Leaving behind the bustle of Auckland, the drive south towards the central part of New Zealand’s North Island is mesmerising. The road is flanked by masses of undulating green fields broken by hedges and filled with woolly sheep grazing on the lush grass. The scene is idyllic to the point of being hypnotic. But then the sense of languor is shaken as the road sweeps into Rotorua, a city beside the eponymous lake, and the smell of sulphur overrides everything.
Known as the sulphur city, Rotorua is in the heart of the North Island, and is in the middle of the Taupo Volcanic Zone—an area known for intense geothermal activity. Geysers, bubbling mud pools and hot springs are literally everywhere, even inside people’s homes and backyards, in parks and on streets—sights that just can’t go unnoticed while wander around the city.
Taking its name from Maori, Rotorua’s atmosphere resonates with the rich and ancient Maori culture and heritage. Visitors can get a taste in Te Puia in the Whakarewarewa Valley, again a sprawling vista of geothermal activity. But nothing can compete the sheer shock of watching a stream of hot water shoot up some 30 metres in the air as does the Pohutu Geyser, twice hourly. Next to it is the Prince of Wales Feathers Geyser, which begins to bubble and splutter and soon the Pohutu hisses and shoots up water, filling the whole area with vapours and the intense smell of sulphur. All around the geyser are massive heated rocks, on which visitors can perch but some of the rocks can get hot and uncomfortable, though it is fun to lean on wooden bridges around and watch the show.
As quickly as the geyser erupts, it also calms down and all is quiet once again leaving pockets of bubbling mud pools all around. While it may seem anti-climatic to move away, another singular experience is in store for visitors. There are weaving and carving centres where Maori apprentice workers demonstrate their skills, and the evening ends with a traditional dance show that is evocative of stories of love, longing and fulfilment.
For an up-close experience of Rotorua’s geothermal activity, head to the Polynesian Spa, which has five massive pools. Water flows into them from the surrounding hot springs. With a stunning view of the Rotorua Lake, it is fun to go from one pool to the next, each with a different temperature. The spa also offers treatments like body wraps using mud spewed out from the geothermal mud pools. Soft and packed with minerals, it is considered to be very beneficial to health.
After energising yourself with the languid spa session, drive a little out of town to the Rainbow Springs Nature Park, which provides a quick and brief lowdown on the ecology of the area. Here you can see kiwis and even watch one hatch at the hatchery if you are lucky. For adrenalike kicks make for the Skyline Rotorua next door, located on a hilltop and accessed through gondola. At its summit a plethora of activities is available, including a vigorous luge ride, ziplining and mountain biking. But nothing compared with the sheer exhilaration of the skyswing, which is a cross between a swing and a bungee, and provides panoramic views of the entire Rotorua region.
Many visitors are repulsed by the strong chemical smell, in the Rotorua air, but hey, like a small price to pay to wake up and smell the sulphur.
Rotorua region has 17 lakes, known collectively as the Lakes of Rotorua abound with water activities such as fishing, waterskiing, cruising, swimming and kayaking.
How to reach: Fly to Auckland via Singapore or Hong Kong, and take a bus or hire a car for the three-hour drive.