Rotorua is one of the few cities in the world that you may actually smell before you see; depending on the wind you may catch a whiff of its signature, sulphurous rotten-egg smell well before you actually reach it. But whenever you do encounter the smell for the first time, it makes a strong impression. You’ll get used to it quickly enough, though, and soon be on your way to taking in all the things that make Rotorua one of New Zealand’s most unique, and most visited, cities.
Geothermal activity is what makes Rotorua such a special place. There are bubbling mud pools in the city’s parks and steam rising from suburban front yards. Geothermal attractions within day trip distance of Rotorua include Wai-O-Tapu, Hell’s Gate and the Waimangu Volcanic Valley; the most accessible, however, is the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Village just 3km from the city centre. Te Whakarewarewa includes a Maori cultural centre as well as Pohutu geyser, New Zealand’s largest and most well-known.
Kuirau Park at the western edge of the city centre is a free city park which holds bubbling mud pools and steaming lakes and is easier on the budget than the entrance fee to Te Whakarewarewa.
The area’s thermal activity also means that there are several hot spas. Polynesian Spa near the Government Gardens in the city centre is a popular and reasonable option for soaking in thermally-heated luxury in an idyllic outdoor setting. It’s been frequently chosen as a world top 10 spa by readers of Conde Nast Traveller. Many hostels in town also offer free thermally-heated spa pools.
Maori cultural performances are another main Rotorua attraction, and part of the reason Rotorua also goes by the nickname “Rotovegas”. Maori concerts and hangi meals are mainstays of the Rotorua tourist trade, and while they may be a bit overdone (the shows, not the food) for some tastes, they can also be good fun and might be a casual traveller’s best introduction to Maori tradition.
Rotorua boasts a beautiful location on Lake Rotorua, and is considered by many to the best mountain-biking region in the country.
Because Rotorua is so popular with budget travellers, a whole industry has popped up catering to the needs of the backpacker with plenty of fast-paced activities. There’s bungee jumping, skydiving, white water rafting, jet boating, and luge rides, which were invented in Rotorua. Another Rotorua original is zorbing, where you roll down a hill inside an inflatable plastic ball.
Rotorua has a highly developed food and drink scene, and a plethora of hostels to choose from, of widely varying quality. It’s on seemingly every traveller to New Zealand’s itinerary and it can feel overly touristy, but people visit it for a reason – it’s a one-of-a-kind place.
Rotorua’s local bus service consists of 11 routes covering the urban area and includes routes to most tourist attractions including Agrodome Park, Rotorua Gondola and Rotorua Airport. The most useful routes are route 1 to Ngongotaha (for Rainbow Springs, zorbing and Agrodome Park), route 10 to the airport and route 11 to Whakarewarewa.
A standard one-way cash fare is $2.70 and a Daysaver pass is available for $8.60.