Unleash your own sense of spring fever and embrace all the elements around Rotorua.
Few destinations in Aotearoa offer such a spoil of such distinctive, revitalising outdoorsy offerings quite like Rotorua. Unleash your own sense of spring fever and embrace the elements around the lake. The thrills are free at the gorgeously landscaped Kuirau Park, where it’s crater lake ensures the mud keeps boiling and the steam keeps huffing, at every turn. They’ve even developed some free hot footbaths at Kuirau Park, which I gleefully dunked my toes in, for a fleeting frisson. One of my favourite morning pastimes in town is take a morning stroll around the lakefront by Ohinemutu, where the steam huffs, puffs and spirals all over the historic village, casting the entire scene in a mystical, ethereal splendour.
Across the road, I started my day with a morning walk around the gleaming lakefront to cast my eyes over the rich and ethereal splendour of Ohinemutu, as vast vents of steam huffed, puffed and billowed in the morning calm. From Lake Road, it’s a mystically theatrical spectacle of this revered village.
Home to the Ngāti Whakaue, its abundant geothermal energy is used for cooking, bathing and heating. Ohinemutu became the main centre for the Rotorua region in the early 1870s. Visitors, including royalty, would arrive here before going on to visit the Pink and White terraces and to experience Rotorua’s healing waters.
Towards the lake’s edge is the historic and magnificently decorated St Faith’s Church, which was completed in 1914. While its exterior is Tudor-style, the church interior has a strong Māori influence, with beautiful carvings and tukutuku woven panels. A memorable feature is a stained-glass window etched with the image of Jesus wearing a Māori cloak – walking across the water of Lake Rotorua. The church is open daily or join a bilingual church service, every Sunday at 9am.
Heading east from Ohinemutu, Rotorua’s lakefront boardwalk is a stirringly fresh addition to the city’s arsenal. The boardwalk has finally been completed which is part of a $40m wider development around the lakefront. It’s an intimate encounter with the gleaming lake, the birdlife and artworks adorning the area. There are some truly beautiful touches, like the lookalike silica terraces that cascade down to the water’s edge. Your kids will be enraptured with the colossal new playground, too.
Government Gardens also looks resplendent in spring, with its blaze of tulips lighting up its velvety lawns. If you’ve ever gazed in curiosity at the garden’s archway entrance that resembles a royal crown, this astonishingly ornate structure was purpose built for the 1901 royal visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later to become King George V) – colloquially known as Prince’s Gate. If you’re wondering when Rotorua Museum, housed in that iconic Tudor-style bath house is due to re-open, the extensive earthquake strengthening programme isn’t due to be complete until 2025.
In a city endowed with dining temptations aplenty, here’s some tried-and-true belly-pleasers to reserve some stomach room for. Poco Tapas & Wine is one of the newcomers to the scene, offering an intimate space for gathering with friends and savouring delicious seasonal tapas in a salubrious atmosphere. If you are a devotee of pate, be sure to try Duck Rillette, conceived from confit duck leg, served with cranberry mustard and crispy baguette.
I also loved their Kawakawa Prawns in chilli oil and homemade cornbread; Poco Fried Chicken with Berber spice and saffron lime ailoi; plus their Goat Meatballs with arrabbiata, labneh and pecorino. Exceptionally tasty dining!
In the heart of Eat Streat, Atticus Finch is a swanky alfresco restaurant with a To Kill a Mockingbird twist. I love how the outdoor courtyard is geothermally heated – how very Rotorua. The dishes are designed to be shared, like Crispy Mozzarella Risotto Balls with blue cheese crème, and Ginger Sesame Fried Chicken with lime & chilli mayo.
Another Eat Streat hero is Sobar, a vibrant, perky dispensary of comfort food, complemented with great drinks and live music The street-food style menu traverses pizzas, dumplings, fries and wedges, seafood chowder, chicken wings, mac-n-cheese, poke bowls, fish-n-chips, and the soon-to-be-famous Sodog. But it’s their drool-worthy burgers that you’ll want to sink your teeth into.
