Having been to Rotorua several times I feel like I've covered most of the "must dos". Skyline Gondola and Luge - tick, bubbling mud and incredible geothermal colours - tick, beautiful Maori cultural performances and hangi - tick. I've ziplined through the trees with Rotorua Canopy Tours, fed the trout (and seen baby kiwis) at Rainbow Springs, swum in the Blue Lake, tripped around town - and on sea - on an amphibious duck tour and even hurtled down the hill in a giant inflatable ball at OGO.

But this weekend I realised there's always something new to discover in this fascinating part of the Bay of Plenty.

Parasailing, jet boating and exploring Mokoia Island

Lake Rotorua on a stunning day is a sight to behold, and since we were young we had heard the epic love story of Hinemoa and Tutanekai which is based on Mokoia Island, right in the middle of it. Katoa Lake Rotorua is the only company with access to Mokoia - where Tutanekai played his melodic flute to guide his lover across the dark seas - and jet boating over there for a guided walk is a fabulous way to spend a morning or afternoon.

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You'll need to hold on tight as the jet boat whirls, twirls and spins to the cheering delight of those on board; but once you're on the island, the pace slows significantly. A local guide walks and talks you through the lush bush setting. The commentary is fascinating, and we absorbed information on local myths and legends; history of the iwi in this area (you can still see where the pa and village would once have been); local birdlife; plants and their traditional use in Rongoā Māori, plus personal stories from the guide of growing up in Rotorua.

Katoa also offers parasailing. I was surprised at how quick you go from sitting on a noisy boat to floating effortlessly in a silent, serene sky, looking down over the lake. We have seen steaming Sulphur Point so many times from the ground, but it is resplendent from above as you see the distinct line in the water where the milky turquoise mineral rich-water ends and the dark blue of the lake begins.

Kayaking adventures

We had a unique kayaking experience with River Rats, crossing Lake Rotoiti to the boat-access-only hot pools at Manupirua Springs. It's amazing to discover something as remarkable as this, when you think you know a region pretty well. The crossing was lovely (we're still married, despite being in a double kayak) and it was enchanting, pulling up at a gorgeous little beach with a rustic hut, chairs, tables, a bar and some barbecues. Our group easily whiled away a few hours swimming in the lake, dipping in and out of the hot pools (which all have beautiful views of the lake), having a cheeky wine or two and devouring a barbecue dinner; it felt a little it like time had stood still.

Kayaking across Lake Rotoiti with Rotorua's River Rats. Photo / Alexia Snatamaria
Kayaking across Lake Rotoiti with Rotorua's River Rats. Photo / Alexia Snatamaria

The trip back was even better as we stopped at a narrow glow worm cave, paddled in and watched the bare cave walls gradually illuminate as these fascinating insects reacted to the vibrations from our voices. I couldn't help singing Don McLean's Starry Starry Night in my head as the cave walls reached peak, sparkly splendour.

Hot pools

Newly opened Secret Spot Hot Tubs, at the foot of Whakarewarewa Redwoods Mountain Bike Park, feels very secret right now, but we could see word was already spreading fast. You can either pop in for a coffee, a bite and a free foot soak in their small "shinny dip" tubs or go for the full experience in one of their 12 large wooden ones (which fit up to six people). Every little detail has been thought of from the fragrant cedar-lined shower cubicles to the "at one with nature" landscaping and the natural filter system keeping the heated spring water regularly refreshed and chemical-free. We loved soaking our weary muscles surrounded by trees and ferns and looking back over the river.

The Secret Spot Hot Tubs in Rotorua. Photo / Alexia Santamaria
The Secret Spot Hot Tubs in Rotorua. Photo / Alexia Santamaria

Redwoods Nightlights

Thanks to a visit from Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, many people will have heard of the wonderful tree walk through the Redwoods, but if you haven't done it at night definitely think about adding it to your itinerary. Platform heights vary from 9-20 metres and it's quite surreal bouncing gently along the 28 suspension bridges in a darkness softly illuminated by 30 of David Trubridge's beautiful lanterns. There are two sections where clever tiny projectors have been used to make you feel like you're surrounded by millions of tiny fireflies.

View from the Redwoods Nightlights walk in Rotorua. Photo / Supplied
View from the Redwoods Nightlights walk in Rotorua. Photo / Supplied

Eating out in Rotorua

We have written Rotorua off in the past when it comes to good food, but were happy to be proved wrong this time. Scope Cafe is worth a visit for its amazing cabinet, great coffee and hearty all-day breakfasts (with the owners' passion for hunting you'll find some venison specials in there). Terrace Kitchen is an outstanding experience of modern New Zealand cuisine, with a fantastic fitout. Atticus Finch is a local favourite on "Eat Streat" with playful plates and fabulous flavour combinations and fans of Ohakune's The Blind Finch will be thrilled they've brought their legendary burgers and craft beer to Rotorua.

Getting there

Rotorua is a three-hour drive from Auckland or five and a half hours from Wellington.


Where to stay

We loved the hilariously named RotoVegas Motel, fitted out with funky retro decor. We were thrilled to have our own spa in our room and the beds were super-comfortable. It's two minutes' walk from the fabulous Oppies Fish and Chips (who also do gorgeous fresh oysters and Chinese cuisine on the side).