Rotorua is such a tourist hot spot that I’ve been avoiding it, but just this past weekend, I was looking for a short getaway destination and decided to bite the bullet, and make a trip down to Rotorua the weekend. Rotorua is known for it’s cultural and geothermal activities – but those all come with the vast crowds that I wanted to avoid, so it took me a little bit of research to plan an itinerary that would get me away from the crowds and off the beaten track in Rotorua – all without a vehicle of my own to get out and explore.
I was on the lookout for a free transfer car rental, but there was nothing available, so I resorted to taking the bus to and from Rotorua. This meant that I had to be a little more resourceful in order to get away from the crowds. Most of the places that I wanted to get to weren’t accessible by public transport, so after a little bit of research, I found a couple of tours that I thought would work for me. I’d certainly do things differently with my own transport, but this was a great compromise for me for this little weekend trip. I was able to wander town on Friday afternoon, then enjoy the less touristy locations around the outskirts courtesy of my tours over the next two days.
Here’s what I saw, and what else you could experience if you’re interested in heading down that way for a weekend. If you don’t have time to read on now, then why not pin this for later.
The small lakefront town of Rotorua is located just steps from the water – and offers a small downtown, complete with plenty of accommodations, restaurants & cafés, souvenir stores and more! Downtown Rotorua is sandwiched between Lake Rotorua and Kuirau Park. Sights and activities extend around the lakeshore – some accessible by public transport, or courtesy shuttles operated by the activity providers.
For a quick introduction to the geothermal activity in the area, I’d suggest a stroll through Kuirau Park, located just south of the downtown area. A walk through the park reveals steaming vents, plopping mud pools, and the towns largest hot water spring. You can stroll through at your leisure taking in the sulphurous aromas, and wind blown steam facials as you wander around these geothermal features. I also heard about some free thermal foot baths in the park, but never got back to explore further and find them myself!
From Kuirau Park, I’d suggest heading towards the lakefront for a stroll along the water. For a cultural introduction to the area, wander over to Ohinemutu, a lakefront living Maori village, home to the Ngāti Whakaue tribe. Take a quick stroll through the village, appreciating the fine craftwork of the Meeting House, as well as the views from around the St Faith’s Church on the lakefront. There’s evidence of abundant geothermal energy in this area, with steaming vents popping out of the ground around the main village square.
A lot of the lakefront is under construction right now – and while it looks like there’s still a lot of work to do, it will be nice to see when all of the boardwalks and landscaping are complete. Stroll along Lakefront Drive and then across to the Government Gardens, where a peaceful walk through the green space leads past the (currently closed) Rotorua Museum, towards Sulphur Point, where you can walk the trail along the lakefront exploring the geothermal activity along the lake shore.
I walked back through the Government Gardens, past the charming little Rachel Spring Whangapipiro, which is a reputed source of alkaline water (that emerges from the spring at some 212F) and was historically said to bless its bathers with ageless beauty. If you’re seeking out ageless beauty, then you might want to head to the Polynesian Spa, as waters from the Whangapipiro Rachel Spring are piped into the pools there. The Spa is open daily until around 11pm.
Full Day Adventures with Real Rotorua
As I didn’t have a car for this trip, I elected to go on tour with Real Rotorua for the day. I selected the combination of their morning and afternoon tours, as they seemed to travel a little off the beaten path to some locations that I’d pinned as being a bit more off the beaten track. This was much more in line with the kind of travel I prefer, especially in a really touristy location like Rotorua, and it turned out to be a great choice for the day. There was a total of four of us on the tour, with our guide Stephen, and we had a great day together exploring the lakes and thermal features around the Rotorua region.
We set out from Rotorua for a morning circumnavigating Lake Rotorua, making several stops for walks and scenic views along the way. First stop for the morning was Hamurana Springs, where Stephen led us on a 45 minute guided walk through the park, beside the springs, and amongst a glorious stand of Redwood Trees, all just adjacent to the shores of the lake. Hamurana Springs was a delightfully peaceful location, and as well as marveling at the Redwoods, we strolled alongside the crystal-clear springs, spotting several rare and native bird species along the way.