At the southern end of Eat Streat, the Pig and Whistle, which was formerly the city’s police station remains a firm favourite. Many devotees claim the Pig and Whistle serves up New Zealand’s best pigtail fries. Out that to the test. I particularly loved their lamb salad and their Kiwiana cocktails like the Kiwi Bach – like a holiday in a glass.
Rev up the glamour-dining factor at Barrel & Co. Bar and Grill in the Pullman Hotel, where the cuisine is anchored by a farm-to-table philosophy, with creative grill dishes, seasonal sides and divine desserts. I plumped for the divine Waitoa Chicken Breast, with corn puree, charred leeks and onion Annatto oil.
Check out the Junction on Fenton, located inside Fenton Street’s gorgeous iSite building. This is a café with a difference because it’s principally an on-the-job training venue for the next generation of hospitality workers, alongside operating as a fully-fledged business. The coffee is great and the cabinet food is delish. If you’re an incurable sweet-tooth like yours truly, don’t miss Marshmallow Sweet Treats, which specialises in slices, cookies and cupcakes. Their legendary Pinky Slice is a chocolate and marshmallow concoction of sublime decadence.
If you’re heading out to The Redwoods and Whakarewarewa Forest, Eastwood is a huge crowd-pleaser, fawned over for its wood-fired pizzas, nibbles and platters for sharing. Housed within the striking Scion Research Centre, Eastwood made for a fabulous lunch stop for fungi pizza.
After far too much noshing, I had a hot date with the country’s latest Great Ride, to burn off the calories. The Whakarewarewa Forest Loop is 33km trail through the soothing finery of the forest’s tall timbers and tree ferns, underpinned by those famed pumice soils, with mud pools bubbling alongside the track.
With a spooling reel of ups and downs, runs, flats, berms and hairpins, this exhilarating new addition to Rotorua’s treasury of world-class bike trails is a banner attraction. The climax is an eagle’s view across to Lake Rotorua. Accentuating the atmos, you’ll love the collection five sublime Māori art installations, including a piece crafted from a 10-tonne rock that was thrust into the forest by nature’s fury, during Tarawera’s 1886 eruption.
The jewel-like hues of Blue Lake and Green Lake are also threaded into the circuit, with food trucks and coffee stops all part of the trail mix. Most of the trail is classified Grade 2 with some Grade 3 sections. Make lighter work of it by knocking off the entire loop on an e-bike, in under three hours. Alternatively, grab a trail map and you’ll see the Loop is like a roundabout with multiple entry and exit points, so it’s easy to do a distilled version of it. Mountain Bike Rotorua offers bike hire from the start/end of the trail at Waipa, including e-bike rentals. www.mtbrotorua.co.nz
For a complete change of scenery, I headed to the northern side of Lake Rotorua, to surrender to the enchanting beauty of Hamurana Springs Nature Reserve. The magical walk threads you through a stately grove of century-old redwood trees, flanked by the Hamurana Stream, a bewitching body of crystal-clear water, cast in vivid hues of emerald, hade and turquoise. The climax of the walk is the lookout platform, gazing down on the deepest natural fresh water spring in the North Island, Te Puna-a-Hangarua.
The water for the springs and stream actually originates from the Mamaku Plateau. Tt takes about 70 years for the water to make its way through underground aquifers before resurfacing at the spring. From here, it flows into Lakes Rotorua and Rotoiti before plunging down the Okere Falls in the Kaituna River, making its way to Maketu and emptying into the Pacific Ocean. What a journey!
Speaking of Lake Rotorua’s neighbouring sibling, Lake Rotoiti was my next stop. The prized real estate perched around this languid body of water at Okawa Bay sells at seriously eye-wincing prices. Before hitting the water, I hooked up with Matt Horder, the industrious brains behind Pure Cruise and Rotoiti Water Shuttles. A very fond and familiar sight on this lake has been Matt’s luxury catamaran, Tiua.
Sailing her to New Zealand from the Caribbean, Tiua has been available for luxury charters on Lake Rotoiti for the past 13 years. But Matt has decided to change it up and for the past 18 months, he’s been beavering away on an exciting project that is coming to fruition. His new vessel under construction is called Project Airstream, inspired by a decade of feedback from Pure Cruise’s clients and crew. The Pure Cruise team have conceived, designed and are hand building a triumphantly unique 9 metre long pontoon vessel with electric drive. Its shape, form and finish has drawn inspiration from vintage 1930s’ Airstream trailers, WWII aircraft and luxury Italian speed boats. The shiny exterior looks like polished aluminium Airstream, while the interiors have a stripped back aircraft looks and feel, with curved side windows.
