Things to Do in Rotorua
Although the Rotorua area is speckled with dozens of lakes, Lake Rotorua is a different entity, detached from its neighboring lakes. Larger, deeper and much, much older, geologists believe it dates back over 200,000 years. Some of Rotorua’s other lakes were created by the Tarawera eruption of 1886, but Lake Rotorua is the original waterway to grace this section of the North Island.
Unlike the ocean, the waters of the green-hued lake are colored by sulfur and minerals, and the 920-foot elevation makes it a little cooler to the touch. It is the second largest lake on the North Island, is surrounded by a geothermal playground and offers a variety of activities for travelers. Take a cruise through the Ohau Channel, which connects with Lake Rotoiti, or go fly fishing where the waters connect and try to reel in a big one. Slide into the seat of a kayak and silently paddle the lakeshore, or strap on a helmet and go hurtling over falls while rafting on a nearby tributary.
The Government Gardens in central Rotorua are so bountiful that they could easily be mistaken for a piece of the old English countryside. If it weren’t for the telltale scent of sulfur that wafts through the air from the nearby hot springs, many visitors would forget where they’re standing, due to the Edwardian architecture and dignified landscape.
As it happens, this 50-acre compound on the shore of Lake Rotorua was gifted to the Crown by Maori tribes. Taking what was once a patch of scrubland peppered with therapeutic hot pools, the area was transformed into a public park complete with manicured lawns and the famous baths. To add to the impeccable nature of the gardens, an ornate bath house was constructed on the property and now serves as a piece of architectural history. Standing stoically above the flower gardens that burst with color each spring, the building houses the Rotorua Museum of Art and History, which is also well worth a look.
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Rotorua isn’t the natural beauty; instead—it’s the smell. From the moment you set foot in this North Island hot spot, the pungent smell of rotten eggs seems to waft in the air like a cloud. Don’t worry— it doesn’t take long to get used to the smell, and it’s actually the result of fresh sulphur and the Earth’s volcanic flux.
While the smell is noticeable all across town, nowhere is the sulphur more beautifully evident than at the sands of Sulphur Point. Here, on Lake Rotorua’s southern end, sulphur particles suspended in the shallows turn the water a milky white. The constantly shifting geothermal wetland houses 60 species of birds, which somehow survive the warm waters and boiling, earthy minerals. Follow the boardwalk around the point to find steaming mud pools and vents, and signed placards along the boardwalk explain the volcanic action.
Today, you can walk through the Blue Baths interior, tour its small museum and enjoy the sophisticated classical music that serenades from the speakers above. Enjoy high tea on site looking out over the Government Gardens, and if you fancy a dip, purchase a ticket for a relaxing soak in the thermally heated baths.
Near the northeast coast of the North Island is Mount Tarawera, the volcano responsible for a massive eruption that destroyed the famed, naturally occurring Pink and White Terraces and buried three Maori villages, including Te Wairoa, in 1866. The volcano is currently dormant, but visitors can book several different guided tours of the mountain, ranging from helicopter, 4-wheel drive vehicles and mountain bikes.
The area around Mt. Tarawera is breathtaking in its beauty and captivating in its thermal characteristics. Nearby are both the Geothermal Wonderland of Wai-O-Tapu and the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley near Te Puia, the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute. At Tarawera's foot is Lake Rotomahana, which offers numerous recreational activities including fishing, water skiing and boating.
In addition to Lake Rotomahana, Mt. Tarawera's eruption formed many others, as the rift and domes formed from the explosion dramatically altered the surrounding landscape.
The Rotorua region is steeped in New Zealand's history, from the days of the Maori settlers to the advent of European explorers. At the Rotorua Museum, you'll get an in-depth view of Rotorua's past, seen through cinema, galleries and historic locales.
When you get there, you'll want to spend some time in the Te Arawa and Tarawera galleries - the former houses an extensive collection of ancient Maori art and artifacts, as well as treasured antique photographs from the European colonial era. The latter is dedicated to the eruption of Mt. Tarawera and the destruction wreaked in 1886. After you've explored the galleries, you'll want to check out the Bath House, an architectural icon of yesteryear, known the world over for its supposed curative therapies and a centerpiece for New Zealand tourism. In the Bath House, guests were encouraged to bathe in various types of mineral waters during the health craze of the early 20th century.
It’s tough to decide which is more beautiful: the cobalt hue of the aptly-named “Blue Lake” as it sparkles in the midday sun, or the deep green of the Whakarewarewa Forest that hugs the shore of the lake. Either way, the natural beauty is what makes this lake a Rotorua favorite, and it’s the best place in town for swimming, water skiing, and reconnecting with nature. Thanks to a pumice and rhyolite bottom that’s reflected by the sun, the blue color of this small lake is just too inviting for a swim. Despite its small size and shallow depth the water is still relatively cool, and the north end beach is the place to be on the hottest days of summer. If you’d prefer to work up a sweat instead before cooling off with a swim, a 3.5-mile walking trail encircles the entire lake. Walk beneath the shaded groves of the Whakarewarewa forest, and leave footprints in the lakeshore sand before jumping in for a swim.