Next stop was the Okere Falls Park, just adjacent to Lake Rotoiti, where we hit the trail alongside the Kaituna River, which offered a stunning canopy of trees and ferns, as well as a couple of stops overlooking Okere Falls, and Tutua Falls. Okere Falls was the site of the first hydro electric station in the area. There are only ruins left now, and the falls are more commonly known by the rafters who drift along the river before plummeting over the cascades.
If your timing is good, you might even catch the rafters plummeting over the Okere Falls, or perhaps even the higher Tutea Falls during your walk along the trail. We were just a few minutes late, and apparently missed all the action of a boat full of rafters upending over the Tutua Falls.
If you’re doing this walk independently, there’s a loop trail you can use here. I’d recommend starting from the bottom car park, taking the walk along the river up to the top, and then taking the alternative loop back down.
After some refreshments at the end of the trail, we continued around Lake Rotorua, with our next stop at the Blue & Green Lake Lookout. I vaguely recall being out here years ago on my visit to Rotorua, and it was just as spectacular as I’d remembered!
Further along the road, we made another quick scenic stop for some views across Lake Tarawera, before heading right for the lakeshore, and getting out for a stroll along the lake, looking up towards the Tarawera summit.
After a lunch break in town, we set out on the afternoon portion with a wander around the far end of Kuirau Park (the end I hadn’t seen the day prior!). There were some great colorful algaes visible around the steaming hot spring, and the barren tree limbs erect amongst the lake always give a haunting feel to the scene. Unfortunately, the boardwalk across the steaming lake is closed, but there’s still some great vistas from the permiter.
From the park, we hit the road out of town, with our next stop south east of Rotorua at Rainbow Mountain. A short 15 minute walk up to the Crater Lake viewpoint led past a few different microsystems, where we saw the foliage and plants change, before reaching the viewpoint overlooking the mountainside and the Crater Lake. Hissing steam vents are audible from the viewpoint, against a backdrop of bare brown, orange and red cliffs, complete with vents steaming gases from the hillside.
Further south, our next stop was the aptly named Mud Pools at Wai-o-tapu. These are the largest mud pools in New Zealand, and bubble and plop away at the side of the road. It’s quite therapeutic to stand and watch the mud form and belch as the gases escape. It’s quite odorous though, so sticking around for too long is not recommended.
Departing the Mud Pools, we continued past the Red Lake, and on to Kerosene Creek, where we took a stroll down to the creek, and dipped our toes into the 38C thermal waters. There were plenty of people set up for an afternoon of relaxation along the creek, with picnics, beers and snacks. I hear that you possibly leave the place smelling like it’s namesake kerosene, so for one, am glad that I just dipped my feet in!
Our final stop for the afternoon was the Waikite Valley Thermal Spring, where the hot pools are fed by a steaming thermal spring further up the creek. Along with the hot pools, there’s a walk to the Te Manaroa Spring – the largest single source of boiling water in New Zealand. The spring discharges its boiling water into the stream below, as smoke billows from the spring. It’s an ethereal scene, revealing calcite formations along the creek as the wafts of steam drift away down the stream bed.
These super headed mineral waters feed through a cooling system, and directly into the hot pools complex, where visitors enjoy a soak in a completely natural mineral water pools.
Real Rotorua was just that – a real experience, and our guide Stephen made the day. He shared his knowledge of the area, and his passion shone through. It was a tour that I’d highly recommend to anyone who doesn’t have transport, but just wants to get off the beaten path a little. The group size is small, so even if there were more pax on board, I think you’d still get a unique and personal experience.
Mount Tarawera Hike
I considered long and hard what to do on my final morning in Rotorua. I was tossing up between a horse ride, and a hike on Mt. Tarawera. Eventually, I decided on the hike – it was a little pricey, which was the main thing that was holding me back from committing, but ultimately, I decided that the hike would be more unique and would offer WAY better views. And besides, who doesn’t want to hike around a volcanic crater of a morning!
