As Schmik says in his write-up above, Rotorua is a magnet for tourists, not because of the town itself, but because of the many attractions close by. The scenery is, indeed, spectacular, though not, I think, the most spectacular in a country that boasts mountains with breathtaking passes and gorges, rainforest, thunderous waterfalls, lunar volcanic desert, still-active volcanic islands, labyrinthine inland waterways teeming with dolphins and fjords – it's pretty much impossible to have a "most" spectacular.
However, Rotorua is particularly rich in natural
and manmade features:
If you drive around Rotorua on a fine day, the air will be redolent with the smell of rotten eggs – I'm told you get used to it, but I never have. This is the downside of the huge amount of geothermal activity around the town. As you move around, you'll see steam rising from drains, and residents may tell you horror stories of people who have fallen through their lawns and been caught, immersed to the waist in scalding water – this is not your usual thick crust earth, and proof of the planet's hot core is very close to the surface here.
the best known thermal area, with around 500 hot springs, boiling mud, the country's largest geyser, Pohutu, a Maori village and arts and crafts institute, kiwi house and cultural concerts
Wai-o-tapu (Sacred Waters)
Spectacular silica pools containing hot springs, and the Lady Knox geyser which (with a little assistance) spouts forth at the same time every day (10.30 am) for your viewing pleasure.
Tikiteri (Hell's Gate)
Lots and lots of boiling mud and sulphurous emissions, and also the largest hot water falls in the Southern Hemisphere - Kakahi Falls.
Orakei Korako (The Hidden Valley)
Accessible only by boat, this is a wonderland of silica terraces and hot pools – many of which feature in the credits for Xena.
The craters of the Waimangu Volcanic Rift Valley were formed in the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera, and are now the worlds largest hot springs, you'll find more silica terraces here, as well as native bush walks, although the pride of the area, the massive pink and white terraces, were destroyed in the eruption.
A park right in town, where entry is free, and occasional cauldron-like pools of boiling water are interspersed with well manicured lawns.
Animal based Attractions
Rainbow Springs and Farm
Springs teeming with rainbow trout, with underwater viewing areas, a farm show which gives you a hands-on look at New Zealand's agricultural heritage, and plenty of native flora and fauna, including plentiful tuataras – the native NZ amphibian not found anywhere else in the world.
Another series of trout springs, this time with the added attraction of a pride of lions to ooh and aah over.
An attraction based around New Zealand's real national animal, the sheep, the agrodome features such delights as the Sheep Show and Beauty Pageant, demonstrations of working huntaway dogs, shearing and so on – much more fun than it sounds, trust me. There are many other farm animals to be gazed at, such as deer and pot-bellied pigs, and there is a working woollen mill and shop.
The largest lake in the area, and cruises are offered around it – it's pretty and relaxing. It's also the site of New Zealand's most famous love story.
Legend has it that Hinemoa, a highborn maiden from the village of Owhata, met and fell in love with Tutanekai, a man from the island of Mokoi in the centre of the lake – 4km from the shore at Owhata. Tutanekai, though from a good family was illegitimate, so Hinemoa's family didn't approve of him, and every night, they beached the village's canoes well beyond the waterline, so that the lovestruck girl couldn't pull one into the water and row to her beloved.
Tutanekai was equally besotted, and used to sit outside his house, playing melancholy tunes on his flute, which floated across the still waters to Hinemoa. One day she could stand it no longer, went down to the water's edge and swam the long, long route to the island.
The trouble was, when she got there, she realised she was naked, and shyness overcame her, so she slipped into a hot pool and waited there for someone to come. The first to arrive was a slave collecting water, who identified himself as belonging to Tutanekai. Overjoyed to find herself so close to her love, but unwilling to reveal herself to anyone but him, she grabbed the water vessel from the slave's hand and smashed it against the rocks. He ran back to his master and reported the strange event, but Tutanekai was tired from all that flute playing, so sent the slave back to the pool for water. Again, Hinemoa smashed the pot (persistent girl, this one). This was repeated until Tutenaki himself came to the pool, angry and insulted, crying "What's the name of my enemy, so I can name the cup I will make from his skull?" and Hinemoa answered, "It is I, Tutanekai, Hinemoa".
Needless to say, he didn't kill her, but instead took her to his whare (house). In the morning, they were found together by his father, as the waka (canoes) of Hinemoa's tribe were sighted on the water. War was expected, but moved by Hinemoa's love and determination and the happiness of the two young people, peace reigned, the union was blessed and they lived happily ever after.
A stunning lake area, named for its vibrant colour, and set in vivid green bush. It's a popular location for swimming, boating and picnicking. It is also, like all the lakes in the area, loaded with trout.
Green Lake (Lake Rotokakahi)
Next to Blue lake – it's larger but it's also tapu (sacred) so that only the Te Haringa Iwi are allowed to fish it. Hinemoa's bones are said to be buried on the island at its centre, along with those of a party from the Nga Puhi people of the far north massacred there in the late 19th century.
Other particularly attractive lakes in the area include Lake Okareka, Lake Okataina where glow worms come out at night, Lake Rotoiti which contains the attractive Okere Falls and Lake Tarawera, beneath Mount Tarawera.
The Buried Village
A mile from Mount Tarewara and 15 minutes out of town this is the excavated site of one of three villages buried in the eruption of 1886, in which 153 people were killed (the eruption, not the village). You can walk through the village and see excavations of the blacksmiths shop, the bar tender's house a flour mill and the Rotomahana Hotel – a popular site with European visitors who travelled for months to look at the pink and white silica terraces
My favourite place on the banks of the lake, five minutes' walk from centre of Rotorua, this was once the main settlement of Maori on the lake. Recently upgraded with a new marae (gathering place) and wharenui (meeting house) using money from Treaty of Waitangi settlements, this community has a unique Christian church, St Faiths, which has an English Tudor exterior, but is decorated inside with Maori carving and woven tukutuku panels. The best feature, however, is a sandblasted window which places a Christ figure with the dress and features of a Maori chieftain in such a way that he seems to be walking on the waters of the lake outside – it is really lovely and has a peaceful, relaxing atmosphere.
Skyline Gondola and Luge
More what you'd expect from New Zealand, if you know about its claim to be the adventure capital of the world. You can take a Gondola or chairlift to the top of Mount Ngongataha, and then come down the exciting way – on a mountain bike or wheeled, sit-upon luge. I'm told it's a lot of fun, and I'm prepared to believe it – but not try it.
The Polynesian Spa
A complex of mineral hot pools to swim and lounge in – much more my scene than the luge.
Orchid House and Water Organ
A huge collection of orchid varieties spread through a number of glass houses, and once you've walked through and admired the pretty flowers, you can sit back and watch a co-ordinated dance of fountains to classical music, a bit twee, perhaps, but still, pretty.
The town has all the usual facilities, including a number of very good restaurants, and one key benefit of staying here is that many of the motels/hotels and so on have private hot mineral pools to lay back in and soak out the kinks after a long day's sightseeing.