Though not as large as its surrounding neighbors, Lake Okareka is a local favorite for swimming, fishing, and boating. Children splash in refreshing water that’s backed by deep green hills, and anglers fish for Rainbow Trout, smelt, and long-finned eels. The lake is popular with birdwatchers for the dozens of different species, and you can scan the shoreline for swans, coots, ducks, shags, pukeko, gulls, and stilts. A popular boardwalk that is wheelchair accessible hugs the shore of the lake, and it makes for a leisurely stroll through farmland that stretches down to the shore. There is a small community of holiday homes that are sprinkled around the lake, and for an authentic view of the Rotorua countryside, spend a morning on a horseback trek through the hills and surrounding farmland. Since the shimmering lake is so close to downtown Rotorua, this is an easy spot to visit on a whim if the weather suddenly seems right.
More Things to Do in Rotorua
When you first catch a glimpse of Pohutu Geyser thundering up from the Earth and crane your neck skywards at a column of water that’s nearly 100 feet high, you begin to understand why this place has drawn visitors for literally hundreds of years. Only five minutes from central Rotorua, Te Puia is a geothermal and cultural attraction in the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. When compared to Whakarewarewa Thermal Village, Te Puia is closer to the geysers and also offers an impressive center of Maori arts and crafts. Tour the bubbling, geothermal landscape with a native Maori guide, and then retreat to the national weaving and carving schools to watch Maori students re-create the traditional arts of their ancestors. For a look at furry kiwi birds, there is a small, dark kiwi enclosure that houses the national bird, and for arguably the best evening in Rotorua, return at night to experience Te Po—a traditional ceremony and hangi feast of eating, dancing and lore.
Like much of New Zealand's attractions, the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland centers on walking outdoors - but what a walk! The park is New Zealand's most colorful and diverse geothermal attraction; visitors follow demarcated tracks through a stunning variety of volcanic phenomena. You'll see fantastic, naturally colored hot-and-cold pools, the world famous Champagne Pool, the amazing Lady Knox Geyser and the massive craters that are the hallmark of the Rotorua region's volcanic heritage.
You'll want to bring a camera and plenty of film/memory cards - the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland has some truly amazing views and scenery. New Zealand is known for its natural beauty, but this geothermal park accentuates it with its unusual geothermal topography. In particular, the shimmering water flowing over the Sinter Terrace Formations is not to be missed.
For over 200 years, the people of the Maori tribe of Tuhourangi - Ngati Wahiao have lived near the geothermal activity of Whakarewarewa; but in 1998, they established a charitable trust through which they were able to create a unique, independent tourism experience.
Called the Living Thermal Village, Te Whakarewarewa is a visitor experience similar to Amish country in that you get to experience a way of life that has remained relatively unchanged since the early 1800s. Through cultural tours, villagers welcome visitors into their homes and demonstrate Maori heritage and traditions in the best way possible - by living it. You'll walk through the village with a guide and participate in communal activities. Since the residents live and work in the attraction, guests may take part in anything from a wedding to a funeral to ceremonial tribal gatherings. Ceremony and cultural performances occur daily, including the famous hangi feast.
When the North Island of New Zealand’s Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886, it forever changed the Rotorua landscape into a valley of steaming wonder. This is a mystical land where lakes boil and mountains are bathed in steam, and walking past pools of bubbling mud is just another daily occurrence for visitors here. Of all the places in Rotorua to encounter this geothermal wonder, the Waimangu Volcanic Valley area offers one of the largest zones for exploring.
This site has an enormous hot spring, which is believed to be the largest in the world. Take an easy 45-minute stroll past geysers, fumaroles and fissures to learn how this exceptionally “young” landscape is literally changing by the day. Avid hikers can split off on the Mt Hazard trail to get better views of the valley and gaze down on the multi-hued lakes, radiant in turquoise and greens. One such lake provides one of the best activities in the valley—taking a cruise on Lake Rotomohana.
Even though New Zealanders call themselves “Kiwis,” seeing kiwi birds in the wild is rare. At the Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park, however, not only do you have the chance to see kiwi birds in the brush, but you can also learn the ways that baby kiwis are being reintroduced into the wild. Due to invasive predators, only 5 percent of wild kiwi birds will live through to adulthood, and proceeds from the Rainbow Springs Kiwi Wildlife Park help to fund programs to raise the birds from incubation up through release.
