My family always spent our winter school holidays in Rotorua. We piled into the car, the five of us, and listened to Paul Simon and BadJelly the Witch, all the way down. If we timed it right, we'd be listening to Badjelly at the exact moment we reached Fitzgerald Glade, a tunnel of trees half an hour out from Rotorua, which we were certain was a hideout for Badjelly. Dad would roll down the window and yell "LUCYYYYY - WHERE ARE YOOOOOOU?!" into the cold winter air and the green. From then it was a game to see who got the first sniff of the sulphur, which truly announced our arrival into Rotorua.

I go back to Rotorua in the winter school holidays with my husband, and we drive those roads and play Paul Simon, and I point out all the landmarks of my childhood; telling him about feeding the lambs at the Agrodome, getting told off at the luge for being a reckless driver, and all the times we fed the trout at Rainbow Fairy Springs, sprinkling the pellets into the water and watching as the fish swooped close to the surface.

This winter we join teams of families pouring into Rotorua for the first proper holidays after the Covid-19 lockdown. Rotorua has suffered huge loss to its tourism industry during the pandemic, and it's heartening to see so many families crowding the attractions that remain open. The rain doesn't deter the crowds from the Redwoods, where everyone navigates the treewalk's suspension bridges in careful footsteps. The Skyline Luge is so busy the wait for a ride is almost an hour. I see kids stamping their feet with impatience, and have the strangest sensation of being split in two, feeling the younger version of myself at my hip, like a little shadow.

Rain doesn't deter the crowds from the Redwoods Treewalk. Photo / Rotorua NZ
Rain doesn't deter the crowds from the Redwoods Treewalk. Photo / Rotorua NZ

We drive down Fenton Street, past the rows of motels lit up against the lead-grey sky. My new game is to point out which ones we stayed at as a family all those years ago. If we were lucky it was one that came with its own private thermal pool. Before the bags had been brought in from the car, us kids would be in there, still pulling on our togs as we lowered ourselves into the steaming water, giddy with excitement.

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My favourite motel was one with a faux Tudor design, the black-and-white cladding reminded me of the township in The Pied Piper of Hamelin. Now that I am in charge of accommodation, we choose to stay a night at Princes Gate Hotel, a beautiful historic building that's been operating since 1921. Whenever we drove past that wooden masterpiece with wraparound porches on Arawa Street, we kids wondered what it was like inside. Our room has striped wallpaper, a high ceiling, and heavy drapes, and if it weren't for the television and modern bathroom, you'd swear you'd gone back in time. The lobby is stately and old fashioned, with dark wood everywhere, and deep chairs and leather sofas pulled close to make the most of the warmth from the fireplace. We carry our drinks through from the bar and sit cosy as the afternoon deepens.

Ghost stories: At night the old timbers of the Princes Gate in Rotorua come alive. Picture / Supplied
Ghost stories: At night the old timbers of the Princes Gate in Rotorua come alive. Picture / Supplied

From the hotel it's only a few minutes' walk to the Polynesian Spa, where we check in to our private pool with views of the lake. It's raining hard, and the pleasure of sitting in a hot pool while the rain flattens your hair comes back to me. I can hear the chatter of children in the public pools and half expect to hear my small ghost yelping with happiness as the rain comes down. The lake is heavy with steam, and with birds, who call through the mist and congregate in dark patterns on the water in front of us. When we venture out again we are warmed from our core, and stride through the cold air with red cheeks.

At night the Princes Gate hotel is alive with the creaks and groans that are unique to old wooden buildings. There are stories that a ghost haunts the hotel — a woman who appears only to men. I listen to the timber frames settle, and to the footsteps in the room above us, and wonder. The building is so old and the walls are so thin that I can hear other occupants getting out of bed in the night. I've been watching the adaptation of The Luminaries, and I feel as if I'm staying in a grand but faded boarding house in another century.

It always rains when I visit Rotorua. We go out in it anyway, as we did as kids, bundled in raincoats, clutching umbrellas, and walking to get food, and coffee. On some streets the steam from the thermal vents make the fences look like they're on fire and billowing smoke. It still thrills me when I see that. I remember taking our American cousins to see the bubbling mud pools at Kuirau Park, and realising how much power lay in the earth. It has never lost its pungent magic. I carry the scent in my hair and it is the scent of winter, and family.

Because we are only away for a weekend, we head out to Lake Rotoiti, to shelter from the incessant rain in a little bach at the lake's edge. The winter wet green of the native bush presses close. The walks around the lake take you across easy paths through the forest, and the earthy smell of the wet and the leaves rinses you out, leaves you shiny-eyed and clean. I have never stayed at Lake Rotoiti before, only ever driven around it and stopped to have a look, or to get an icecream in one of the little stores dotted around the place. The lake is huge, and a dense grey. I stand at the window and watch the sheets of rain blur the edges of everything. My husband pulls on his wetsuit and braves the water, lurching around in the shallows like a creature from a B-grade movie. The birds on the lake have the temerity to swim closer to him, registering their disapproval in tail flicks and hastening circles. When he gets out they return to their smooth lines, and order is restored.

The wintery, grey water of Lake Rotoiti is worth braving. Photo / Destination Rotorua
The wintery, grey water of Lake Rotoiti is worth braving. Photo / Destination Rotorua

If you want to, you can catch a boat out to the hot pools on the lake. We see a boatload of people cruise across the water to that steamy destination, but decide to stay put. The rain comes down and the syncopated rhythm as it falls on the leaves, and then the roof, is hypnotic.

These weekends away break up the monotony of winter; somehow rain falling on a strange roof is more remarkable than when you're at home. When we leave after three nights away we are deep-slept, our bodies are smoothed out from the hot pools. On the drive home through the dripping countryside, we take turns to find music from our childhoods, and sing along to Billy Joel, Dire Straits, and Lionel Richie. We will always come back to Rotorua in the winter, for the unshakeable feeling of magic that comes down with the rain, and rises with the thermal steam.