Waikete Valley Thermal Hot Pools

Words Vicki Ravlich- Horan

Dubbed Rotovegas, Rotorua is often relegated as a tourist spot, thus a town many Kiwis visit once and then tick off their list. Sitting just over an hour’s drive from Hamilton, Tauranga and Taupō, this is a town that you can enjoy as a daytrip, a long weekend, a week or more. You will easily fill that time, as this is a town that the more time you spend here the more you will discover, be it the amazing mountain biking tracks, the stunning walks or serene lakes and all they offer, the mind-blowing nature from geysers and mud pools to native birds. The thrill seekers can throw themselves off mountains, jet ride or raft rivers, and those just looking to relax will find a long list of luxury spas.

So if you think you have been there, done that, think again. Rotorua has much much more to offer!  We spent a long weekend in town and came home with a list of places we want to go the next time we visit, and that will be soon.

Redwoods Alitude

Forest Fun
First up it was the Redwoods’ new Altitude Experience. If you have already done the fabulous Redwood Treewalk and looking to up the excitement level, this is for you. You’ll head higher than the original Treewalk, 7 metres higher in fact, reaching 25 metres high.

Harnessed in, you’ll be guided through the redwood canopy, negotiating suspension bridges and ziplines, while learning about the Redwoods Forest, local bird species and Māori legend.

If swinging from tree to tree is your jam, make sure you check out the highly awarded Canopy Tours.

Hot Pools
If the Polynesian Spas have been your go-to, try something new and head out to Waikite Valley.  Here pure spring water cascades into the hot pools set in a wonderful natural setting.

If getting dirty before you soak away your cares is appealing, head to Hells Gate. Here you can wander around the geothermal park (with a guide or at your own pace) discovering wild natural phenomenon including the largest hot waterfall in the Southern hemisphere.

Then it’s time to get dirty and lather yourself in the sulphur rich mud before then soaking in the soothing hot pool. (A word to the wise – bring your old togs and remove all jewellery, that sulphur really soaks in!)


Wingspan

Nature

While the theme of this trip was to do something new, we couldn’t help but revisit an old favourite – Wingspan. The Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust is to secure New Zealand birds of prey future through research-based conservation and education.

Visit Thursday to Sunday at 11.30am (bookings essential) to watch and be part of the thrilling Flight of the Falcon experience.

Rotorua Duck tours

Uniquely Rotorua

It’s hard to miss the Rotorua Duck Tours’ distinct amphibious WWII landing crafts as they drive through town and then into the lakes. We joined them on their entertaining two-hour Tarawera Lakes Tour.

Our tour guide was entertaining and informative as we waddled through town and then into the local lakes for a unique view. I highly recommend this fun way to see Rotorua.

Redwoods Tree Walk

By Night

With more than enough to keep you busy during the day, you might think the nights are a good time to relax. This town has other ideas, with a number of unique night-time experiences offering you something new and to ensure you can pack as much as possible into your stay.

We’ve all zoomed down the hill on a luge, but have you tried it at night-time?

The Redwoods walk is a must do. And once you have experienced the magnificence of these trees during the day, you must do it at night when they are lit up with David Trubridge lanterns.  Recently a new nine-metre tall Lantern installation, Rakuraku Lantern was added to the line-up.  This, the largest project Trubridge has worked on has immerses the public as they walk through the structure.

At the forefront of Rotorua tourism, pre-Covid, Te Puia would see up to 8,000 visitors through their gates daily in peak season. That number is now often less than 100. This is heart-breaking! But never again will you have the opportunity to experience Te Puia without the crowds.

While many Kiwis will have been to Te Puia at some stage, I implore you to go again, and the Geyser by Night experience is the perfect reason. We met our guide, Manaaki, just before eight pm to explore the park after dark, while hearing the history and stories of Te Puia and even sampling some steamed pudding cooked in once of the hot pools.

On the night we visited the park’s famous Pōhutu, the Southern hemisphere’s largest active geyser, it decided not to come out and play. Perhaps just another reason for us to visit again, and it definitely did not take away from the experience of having the park to ourselves under the starlight.

