First views of Sulfur City
The setting evening sun shone on the perfectly-perpendicular roads, casting a strange, old-world spell on the place. Rotorua, home to New Zealand’s most dynamic thermal area and the nucleus to the Māori tribe in the country, is ridiculously colourful in the summer. The verdure clashes with the red foliage of the Whakarewarewa forest. The city is a mixture of pale whites and light hues. Somewhere beyond, we could see the piercing blue Lake Rotorua. Even as the whiff of sulfur-rich air hit us, we knew that Rotorua was going to be special.
Arriving in Rotorua
Since we began our journey to Rotorua from Bay of Islands and had a pit stop at Waitomo Caves, we set off around 8 a.m. The drive to Waitomo took us through some of Northland’s most picturesque farm regions and some quintessentially colonial towns such as Huntly. We arrived in Waitomo Glow-worm Caves for the 3 p.m. tour. After a quick lunch, we departed from the caves at 4:30 p.m., arriving in Sulfur City around 7 p.m. If you’re driving down from Auckland, a non-stop journey by car will take around 3 hours.
Staying in Rotorua
If you aren’t’ averse to the eggy odour of sulfur, then staying in lakeside hotels will give you some gorgeous views of Lake Rotorua and the thermal valley. Hotel Sudima on Eruera Street, where we stayed, is just across the sulfur-ridden stony banks of the Lake. Millennium Hotel is the other hotel in the vicinity, while Novotel and Ibis Rotorua are some of the other lake-view hotels on Tutanekai Street. The area also has many options for motels and lodges. You can check them out here.
Getting Around Rotorua
Rotorua has a long legacy of being located atop a geothermal valley and is important to the Māori, the indigenous tribe of New Zealand. At the centre of this legacy is the legendary Te Puia, a thermal reserve and a living Maori cultural centre. If Rotorua is the hub of the Māori civilization, then Te Puia is the polestar to knowing it. The place is a confluence of cultures, as was evidenced by our lovely tour guide who was of Italian-Maori descent. The fascinating tour kicked off with a failed attempt to pronounce the tongue-twisting name of the valley – Te Whakarewarewatanga-o-te-ope-a-Wahiao. We then feasted our eyes on the stunning handicrafts produced by the National weaving, stone carving and woodcarving schools, which were founded with the objectives to teach these time-honoured cultural traditions lest they be lost forever. We then moved on to a live enclosure, excited to catch a glimpse of the iconic kiwi, who the Maori now consider themselves the guardians of. The last stop is the geothermal valley, which is a maze of bubbling mud pools, steaming hot springs and spurting geysers. Watch out for the stunningly azure-coloured alkaline pools and the 30m high Pohutu Geyser – it is magnificent.
Where in the world could you snap pictures of an alpaca, feed fluffy sheep, hold deer antlers to your head and taste the world’s best farm-made honey – all under one roof? The 100-acre pie-shaped Agrodome fascinates, amazes and enthrals to the hilt. Located on the Thermal Explorer Highway around 10km from the city centre, the Farm Tour entails traversing the farmland in tractor-pulled bus with an experienced farmhand and visiting a variety of wildlife enclosures. Tourists are encouraged to descend from the bus and interact with animals such as alpacas, deer, and various kinds of cattle and sheep. We also caught some great views of Shetland ponies, ostriches, pigs, and a gaggle of ducks. If you think the experience cannot get any better, wait till you get to the grand finale – a one-of-a-kind Farm Show where a burly Australian farm-worker showcases the best of New Zealand’s sheep herd, gets a sheep dog to run atop them and even shears one! Whether you’re an animal lover or not, Agrodome will leave you wanting for more.
If you’ve had a long day visiting the attractions in and around Rotorua, then a relaxing hour in a hot pool or indulging in spa therapy at the gorgeous Polynesian Spa will do the trick. Located along the lake on Hinemoa Street, the highlight of the Polynesian Spa is definitely the hot pools, which contain soothing alkaline mineral water. The spa doesn’t take appointments, preferring walk-ins, and tourists have to wait for only a few minutes before one of the pools gets free. Towels and bathing costumes can be rented at the reception. The Lake Spa and Family Pools are great for holidaying families to relax together, while the Adult and Private Pools are perfect for couples. The rates are mentioned here. Try out one of the four Private Pools which features stunning views of Lake Rotorua, are open to the sky and have a private shower and dressing area each. (Psst – they don’t require swimming costumes!)
Tutanekai Street, better known to locals as ‘Eat Streat’, is Rotorua’s iconic dining district and quite possibly the city’s most vibrant and noisy space. The covered central walkway shines in bright hues of pinkish-blue, lighting up the many eateries and pubs on both sides of the street. The restaurants have both indoor and alfresco dining options along with price whiteboards or menus displayed outside. For some great Indian cuisine, check out Indian Star Tandoori Restaurant and Lovely India Restaurant, which is located at the beginning of Eat Streat. Beer aficionados should visit the Brew Craft Beer Pub for some authentic Kiwi ale.
Hobbiton Movie Set
Around 80 km away from Rotorua lies the scenic town of Matamata, nestled in the rolling Kaimai ranges. It is home to the Alexander farm which, for the last 16 years has played host to the iconic movie set of Hobbiton, popularly known as the ‘Shire’. For ardent Lord of the Rings fans and even for those who aren’t, the Hobbiton Movie Set experience shouldn’t be missed. The 2 hour walking tour takes tourists through the artfully constructed set and which includes 44 colourful Hobbit holes amidst the rolling, green hills, great views of the countryside, a beautiful river and a fully-functioning inn where you can sip on some ale and cider. More information about the Hobbiton tours can be found here.
Skyline Rotorua, which is located near Agrodome, gives tourists amazing views of the geothermal valley as the gondola climbs higher. One can also race down a sloping track in the fun luge rides at the top, which is so addictive that you’d want to go more than once. If you miss the gondola ride here, don’t worry – Queenstown has an equally amazing one!
Rotorua might be very different from the other cities in Kiwi-land, but it is the distinctive synthesis of old-world culture and modernism that makes the city impossible to miss.