauranga, Father Mahoney, who was suffering from arthritis, was brought to the Te Pupunitanga spring to bathe, and found himself much relieved. Rotorua's first bath house was then built, and the government promoted it as a health resort.


More than 130 years on, it's become the Polynesian Spa and undergone many changes, but the appeal remains the same: what could be more relaxing than soaking in 36-42 degree pools, enriched with minerals, while looking out across the shores of Lake Rotorua.

You'll feel tension leave your muscles, warmth in your bones, a softness to your skin, and a general sense of well-being.

Unless you particularly desire privacy, booking a private pool is probably unnecessary, but if you want that feeling of deep, peaceful luxury with high-class facilities, the extra cost of admission to the Lake Spa (as opposed to the regular Adult Spa admission) is worthwhile.

Heading along first thing in the morning (they open at 8am) means you'll have the complex mostly to yourself; and the sense of tranquillity as you watch the steam rise off the water in the early sunlight is particularly potent.

They also offer a diverse range of spa treatments. From facials, to massage therapies, mud wraps, and Aix therapies (which use jets of warm water to massage you), there's something to suit everyone, whether you want to work on some muscle tension, brighten your skin, or feel totally refreshed.

The therapy staff are wonderfully polite and professional, making even a spa novice feel comfortable, and have the magic touch you'd expect from such a renowned facility. Be prepared to fall asleep in the relaxation room afterwards, and feel remarkably zen for the rest of the day, whatever treatment you choose.

Of course before you indulge in all this relaxation, you might want to do something to make the adrenalin pump a little faster, and Rotorua has plenty to choose from.

One of the newest offerings is ziplining with the Rotorua Canopy Tour, and if you like native trees and birds, and flying high through the air at a rapid pace, then this is for you. It's a trunk full of fun, a nice blend of daring and sedate, and the staff deserve 10 out of 10 for their most excellent people skills (as well as keeping everyone safe while 22 metres off the ground).

Being half way up a 1000-year-old Rimu tree, looking out over this beautiful pocket of virgin forest is a pretty special Kiwi experience, and it's heartening to hear about the incredible conservation work which the company is doing to help eradicate pests from this forest, and bring the birds back. This feels like a must-do activity for Kiwis and international visitors alike, one which highlights the best of Rotorua's ever changing tourism offerings.

Rotorua tips

If you're going in winter, make sure you've got a handy scraper to scrape the solid frost off your car windows in the mornings.

Want to mix with the locals, or indulge in a raucous night out? Head to the friendly Pig & Whistle heritage pub.

Great choices for eating out include Abracadabra Cafe or Atticus Finch, and you can get a delicious cold juice at the Polynesian Spa Cafe.

The writer stayed and played courtesy of Polynesian Spa.