When mentioning our travel plans to locals in Auckland, we quickly learned that we had no idea how to pronounce the city we would be spending a week in. Rotorua, pronounced "roh-toh-roo-uh", is set among a collection of calderas-turned-lakes and restless geothermal activity, and is a major adventure-sports hub. It also features activities that immerse you into local Māori culture, as well as close encounters of the animal kind. Overall, the city functioned well as a home-base to explore the North Island's Waikato and Bay of Plenty regions.
Rotorua seemed well equipped to support the influx of tourists. "Motel Mile" on Fenton Street explains itself, and the city recently renovated a city block into "Eat Streat" featuring 10+ restaurants with covered outdoor seating. If you're looking for local shopping and cafes to grab a quick bite and coffee (we enjoyed Le Café de Paris), the city's "Boutique" precinct is easily walkable from the above. Those looking for more big-name shopping can head to "Central Mall" precinct, where we were able to pick up some forgotten items that aided us further down the road. Rotorua's local chamber did their best to brand each of these districts for easy recall when we needed to be bothersome tourists to their very friendly locals.
Lake Rotorua, accessible from the north end of the city's center, provides a signature feature that permeates the air, its eggy sulfur smell. The lake's Sulphur Bay is mint green in color when the sun is shining on it and can be smelled from anywhere within about 7 min driving distance from what we could tell. Once you experience what's actually causing these smells, you start to embrace how truly unique it is. Also just outside the central city are many ranch style homes, sports fields and farmland.
As a local mentioned to me, Rotorua is very fun if you have the cash to drop. Since we were looking for once-in-a-lifetime or only-in-NZ type of experiences, we're glad we chose to step out of the budget a bit.
The pricier (But totally worth it) activities:
- The Lord of the Rings Farm and Movie Set is about a 1 hr drive from Rotorua, and it's beautiful, especially on a misty morning. You pass through Fitzgerald Glade which is some sort of magical tree tunnel.
- The land is privately owned, but after negotiations with New Line Cinema, they now run two hour tours through Hobbiton every 30 mins. The original set from the early 00's was disassembled, but rebuilt for the shooting of The Hobbit trilogy and left permanent.
- We abseiled (NZ term for rappelled) 330ft into the Lost World Cave, with a small group of five newbies and four guides. Our guides were very knowledgeable about the cave, and most importantly, the technical aspects of the abseil and caving. Thanks Chris, Nathan and Iain!
- The four hour adventure included exploring unpaved, unlit caves and some unique wildlife encounters.
- This was our splurge activity and first #ICantBelieveIJustDidThat moment.
- After our Lost World tour, we spent another three hours tramping through another set of caves in the Waitomo Caves region.
- Our guide was one of the people who built out the pathways in these caves many years ago!
- We spent about 20 minutes in silence and darkness, on a boat, underneath thousands of glow-worms. It was like being in our own tiny universe.
Some mid-range adventures:
Mountain Biking at Whakarewarewa (Redwood Forest)
- We rented mountain bikes at Mountain Bike Rotorua and hit the bike trails through the redwood forest.
- Two hours on the trails was enough to leave us sore for days, but the well-maintained and well-marked trails were lots of fun.
- This "thermal wonderland" is one of the many parks in the area to view the geothermal pools and geysers.
- The full loop of the park actually talks almost an hour and a half and the track weaves through the craters filled with a rainbow of colors.
Free walks in the area:
Te Waihou / Blue Spring
- We actually found this walk by flipping through a LOTR guidebook at the Hobbiton gift shop - it said that nothing was actually filmed there but it is in the area and worth a walk!
- This quick 20 min walk through the springs also includes a Redwood Grove.
- We experienced our first "spring head", which is where the water that feeds the spring rises from a chasm in the ground.
We spent a total of six nights in the Rotorua area - three on Motel Mile, and three at an Airbnb on Lake Okarera, about 15 minutes outside of town (and sans sulfur smell). Splitting our time meant we could stay at the pricier Airbnb for some lakeside relaxation - and still keep the average accommodation cost to around $90 USD per night. While we did visit Eat Streat and other local cafés, we found a much cheaper option for food was to stock up on groceries and dine on rotisserie chicken and frozen veggies.
All in all, a great experience which we highly recommend!
Here are some more Rotorua regional sights: