Until recently all Deborah Dickson-Smith knew about Rotorua, in New Zealand’s North Island, was its reputation for bubbling pools of mud and the sulphurous smell. That was until her short family break across the Tasman, when she discovered a giant theme park of extreme adventures and natural wonder.
The sulphurous smell hits us before we’ve even landed and grows worse as we drive towards our hotel in town, but I’m assured this is just a particularly ‘active’ area and we’ll get used to it which, funnily enough, is true.
It is a strange concept that this city of 65,000 people has been built on an active volcano. The city of Rotorua sits on a caldera, or sunken crater, filled with water which the locals like to call Lake Rotorua. I’m not convinced it can be classified as dormant when there are bubbling pools and geysers spouting all over the place.
I’m not convinced it can be classified as dormant when there are bubbling pools and geysers spouting all over the place
Our evening is spent at Te Puia, New Zealand Maori Arts & Crafts Institute and home to the Whakawerawera thermal hot springs. After a traditional welcome ceremony we are invited into the Rotowhio Marae for an impressive performance of song and dance, a vigorous haka, ending with the beautiful traditional love song P–karekare ana. Then we head next door to feast on the hangi (earth-cooked oven meal).
One thing is certain: no one is likely to lose weight on a trip to New Zealand.
Once we’re all filled to the brim we wander out into the cold night, grab a hot chocolate, and sit on delightfully thermally heated rocks to watch the Pohutu geyser erupt. The evening ends with our guide singing us the Maori farewell which somehow feels like a lullaby. I could just curl up on these warm rocks and go to sleep.
Adventures in Middle Earth
Rotorua Tourism has three suggested itineraries for visitors to the area: Free Me, Pamper Me and Thrill Me. We opt for a mix of mix of Free Me and Thrill Me (and manage to squeeze in a little bit of Pamper Me while the kids are distracted).
Free Me is a mix of wilderness experiences, hikes, mountain bike trails and geo-thermal natural wonders. The nearby Whakarewarewa Forest provides a fantastic array of purpose-built mountain bike trails suitable for all ages and fitness levels, and access is free. Bikes and equipment can be hired from a range of shops around Rotorua.
Rotorua has many kilometres of walking tracks – our chosen walk is on the expansive property of Tree Tops Lodge & Wilderness Estate, an exclusive luxury retreat which, refreshingly, welcomes children. The drive here takes us past an eerie volcanic landscape of steaming thermal pools before clearing to reveal rolling hills. The hills, green volcanic mounds, look like villages from The Hobbit and I’m beginning to suspect that author JR Tolkein did, in fact, live here.
Our walk takes us through another part of Middle Earth, lush forests of tree ferns and fir trees inhabited by reindeer and bison, before we reach the magical Bridal Veil Falls where there is a wide range of activities for kids, including guided teddy bears’ picnics, Maori storytelling and geo caching (a treasure hunt with a GPS).