Rotorua is, naturally, the perfect place to chase away seasonal chills, writes Kirsty Wynn.
Everyone knows Rotorua as the adventure playground for families and adrenaline junkies and non-stop fodder for dad jokes about farts. If you want to luge, roll down a hill in a Zorb or on a mountain bike, it should be top of the list. But on a wet, wintery weekend, it's also the perfect escape for two.
You can experience great dining, relaxing soaks and learn more about the history of our most famous geothermal region.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley is one of Rotorua's premier tourist attractions and is a great way to experience the city's beauty and power. There is a range of self-guided eco-tours on offer, as well as walks and hikes along crater walkways. The new Waimangu app can be downloaded free on any smart device and used as a source of information around the park.
We took a boat cruise on Lake Rotomahana and through the app's augmented reality feature were able to look at how the famed pink and white terraces would have looked before the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera. There is also a time-slide feature so you can view any landscape throughout history.
Like Waimangu Volcanic Valley, the geothermal area of Hell's Gate is something to behold. The Māori-owned valley is known as the fiercest of the geothermal areas and the smell is intense.
Once used by Māori warriors to heal their bodies after battles, the valley is now a popular place for relaxation and to ease aches and pains.
A guided tour is recommended because there is a lot to miss when you don't know what you are looking for. There are cooking pools, where we sampled mussels, fish and kūmara cooked in a kite, the largest hot waterfall in the Southern Hemisphere, and pools and pools of bubbling mud.
In winter the chances are higher of getting a mud pool to yourself . . . and this is a place you'll want to linger. For us, it was an absolute highlight. The outdoor mud baths are like large cement spa pools with trays filled with silky smooth mud, which feels amazing on the skin and has been used for generations to ease joint and muscle pain. The sulphur baths are also known for healing properties and staff say they can get rid of eczema with ease.
Those in the know say twilight baths under fairy lights and stars bring the ultimate relaxation.
Word of warning — take an old swimsuit that can be thrown out or hire one from the Hell's Gate store. It won't get damaged by the mud, but the eggy smell of sulphur will hang around on skin and clothes for days. Wearing silver jewellery is also not advised — the sulphur can cause corrosion.
We found yet more blissful relaxation at our hotel — the Prince's Gate — with its own thermal pools. It's the oldest boutique hotel in Rotorua, and if you like a bit of history and character, it's the perfect choice. Open (albeit gas) fires, old leather armchairs, stained-glass windows and chandeliers set the scene. Walking up the grand staircase to our estate room was like stepping back to 1897 when the hotel was built.
The white weatherboard hotel originally stood in Waihi but in 1917 was dismantled board by board and taken by horse-drawn wagon to the Waihi Railway Station. It travelled 150km to Rotorua to serve as accommodation for the fast-growing tourist town.
The hotel's history also includes some intriguing legends . . . word on the street is the hotel is haunted. As soon as we heard this we searched online and read every reference and news article about the infamous ghost at Prince's Gate. As it turns out that it is only guests of one particular room (29) who have had ghostly experiences and of them, it is only the single men.
We wandered up to room 29 but the ghosts must have been busy . . . perhaps relaxing in the thermal pools, or enjoying the sights of Rotorua?
It's a town where the tourism boom keeps on growing and now Rotorua is busy all year, with excellent dining options keeping the hungry hordes happy. At Eat Streat, the al fresco options are inviting even in winter — thanks to plenty of heating and a thermally heated central footpath.
Our last dining experience in Rotorua was heavily influenced by our then 7-year-old Miss Fussy-Pants so we missed out on the raved-about Atticus Finch. This time, sans kids, we were all over the delicious from-scratch sharing plates, including crispy mozzarella risotto balls with blue cheese cream and ginger sesame fried chicken. The desserts were amazing and artfully presented, with the peanut butter meringue torte a favourite.
There's more delicious dining and drinking at the top of Mt Ngongotahā. We took a gondola ride to the top for a wine-tasting at Volcanic Hills, where we relaxed on big leather sofas, at shared tables with plenty of perfect spots to soak up the view.
We enjoyed generous samples of chardonnay, pinot gris, sauvignon blanc, rose, and pinot noir, alongside plenty of easy-to-digest information about each wine.
Our host, Johnny, made the evening so enjoyable we really didn't want to leave, but we had to take our tummies across the way to Stratosfare Restaurant, also at the top of the mountain.
We had been pre-warned Stratosfare was arguably the country's largest buffet with everything from a live mussel tank, a flame rotisserie, grill station, and 24-hour roast beef. We filled our plates and enjoyed another glass of Volcanic Hills pinot gris from the menu.
To top off the night we channelled Harry and Meghan's royal tour and wandered through the Redwoods Treewalk. The 700m eco-tourism walk in the heart of Rotorua's Redwood Forest is a must-do, taking you across 28 suspension bridges between 27 majestic redwood trees more than 115 years old.
You can visit during the day but at night, it's even more magical — the forest is lit by 30 lanterns made by world-renowned New Zealand designer David Trubridge. It's an amazing way to get up close, learn about, and hug some really old trees. Rotorua is full of ways to brighten up a long, cold Kiwi winter.