Rotorua packs a lot into a weekend, writes Alexia Santamaria.
Picturesque lakes in multiple hues, adventure tourism, lush forests and unique geothermal activity all make Rotorua an incredibly popular holiday destination for overseas guests. But it may be surprising to learn that less than half of Rotorua's visitor spend is from international folk and 55 per cent comes from Kiwis playing tourist in their own country — as I did last month.
We arrived after work on a Friday night, delighted to find our hotel was not only on the lakefront, but also right next to Polynesian Spa. As the pools were open till 11pm it seemed rude not to head there for a soak — and we were glad we did, as the views of twinkling lights over beautiful Lake Rotorua in the still night air were pure central North Island magic.
We progressed from an initial 36C bathing temperature to 42C, relaxing more with each move from pool to pool. We watched loved-up couples gaze into each other's eyes and groups of friends pose for that look-at-us-in-paradise social media shot as we proceeded to melt into the healing waters of the Rachel and Priest spring, physically feeling the working week lose its grip.
After lounging on the heated chairs way too long, we dragged ourselves out, our relaxed bodies almost floating the 150m to our accommodation, past plumes of steam coming off the lake. I can't imagine how odd that kind of casual geothermal activity must look to tourists — just a gently boiling lake, no big deal.
Unsurprisingly, we slept like we'd run a marathon (rather than the truth, which involved a lot more sitting) and woke the next morning all ready for our treetop adventures with Rotorua Canopy Tours. We headed up in a van with our guides to a block of ancient forest in Dansey Road Scenic Reserve. Just five years ago, this area was overrun with rodents and possums but Canopy tours instituted a trapping programme in 2013 using profits from their zipline adventures and have gone on to eradicate 70 per cent of these vermin, resulting in a massive regeneration of birdlife and forest cover.
This backstory made the whole experience of swing bridges and ziplines through light-filled lush green bush even more enjoyable, with just enough adrenaline to keep us on our toes. The guides were gentle, knowledgeable and super passionate about their forest. Ziplines are a wonderful way to feel like a child again — there's nothing like reliving the joy of a flying fox ride (but bigger) when you're a bit old to be lining up with kids in the local playground.
We felt as if we definitely deserved a beer after all our activity so headed to Eat Streat for a pint of Rotorua-based Croucher Brewing's award-winning Lowrider IPA and some bar snacks in the sun before an afternoon nap — the luxury.
I've been to Whakarewarewa many a time with overseas guests but have never seen geysers at night so the Te Puia evening experience — Te Pō — was perfect. Although the cultural performance was designed for tourists — complete with haka and poi audience participation — the contemporary twists, incredible harmonies and joyous dancing made it a thoroughly enjoyable experience for all. Definitely one of the most talented group of performers I've ever seen.
After the show, it was time to eat. It's a long time since I've been to any buffet but this one was excellent with hangi meat we'd earlier seen (and smelt), fresh salads and plenty of seafood and side dishes. I attempted restraint, but the dessert section won in the end with all its cute petit fours as well as more traditional puddings.
After dinner we were transported down to the geysers and served hot chocolate as we sat on naturally heated rocks. Our host warned us that vertical shooting water action is not always guaranteed so we tempered our excitement, but five minutes later, Pōhutu (the largest active geyser in the Southern Hemisphere) roared into action in a fabulous — and lengthy — spectacle of steam and geothermal drama. The clear dark night sky removed any distracting features aside from the striking white silica terrain, and the full moon reigning down from the cloudless sky made it a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
After another wonderfully relaxing sleep we had breakfast and checked out before a peaceful stroll through the Redwoods (when you have two young boys, silence like this seems unfathomable).
By lunchtime it was time to head back to reality before the weekend traffic started to build. Rotorua is definitely not just a place to bring Aunty from the UK, it's also a perfect weekend getaway with a seemingly unending list of attractions — for locals as well as tourists.
The Sudima Lake Rotorua is perfectly located right on Lake Rotorua, right next to the Polynesian Spa and a five-minute walk from the centre of town.