Rotorua, New Zealand – More than a Smelly Tourist Trap
We spent three nights in Rotorua, home of amazing geothermal attractions and Māori meeting grounds.
From Martinborough we continued our journey into the North Island and the town of Napier. Napier had a deadly earthquake in 1931 and after it was over, the town was rebuilt all in art deco style. The small downtown is full of quaint, pastel colored shops and restaurants and made for a pleasant day out. Napier also has quite a nice oceanfront beach with a lovely walking path, and we enjoyed the warmer weather on the North Island and a nice walk on the beach.
We stayed at another B&B in Napier, probably one of the most beautiful of our trip, the Watea Lodge. The Watea Lodge’s rooms surround a pristine, long swimming pool and were decorated with modern furniture and unusual art. It felt like we were staying in a museum. Our hostess was warm and funny and made us killer avocado toast for breakfast. She also recommended an amazing place for dinner, the Mission Estate Winery, one of the first known wineries in New Zealand, established by French Missionaries. It was pretty quiet in the town of Napier when we were visiting, but this restaurant was packed, and for good reason. The food and the views were amazing, as well as the wine.
Rotorua, famous for its odor
From Napier, we continued our journey north to Rotorua. Rotorua has a reputation as one of New Zealand’s first real tourist towns, established as a spa town due to its many thermal features. We had gotten mixed feedback about planning a long visit there (we spent three nights), with some folks telling us we were definitely not going to like it – too many tourists, overpriced food, and the smell. A lot of people told us the sulphur smell in Rotorua was nauseating.
Lucky for us we stayed in a B&B about 15 minutes away from the main town of Rotorua with no smell at all. We felt like we were staying in the middle of nowhere at A Panoramic Country Homestay. It was less like a B&B and more like we were staying with family. Chris and Dave have been hosting guests since 1997 and their biggest claim to fame was hosting Orlando Bloom during the filming of Lord of the Rings, who slept in the same room we did. We had a lovely, quiet room and started every morning with a great breakfast.
By this time in our trip we were getting pretty tired and hadn’t done too much research on the area. Lucky for us Chris was a wealth of information and helped us spend our days wisely.
Rotorua smells of sulphur because of its intense volcanic and thermal activity. When you are walking around the town, you can see steam rising all over the place, from under hotels, spas and even bars that have a hot spring nearby.
One of our favorite attractions was free and just off the road, a geothermal mud pool. We could have spent hours watching and listening to the hot, bubbling mud. It sounds crazy but it didn’t seem real. The mud pool was surrounded by a boardwalk so it was easy for everyone to access. While there is another mud pool in town you can sit in, you can’t use this one – the mud is boiling and there are lots of warning signs to stay away.
Just around the corner from the mud pool was Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, a park with paths surrounding many different thermal pools and attractions. Walking around Wai-o-Tapu feels like you are on another planet, with steam everywhere and brightly colored sand and water. The colors were incredible. There was definitely a strong sulphur smell, but it was worth it to get a chance to explore all the natural wonders. We were happy that we were able to get really close to the steaming pools, in the US it seems like we would probably be far away, behind a fence, but in New Zealand they put up some warning signs and trust tourists to use common sense.
We had a rainy day during our stay so we took advantage and spent the afternoon at a hotel spa, soaking in the thermal bath and enjoying massages. For our last evening, Chris and Dave suggested we visit one of the Māori attractions, so we spent an evening at the Tamaki Māori Village.
Māori Marae Tour
We had been experiencing Māori culture to some extent since we arrived in New Zealand. Te Reo (the Māori language) is an official language of the country, and we saw both English and Māori names everywhere we went, especially for the native birds and plants. Most of the 700,000 indigenous Māori live in the North Island and Rotorua gave us our first chance to meet them.
Rotorua has several different Māori tribal meeting grounds, or marae. The only way to visit a marae is through an organized tour. For our tour, the company picked us up at our B&B and took us into town, where we picked up a larger bus to take us out to the village.
We joined a large, diverse group of tourists on the repurposed school bus and the trip flew by as our bus driver kept us all engaged. She had everyone talk about where they were from and suggest songs from their country, and she was able to sing almost every one. For the United States (it took a while to get there) she sang “Take me out to the Ballgame.”
Before we got to the village, we had to elect a leader from our bus to represent us. The honor went to a young man, nominated by his girlfriend. We were told that we had to take this very seriously, while we would all have fun later, this was not a joke.
Our bus leader had to meet face to face with the village tribal leader so we could be invited inside. The Māori chief came out to meet the bus and they did a quick ceremony. It was interesting and everyone was respectful, then we went in to explore the village.
We had a bit more fun when we got to learn the Haka, the traditional Māori war dance that has become well known as a New Zealand cultural custom. Mark joined our young leader and a few other men to do the Haka with the Tamaki group.
For the next couple hours, we explored the village, learned more about the Māori and enjoyed a traditional dinner with several other bus groups. It was definitely touristy but a lot of fun, and we enjoyed the evening, even our bus ride home. Our bus driver sang all the way home, and at one point in our trip, she spun us around a roundabout a dozen or so times while we all sang “The Wheels on the Bus.”
We enjoyed our time in Rotorua, especially visiting the thermal sites and the Māori village. It was certainly touristy as advertised, but still a fun few days of exploring the area. If you are traveling into New Zealand starting in Auckland, we think Rotorua is definitely worth a visit, especially if you’re combining it with a trip to Lake Taupo or the Bay of Plenty. Just make sure to find a place to stay without the sulphur smell.
From Rotorua, we continued our journey north to Auckland. But on the way, we had to make another touristy stop – Hobbiton.