Seating 24 guests, you’ll bask in plush leather, with high gloss native timber tables and ceiling detail. There are ingenious touches, like how the sides of the vessel are able to lowered and locked in place by rotating couches, forming a swim platform, and sunny lunch perch on both sides of the boat. Can you imagine a dreamier way to drift through the secluded bays of Lake Rotoiti? I can’t. This silent running, floating work of art is set to be launched later this spring. Stand-by by for Rotorua’s new summer sensation. www.purecruise.co.nz
Few places can beat the lakefront splendour of Rotoiti’s Hot Pools at Manupirua Springs. This secluded geothermal paradise is accessible only by boat or floatplane. The eastern shores of Lake Rotoiti have geothermal activity beneath them and are home to numerous hot sulphur springs including the Manupirua thermal springs, which feed the hot pools. Māori and local settlers have been using these springs for bathing since 1849, becoming a commercial venture in 1914. This is off-the-beaten-track bathing in excelsis. Soak in any of the eight hot pools, whizz down the slide and into the lake to cool off, paddle in the hot water beach, or grab a snack from the café.
Also in the area, I head to the Okere Falls Scenic Reserve, a splendid spot for basking in the finery of native forest, slashed by the fast-flowing rapids of the Kaituna River and its sequence of four spectacular falls. From the main lookout platform near Hinemoa’s Steps, my jaw repeatedly dropped as I watched whitewater rafters and kayakers plummet over the 7 metre high, Tutea Falls.
Tutea lays claim to being the highest commercially-used waterfall in the world, amongst rafters. The first 11km of this section of the Kaituna River is also referred to the Okere River which fittingly means “the place of drifting.” As the name suggests, Kaituna refers to its traditional importance as a food source, namely eels. Before the first road bridge over the river was built in 1872, local Māori operated a ferry across the inlet, connecting travellers connecting Tauranga with Rotorua.
After taking in the wondrous waterworks, the enormous conga line of parked cars on SH6 served as a reminder about the fiendish popularity the Okere Falls Store is currently enjoying. These guys recently won the 2022 Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover – and we’re not just talking garden variety toasties! Their winning toastie, “Get Smoked, Pickled + Toasted” features house smoked beer brined brisket, pickles, hop salted mozzarella, smoked cheddar, horseradish, watercress all entombed in sourdough, with a pickle brine, sour cream and a beer gravy dipping bowl. What a feast!
I opted for just less-intensive snack, a delicious ham and cheese toastie. Okere Falls Store has a charming vintage-rustic vibe with a variety seating areas, including a fabulous backyard beer garden. Alongside their decorated toasties, the burgers, bratwurst and nachos are crowd-pleasing traffic-stoppers, too.
My Rotorua basecamp was the Sudima Lake Rotorua, which has all the facilities and features you’d expect from a Qualmark 4-star hotel, including a heated pool and kid zone, plus a cracking buffet breakfast. I scored a great deal on Booking.com. No matter what your budget or accommodation preferences may be, bag a great-value stay with total flexibility and convenience, at www.booking.com
I romped my way around the elemental delights of Rotorua in a trusty Mitsubishi Outlander, courtesy of Ezi Car Rental. If you’re travelling with the whananu, upgrade to a SUV and score their spring deal on SUVs, from just $76 a day. Kiwi owned and operated, I thoroughly enjoyed the Ezi experience, where excellent cars, stringent cleaning practices, super sharp prices, and fast & friendly service are all part of the package. Ezi Car Rental operates an extensive network from 25 locations across the country. They’re everywhere you want to be. Head to www.ezicarrental.co.nz
From geothermal wonders, hot pools and Māori culture to world-beating mountain biking, historic draws and lakeside dining, Rotorua is power-packed for adventure-seekers. For more trip inspiration and constantly updated destination insights, jump to www.rotoruanz.com