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Kia Ora — Welcome — to Rotorua, New Zealand!

The Maoris call it Manaakitanga—a responsibility for the land and its treasures and an invitation to visitors to share in them. Visit Rotorua, “Second Lake”, and you will feel this spirit, passed down through the generations. In this heartland of Maori culture the Earth and its geologic wonders are part of the spiritual world.

Toitu he kainga, whatu ngarongaro he tangata. Only the land remains, when people have disappeared.

The area’s thermal activity is said to have begun when Ngatoro-i-rangi, leader of Te Arawa people, ordered his people to fast so the gods would protect him as he climbed Mt Tongariro with his slave Auruhoe. Hungry and fearing him dead, they ate the food reserved for his return and Ngatoro’s heart began to freeze. His sisters heard his prayers and sent fire demons, whose warmth saved their brother and left a trail of flames, today’s volcanoes.

The Te Arawa have been guiding visitors from around world since the mid-19th century, when it was in vogue to “take the cure” in therapeutic hot springs. The spectacular Pink and White Terraces at the foot of Mount Tarawera were known as the Eighth Wonder of the World, and tours to its mineral-rich waters brought unprecedented wealth, as well as disease and alcohol, to the area.

It is said that warnings by spiritual leaders, the sighting of a phantom war canoe, and earth tremors foretold what would be the most destructive volcanic event in New Zealand’s recorded history. The 1886 eruption of Mt. Tarawera destroyed the terraces, buried nearby villages in mud and volcanic ash, and killed over 150 people. This tragedy is depicted in the Rotorua Museum and its impact can still be seen at the excavated site of The Buried Village of Te Wairoa.

Rotorua Today

Built in the 2000 year old crater of a dormant volcano just three hours south of Auckland, Rotorua is on the Ring of Fire, at the meeting of two of the tectonic plates that form the earth’s crust. The tremendous pressure as the Indo-Australian Plate rises and overlaps the Pacific Plate creates a fault.

Superheated water, steam and molten lava from beneath the surface escape, creating geysers, mud pools, fumaroles, hot springs, and volcanoes.

Therapeutic waters and treatments have made Rotorua the Spa Capital of New Zealand. The curative mineral pools, stress relieving massages, and restorative mud wraps are experiences that define the area.

There was a time, however, when New Zealand was considered the most dangerous place in the South Pacific. The Maori were regarded as the fiercest of warriors, there were tales of cannibalism, and European settlers who braved these shores were considered among the most ruthless.

Today’s visitor’s most arduous adventure need only be crossing the International Date Line during the 13 hour flight from the West Coast. Want more of an adrenaline rush in this land of the adventurous spirit? At Agrodome Adventure Park you can Swoop through the air in a hang gliding harness at a speed of 80 mile an hour, Zorb down a hill while inside a giant cushioned inflatable ball, bungy jump from a tower, tandem skydive, spin in a jet boat, freefall in a wind tunnel, or view the area by helicopter.

Adventures match the extraordinary nature of Rotorua. Perhaps you would prefer to slide down the scree slope of an extinct volcano. You can navigate the world’s highest commercially rafted waterfall, fly over an active offshore volcano, or take on the bubbling mud hazards at the local golf course.

Where to Stay

Accommodations are available in all price ranges, and bargains can be found along Fenton Street, also known as Motel Mile. For tranquility and some pampering outside the touristy district, we chose Peppers on the Point, a 5 star luxurious lakeside lodge on Rotorua’s Kawaha Point.

The compound is on a former Maori Pa (fortress) site overlooking Mokoia Island, which is known for ancient battles and legends of love. Long ago, the chief’s daughter Hinemoa swam there from the mainland by night to her forbidden warrior lover, Tutanekai, guided by the melodies of his koauau (flute). Island visitors can still bathe in Hinemoa’s Pool, the hot spring where she warmed up after her swim.

Peppers on the Point main house, Rotorua, New Zealand
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main house at Peppers on the Point, Rotorua, New Zealand

Peppers on the Point’s 1930s main house is furnished with antiques collected over generations and retains the warmth and comfort of its origins as a family home. There are large, fireplaced entertaining rooms, an elegant timber-paneled dining room, and family photos on the walls. Each of the spacious suites is uniquely furnished and includes a luxurious spa bath. Private cottages have open-air hot tubs. The modern Lake Villa is available for groups when the owners are away.

Dining is a personalized and exceptional experience, beginning with the sumptuous breakfast buffet. The evening’s pre-dinner drinks and canapés are followed by a four course dinner of creative classical New Zealand cuisine. Chef Reg Hawthorne will also design a cooking class according to your interests.

Mingle with other guests in the main dining room, or choose a private dining room, the wine cellar, the terrace, or your suite. Prince Andrew was among the recent guests. Our dining companions came from Belgium, Australia, the UK, Scandinavia, and the United States. There was also a couple from nearby Taupo celebrating a special anniversary.

Relax and rejuvenate. Watch black Australian swans glide by on the shimmering lake. True to Rotorua’s heritage, there are therapeutic health and wellness rooms for spa treatments, including heavenly massages.

shetland ponies, Peppers on the Point, Rotorua, New Zealand
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shetland ponies, Peppers on the Point, Rotorua, New Zealand

sheep, Peppers on the Point, Rotorua, New Zealand
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sheep, Peppers on the Point, Rotorua, New Zealand

alpaca at Peppers on the Point, Rotorua, New Zealand
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alpaca at Peppers on the Point, Rotorua, New Zealand

Wander through the gardens. Join the Shetland ponies, donkeys, sheep and a shy alpaca named Mirage on the gently sloping pathways to the private beach.Swim, fly fish, or catch a boat or float plane. Bush walk on the trails. There are also tennis courts, a snooker room, a library stocked with books and DVDs to enjoy in your suite, and a chapel with a large window overlooking the water.

