Rotorua, a town set on its namesake lake on New Zealand’s North Island, is renowned for its geothermal activity and Maori culture. The surrounding region is dotted with lakes and large tracts of native forest that make a wonderful contrast to the stark and violent landscapes of the geothermal areas. The town is also renowned as a center for Maori culture and is one of the best places in the country to see traditional Maori performances and delve into the history and heritage of the local tribes.
Best Time to Visit
Rotorua weather in late Spring until early Autumn (month of March till May) is the driest and warmest. This is also the peak season for tourism.
Top Places to Visit in Rotorua
1. Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Rotorua is the heart of New Zealand’s geothermal attractions, and Waimangu Volcanic Valley is one of the most popular places to see the seething mud and steaming silica terraces. A series of walkways allow visitors to view the smoke-filled craters and bizarre acid-yellow and lime-green terraces safely. The inferno crater is a highlight, with its huge geyser billowing into action. The trail meanders all the way to the shore of Lake Rotomahana where boat trips are offered to view more geothermal features.
More geothermal oddities await at Wai-O-Tapu, home to the Lady Knox geyser, which erupts at 10.15 am every morning with water shooting up to 20 meters in the air. This colorful area brims with volcanic activity with bubbling mud pools (formed by a collapsed mud-volcano), water pools tinted fluorescent green, and steaming terraces in shades of bright yellow and lurid orange all creating a surreal and otherworldly landscape. A series of walkways throughout the Wai-O-Tapu park allows you to traverse the area for good views of all the volcanic sights.
3. Te Puia
Home to Rotorua’s Pohutu Geyser, Te Puia has plenty of geothermal marvels to explore, just on the outskirts of the town center. Pohutu Geyser is the southern hemisphere’s largest geyser and sprays water up to 30 meters in the air in eruptions that can last for days on end (one eruption lasted for 250 days) but are more likely to last a few minutes. Nearby is another active geyser, Te Tohu, which also has regular, although smaller, eruptions. As well as all the geyser action, there are steaming alkaline springs, which the Maori use for cooking, and bubbling mud pools in the area. When the geothermal sightseeing has finished, the Te Puia park has a kiwi house where you can see New Zealand’s rare and nocturnal national bird up close. It’s also home to the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute where you can watch masters and students working on traditional wood and bone carvings and learn about the preservation of Maori artistry.
4. Maori Village
Amid the steam vents and hot pools of the Whakarewarewa geothermal area of Rotorua is the Maori village of Whakarewarewa where the Tuhourangi/Ngati Wahiao tribes welcome visitors to experience the culture and heritage of the Maori people. Hourly guided tours of the village include a performance of the Haka (and other traditional Maori songs) by the Te Pakira cultural group and a look at how the local residents use geothermal energy for cooking and heating. Those wanting to delve deeper into the rich culture of New Zealand’s indigenous people can stay overnight in the village Marae (meeting house).
5. Hells Gate Geothermal Park
Set amid 50 acres of steaming, boiling geothermal activity, boasting the southern hemisphere’s hottest waterfall and some of the most active and violently bubbling hot mud you’ll see, Hells Gate Geothermal Park lives up to its name. The Kakahi Falls were once used for bathing by Maori warriors with the plummeting water cascading over the rocks at a steady 40˚C, while the aptly named Inferno area is a steamy vision of pools and bubbling mud that heat up to 100˚C. A little less hot, and much less violent, are the neighboring Hells Gate spa facilities where you can chill out in geothermal mud baths and sulphurous hot springs.
6. Waitomo Glowworm Caves
The Waitomo Glowworm Caves are one of New Zealand’s most popular sights, and for good reason. This deep limestone cave system, littered with huge stalactites, is home to hundreds of thousands of glowworms (Arachnocampa Luminosa) who illuminate the rock ceilings and walls in a spectacular display of twinkling, tiny spotlights. Boat tours (every half hour) head 250 meters into the subterranean passages of these cathedral-like caverns to witness the phenomenon. As well as the main caves, the Waitomo area has several surrounding caves for more underground adventures. Both Ruakuri Cave and Aranui Cave can be accessed on foot and allow you to observe the weird limestone formations and stalactites and stalagmites up close, while Ruakuri Cave is also the setting for black water rafting tours deep into the caverns.
Fans of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Hobbit films will want to make a beeline to the small town of Matamata for a pilgrimage to the film set of Hobbiton. The entire village created for the movies directed by Peter Jackson is set on the private Alexander Farm. It has been faithfully preserved by the owners who now guide tours to the site for movie buffs seeking to revel in a slice of Middle-Earth. With the troglodyte houses of The Shire sitting snuggled into the hillside and the mill and inn standing amid rolling lush green countryside, it truly feels as if you’ve stepped into Tolkien’s fantasy world.
8. Mokoia Island
The sacred island of Mokoia is an important wildlife sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s rare and endangered birdlife. For the local Te Arawa Maori tribe, this island sitting on Lake Rotorua is steeped in ancient myths and is the setting for the Maori love story of star-crossed lovers Hinemoa and Tutanekai. Guided tours of the island include opportunities to spot indigenous bird species such as kiwi, kokako, and saddleback and to delve into Maori culture, as local guides explain the deep significance of the island for the Maori people and also demonstrate how the Maori use the native flora for medicinal and cooking purposes.
9. Kaharoa Conservation Area
The kokako is one of New Zealand’s most endangered birds, and fewer than 1,400 are thought to still live on the North Island, but the Kaharoa Conservation Area is one of the best places to hear their distinctive birdsong and spot them. The easy 1.2-kilometer Kaharoa Kokako Track (also known as Hollow’s Track) is a must for nature lovers and birdwatchers who want to try to get a glimpse of the kokako in its natural habitat. The forest here, full of huge king ferns and totara trees, is also home to plenty of easily seen native birds including tuis and bellbirds.
10. Whirinaki Forest Park
The native podocarp forest in this conservation area has made this one of the North Island’s most well-loved national parks and a beacon for hikers, campers, and mountain bikers. Whirinaki Forest Park covers 55,000 hectares of biodiverse New Zealand temperate rainforest with a dense undergrowth of ferns and a high canopy of rimu, kahikatea, and totara trees.