Pullman Hotel

Stay

We stayed at the fairly new Pullman Hotel. This, the first five-star hotel in the Bay of Plenty, opened just a few short months before New Zealand went into lockdown and all international visitors dried up. This impressive hotel is conveniently located in the heart of the city, just a block from Eat Street and a very short walk to the lakefront.

With well-appointed rooms and location on its side, it is actually the friendly and amenable staff that will be the highlight of your stay.

 

Eat

This was hands down the best eating experience in Rotorua I have had. This town, which usually caters for hordes of tourists, has always been known for other things than good food. Don’t get me wrong, there have always been some gems, Scope Café is one good example. Part of what makes Scope Café so great is their consistently great offering, both food and service. This is recognised not just by their awards but their community of loyal customers, and this is what has made them stand out from other establishments after the tourist buck.

If there is ever a silver lining from the last two years, this might be it for Rotorua. In the last six months the town has seen half a dozen new eateries open, and to survive, these all have to be good, as they need the locals to love them.

Barrel and Co

The Pullman Hotel’s restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering a modern bistro experience. Opening out onto Arawa Street, this is a space welcoming to both the public and in-house guests.

Executive Chef Ryan Arboleda has a career that spans some of the top restaurants and hotels in New Zealand as well as Dubai and Thailand. His menu has a strong focus on the seasons and local ingredients.

Mekong Buffalo

Opening in December last year, Mekong Buffalo is owned by Betty Phan and her partner who also own Saigon ‘60s, a Vietnamese takeaway just a block away. Betty, who is originally from Vietnam, came to New Zealand to study biotechnology at the University of Auckland. She moved to Rotorua to work at Scion, and Saigon ’60s was her first venture into hospitality.

With Mekong Buffalo, Betty says she “wanted to focus more on the customer experience and create something fun and creative” – hence Asian fusion cuisine. Fusion is a fine line between creative genius and confusion, but the dishes we tried were definitely not confused, even if they did take from several cuisines.

Betty says with a multicultural team, led by Japanese chef Takehiro Iwata, “we can go as crazy and be as creative as we want with all the Asian fusion ideas.”

Eastwood

If you’re heading to the Redwoods for a walk or ride, make sure you start or finish at Eastwood, hidden down the end of the road amongst the Scion Research Centre. Expect great food from the team that are Rotorua’s top caterers and behind eateries like Terrace Kitchen. Expect a cabinet full of tempting delights, an all-day brunch menu and woodfired pizza from 11am daily as well as on Friday and Saturday nights.

Poco

The newly opened Poco is located up some steep stairs at 1183 Arawa Street. We popped in for a quick pre-dinner drink and nibble but would have easily stayed longer. The drinks list requires more exploring, and the food was delicious. If we lived in Rotorua, I’d be making this my local!

Te Puia Geyser

Much more!

Sadly, there is only so much eating you can do in one weekend! Here is a list of places on our list to check out next time we visit.

Ani’s Gin Bar & Tapas, 1161 Amohau Street – This spot came highly recommended on social when we asked for must visits.

Fainting Goat, 1154 Tutanekai Street – This looks like a great spot to grab a beer and share a platter with a group of friends.

El Mexicano Zapata, 1148 Tutanekai Street – This came highly recommended by the concierge at the hotel.

Guidough’s, 53/2 Springfield Road & 139 Ranolf Street – We popped into Boaster Coffee on Haupapa Street for a caffeine fix and were tempted by the cinnamon buns on the counter which were amazing. It turns out these are baked by Guidough’s who have two bakeries in town, so we will be heading there next visit for sure.

Drive

As we are trying something new, what better car than the brand new all electric car (UX300e) from Lexus to get us there and around. This was my first time driving an electric car and I was super impressed. It naturally comes with all the bells and whistles and then some, but it was the smooth ride and instant power that really made it stand out.

With a full charge under the hood we had a 360km range, more than enough to get us to and from Rotorua. Or if you planned on more tiki touring around like we did, it can be recharged with a DC fast charger in just 60 minutes or, as we did, overnight at the hotel.

Test drive it for yourself at Lexus of Tauranga, 158 Elizabeth Street, Tauranga / Lexus of Hamilton, 5 Kahu Crescent, Te Rapa Park, Hamilton

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