You may not want to leave this slice of paradise, but a world of wonders awaits. We opted not to drive on this trip, and experienced the best of the area with two quite different tours.

The Group Tour

Newman’s Coach’s Grand Experiences took us to five top highlights of Rotorua in a single day.

Te Puia is named for the Maori Pa that guarded the Whakarewarewa valley area. The geothermal activity here has provided warmth, natural ovens, and therapeutic baths for the early Maori and those who continue to live there. Many of the guides are descendents of those who survived the Mt. Tarawera eruption. With a carved meeting house, twice-daily cultural performances, geysers and mud pools, and the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, it is a one-stop Maori cultural and geothermal experience.

giant redwoods Rotorua, New Zealand
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giant redwoods Rotorua, New Zealand

Then it was on to Rainbow Springs National Park, a tranquil conservation area, to wander past giant Redwoods, trout pools and New Zealand native species, including the kiwi and the living dinosaur, the tuatara.

Agrodome Sheep Show, Rotorua, New Zealand
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Agrodome Sheep Show, Rotorua, New Zealand

Nineteen breeds of sheep are featured along with shearing and sheepdog demonstrations, at the Agrodome. You may want to return to tour the nearly 400 acre sheep and beef farm or to try Agrodome Adventure Park’s extreme adventures.

It was up, up, and away on the Skylines Skyride gondola on Mt. Ngongotaha for spectacular the view of the city and lunch at the summit. Ride down on a three wheeled luge if you like. The tour ends by the lake at the mineral pools of the Polynesian Spa Complex, on the site of Priest Springs, where Father Mahoney is said to have been cured of arthritis on the 1870s. Stay as long as you like. The Polynesian Spa, is open to 11 pm.

The private tour

Lindsay Robertson’s Affordable Adventures takes you to this Rotorua native’s favorite natural wonders.

We walked a trail beneath the towering California Redwoods of Whakarewarewa Forest and traveled back roads past forests, farmland, and homes with steam pits, the ultimate in energy efficient outdoor cooking. Boaters, fishermen, and swimmers were enjoying the lakes.

Champagne Pool, Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, New Zealand
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Champagne Pool, Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland, New Zealand

Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland is New Zealand’s most colorful geothermal area. Volcanic activity 160,000 years ago left behind the most surface thermal activity in the region. Minerals from beneath the earth are brought to the surface, creating multihued marvels like Artist’s Palette. The renowned Champagne Pool bubbles with carbon dioxide.

Primrose Terrace is the largest found in the Southern Hemisphere, and Lady Knox Geyser erupts every morning at 10:15. Back in the city, our tour included Kuirau Park, part of the Rotorua Walkway. With mud pools, sulfur vents, and a free geothermal foot pool, it is one of the areas with that distinctive aroma of hydrogen sulfide that epitomizes Rotorua’s nickname, Sulfur City.

The lakeside Maori village of Ohinemutu is the site of Rotorua’s Maori meeting house, the Te Papaiouru Marae. The image of Christ in traditional Maori cloak etched in St. Faith’s church window appears to be walking on the waters of Lake Rotorua.

The Government Gardens, on land given by the local tribe, are outside the Elizabethan-style Rotorua Museum of Art and History. We returned another day to tour the museum, formerly the Great Spa of the South Pacific. Inside is a treasure trove of Maori artifacts and an opportunity to learn more about the culture, landscape and legends of the city.

Maori food and culture

Maori warrior, Tamaki Maori Village, New Zealand
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Maori warrior, Tamaki Maori Village, New Zealand

The Rotorua experience is not complete without a cultural show and hangi. Tamaki Heritage Experiences offers a historical film in the city, and then transports visitors by coach to Tamaki Maori Village for a demonstration and live exhibits of customs and traditions of the pre-European Maori world.

An energetic show with tribal songs, dances, myths, and legends is followed by a hangi (earth oven) dinner that has been cooked for hours on hot rocks in a pit, much like a New England clambake. This feast is followed by an after-hours tribal marketplace with traditional Maori arts and crafts.

Rotovegas?

Kiwi’s (New Zealanders) sometimes call it “Rotovegas” for the tourist and entertainment industry that has developed. About 1.6 million visitors are drawn here annually, and there is a touristy hub where much of the food, lodging, and amusements are found. There are over 250 shops in Rotorua—many in the Fenton street area.

Several of the over fifty restaurants are centered on Tutanekai Street. Traditionalists may prefer a lamb burger and kumara (sweet potato) chips at the Pig and Whistle Pub, a former police station with live entertainment on weekends. For trendier fare, look for menu boards offering deep fried scorpions, the latest craze.

The Lakefront is a hub of activity with a paddle steamer, jet boat rides, and air safaris by plane or helicopter. The forces of nature bubble, boil, ooze, and hiss along the Walkway from here to Sulfur Bay. Galleries of Rotorua’s leading artists are found on the Art Trail that encircles the lake.

Rotorua is an authentic cultural and natural experience. You will meet and feel the spirit of the Maori people and encounter some of the most powerful forces of nature. Whether for adventure, enlightenment, or rejuvenation, it is a feast for the senses that unmistakably reveals he pai rangitahi, the beauty of a single day.

 

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