While the kiwi birds are the undoubted highlight of a visit, over a dozen other bird species—including alpine parrots—rain their song from high in the tree branches of the park’s melodic flight aviaries. You’ll also find the primordial tuatara waddling its way across tree branches, and this fearsome looking reptile has a natural history dating back to the dinosaurs and beyond.
Named for Lady Constance Knox, a daughter of the 15th governor of New Zealand, Lady Knox Geyser is located in the North Island's Taupo Volcanic Zone. While this region is famous for a variety of fascinating geological phenomena, the Lady Knox Geyser is unique. Every day it erupts at precisely 10:15am, when a park guide induces it to do so - with soap.
Indeed, the soap is used to break the surface tension of the cold water in the geyser's upper chamber so that it will mix with the hot water in the lower chamber, which causes an 20 meter (65 feet) eruption that can last an hour. Stones have been placed around the opening in order to enhance the blast, and over the years, silica in the water has given the spout a nozzle-like appearance. You'll find it among the other natural marvels of the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.
Built by two brothers in 1989, the Tamaki Maori Village is the destinatition for an authentic Maori experience. If you are looking for a Maori encounter beyond the typical performance found at hotels, this is the place to go.
The village is itself a recreation of an actual Maori settlement, and in this village, guests experience "The Chronicles of Uitara," a story following a single warrior line from 3,000 BC to the present day. Based on true events effected by actual people, the Chronicles of Uitara is reenacted by the most sought-after historical performers in the country. Guests will be enchanted and hooked by the tale, dramatically recreated with action-packed choreography. Following the story, the evening culminates in a traditional hangi feast.
Lake Rotoiti is the boutique cousin to the larger Lake Rotorua. Although Rotoiti is connected to its massive neighbor by the narrow Ohau Channel, it has its own laidback, gentle feel. The lake is lined with the westward facing decks of holiday homes perfect for sunset views. The trout fishing here is some of the best on the North Island, particularly toward the Ohau Channel, where the two lakes merge.
To get the full lake experience, head out on the water and sea kayak to hidden beaches where hot springs bubble beneath the sands, or go rafting down one of the waterfalls that spill into the surrounding rivers. For a serene view of the water, rather than an adventure out on it, make your way to the hiking trails in the area, which are packed with historical significance. The Hinehopu/Hongi Track, which leads toward Lake Rotoehu, makes for a 90-minute route that has existed since 1620.
Ohinemutu was the first settlement in the region established by the Ngati Whakaue people. Originally used as an entry hub for visitors and food headed to the neighboring villages, Ohinemutu is now a suburb of Rotorua city, but it is still a perfect example of how Western and Maori cultures integrated. Visit the Te Papaiouru Marae and St Faith’s Church, and you'll see how the two peoples collaborate, as Maori carvings and woven panels complement the Tudor-style architecture.
Ohinemutu's preservation of Ngati Whakaue is not to be missed. St. Faith's church is well known for a window etching of Jesus wearing a Maori cloak - it faces the lake, giving you the impression that Jesus is walking on water. The century-old church's rich decorations are a must-see.
Te Puia, the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute was established by the New Zealand Parliament to guard and preserve Maori culture, housing the national schools of carving and weaving. Visitors interact with master craftsmen as they turn native hardwood and plant fibers into beautiful pieces of traditional art, spinning stories as they work. Touring the facilities is interesting, informative and not to be missed, but the highlight is Te Po, Te Puia's authentic evening experience. As evening falls, you'll assemble in a carved meeting space and go on to participate in Maori rituals of friendship and greetting. As the night progresses, you'll feast on traditional cuisine as your guides will share Maori heritage, song and weaponry. Te Puia is also the staging area for tours of the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley, where there are numerous geysers and 3 regularly erupt - Kereru, Tohu and the world famous Pohutu geyser, which erupts around 20 times a day reaching heights of up to 30m.
Even though it’s right next to the wildly popular Blue Lake, the Green Lake—or Rotokakahi—is a sacred lake that isn’t open to swimming, fishing, or boating. This lake is sacred to the Te Arawa tribe who are the area’s original inhabitants, as the lake was the site of important battles and numerous sacred burial grounds. In the center of the lake is a small island known as Motutawa, where not only are the remains buried of a young Maori chief, but was also the site of a 19th century slaughter at the hands of a neighboring tribe. Originally, the lake got its name from the abundance of kakahi (crayfish) found living in the sandy bottom, although the lake today is largely left to exist in its natural state The trail that encircles the neighboring Blue Lake offers views of Rotokakahi, or, for those who would prefer a bit more solitude than the sometimes crowded Blue Lake, there are a couple of walking tracks that trace the shore of Rotokakahi itself.
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