The only way to access Mt. Tarawera is via a tour with Kaitiaki Adventures. We had an early-ish pickup, and set out from Rotorua with a group of seven in a troopie. After a 40-minute drive on the sealed road, we reached the turnoff, and joined a fire track, for another 30 minute drive towards the summit. There was one quick stop along the way, where we caught views of the vast surrounding landscapes before we continued to the parking lot.
Mt Tarawera famously erupted in 1886, creating the Waimangu – the worlds youngest volcanic valley, and destroying the famous pink and white terraces that visitors came from around the world to see. Nowadays, the trail around the crater, and in essence, the views from the top are what people are coming to see – although plenty of them seemed to really just dig the 4wd ride up the track!
Our guides gave a Maori blessing before we set off up the short scree slope to the crater rim. From this point, we could trace the route of the walk, which slightly terrified me for a moment. The scree slope on the opposite side of the crater rim looked almost vertical! Insert minor panic here… Not wanting to be a chicken, I continued to walk on, reaching the point of no return on the trail, and deciding that I had to continue on. After making it up the scree/rock scramble at the point of no return, I figured that I’d just have to make it work for the rest of the walk.
Before negotiating the scree, we did make our way up to the summit, and from there, we enjoyed some magnificent views across Lake Tarawera towards Rotorua, but also out east, with Whakaari/White Island) smoking in the distance. These volcanoes are part of a long chain of geothermal activity that traces back hundreds of years, and our guides shared not only the geological story, but some beautiful Maori legend relating to the landscape. I can’t explain it, you’ll have to go on tour and hear it for yourself.
Moving on from the summit, it was time to test ourselves heading downhill on the scree. First was just a little descent from the summit to the rim, then the big downhill into the crater. It took a little bit to get in rhythm going downhill, (and I’m not going to lie, I spend a bit of time on my butt as well) but I made it, with shoes full of rocks!
Once at the bottom of the scree slope, we had a short, fairly even walk through the crater, to one final push uphill to reach the rim again. I think they called it the punisher… it wasn’t far from the truth!
Back on the rim, we looked out on the walk that we’d just completed, and felt a sense of satisfaction. I’d rate the hike itself easy – there was only a few short pushes uphill – nothing to really wear you out, and apart from the scree slope being steep, it was fairly straightforward to manage – even I didn’t freak out too much at the pitch and height of the slope!.
The ride back down in the troopie was as bumpy at the ascent, but no less exhilarating, and a good way to finish off the days activities.
In all, I think the tour is a bit pricey, unless you can pick up a discount in Rotorua, but having said that, if you want to get to the summit of Mt. Tarawera, you don’t have any other choice – unless you’re taking a helicopter.
They dropped us off back in town, which pretty much concluded my weekend adventures in Rotorua… I wandered Eat Streat until I found something for lunch, then just took my time with a final stroll of the downtown streets before catching the bus back to Auckland.
Here’s a map of my favorite spots from the day! If you go on tour, you won’t need this, as your guide will lead you the entire way. Win win!!
Would I return to Rotorua?
Unless I was self-driving, I don’t see another visit to Rotorua in my future. I’d possibly be interested in visiting another of the thermal parks, but I’d have to do some research to see which would be the best value (I’m not altogether sure that Yellowstone hasn’t ruined all the lesser thermal parks in the world for me). I’d love to explore some more of the hiking trails in the area – maybe even the Rainbow Mountain summit if I was back that way. And finally, the one touristy thing I wanted to do – but still needed transport to get there, was to go to the Whakarewarewa Forest for the Redwoods Nightlights experience. I had the best of intentions in saving that experience to share with my parents, but COVID-19 has put paid to that.
So there was my weekend, and my best recommendations for getting out of town without a car! I’m sure there’s some other great locations that I missed, so let me know in the comments, maybe I can hit them up next time I’m in the area.