When the New York Times announced volcanic Rotorua as the only New Zealand destination on its 2018 must visit list, some Kiwis were decidedly sniffy.

The list of 52 Places eschewed favourites such as Wanaka and the Bay of Islands in favour of the sulphurous Rotovegas. However, with the US paper's visit coinciding with a royal tour of the Rotorua Redwoods, it seems that 2018 is indeed the year the international spotlight shines on New Zealand's strong-smelling thermal hotspot.

The journalist with the enviable task of visiting each of the 52 Places, Jada Yuan has been on the road since the beginning of the year – visiting number 45 Rotorua last week.

Her impression seems to have been spent in awe of the imminent arrival of the royal couple, Meghan and Harry. Having the Sussexes in town to exchange hongi with the locals was, as her host put it, "a really big deal".


Fortunately Yuan's visit involved far less orchestrated "gumboot tossing" or guides dressed as orcs – however the writer missed out on none of the pomp surrounding the royal visit.

Arriving in Rotorua during the preparation for the pōwhiri was described as a deep dive into "all things Māori."

Visiting local designer Adrienne Whitewood for a coffee, the American writer spoke to the Māori-inspired artist in an effort to understand how, one hundred-and-eighty years on, both sides of the Treaty of Waitangi could be meeting to promote the culture.

It was not only the traditional nose-to-nose custom which intrigued Yuan, but also the olfactory greeting to New Zealand's top destination.

"You will also smell Rotorua before you get there," she noted of the famous sulphur fumes.

Stopping off at the Māori village of Te Whakarewarewa and the arts and crafts school of Te Puia, she was also able to discuss the re-emergence of te reo Māori with chef Charles Royal, on a food-foraging trip in the bush.

However as for most American visitors to Aotearoa, the call of Middle-earth was never far from mind. The geothermal park Hell's Gate's most notable feature was its setting as "where the Orcs emerged for battle from primordial ooze", in the Lord of The Rings films.

In a break from the royal tour, Yuan found a chance to indulge in the obligatory detour via Hobbiton in Matamata. Her verdict: "Touristy but beyond worth it if you're a fan."


One gets the impression from the Tolkien-esque indulgence, she was.

In an action packed itinerary, there was just time to take to the tree tops.

Always a couple of steps ahead of the royal carriage, Yuan visited David Trubridge's installation via the Redwoods Tree Walk and took a swing on the Rotorua Canopy Tours zipline before heading back to Auckland.

It would appear the New York Times blogger emerged from the hotpools with a glowing review.

She only had one complaint to speak of - and that was how difficult it was to leave, but not in a kitschy "aw shucks" kind of way:

"Getting to Fiji from New Zealand should have been an easy trip. The island paradise is less than a three-hour flight away," she noted. However in an unforeseen turn of events, the columnist ended up overstaying her visit.

The last traditional Kiwi pastime Yuan was treated to was a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam on State Highway One. With a flight to Fiji waiting, time slipped away during "a downpour, and construction, and many double-tractor-trailers on a two-lane highway".

When a journalist from New York City finds your traffic noteworthy, you may have a problem.

Having missed her original flight, the harried writer found herself trapped in departures by the national carrier.

"Air New Zealand wouldn't let me on the plane unless I also had a ticket out of Fiji," she wrote, on booking an outbound ticket on her phone with only minutes to spare.

Apart from the immersion in Māori culture and a royal tour, it seems that New Zealand was memorable for causing her "first missed flight in 10 months".

The original article on Roturua by the New York Times' 52 Places columnist Jada Yuan can be read here