The Saturday City: Rotorua

Rotorua, New ZealandRotorua, New Zealand is one of the most popular tourist destinations on the North Island. (UN)Affectionately called Rotorvegas, this city is the launching ground for nature walks, Maori cultural experiences, trips to smelly geysers, and luxury spas. Besides being known for its hordes of tourist, this city is famous for its smell. The sulfur springs emit a funky odor that can be smelt all over the city. Yet whatever smell people walk away complaining about, I didn’t notice so Rotorua is a good in my book. Maybe the sulfur smell just stays with them from the geyser. I don’t know.

Like most of the towns I’ve seen in New Zealand, Rotorua is pretty small. (New Zealand: 5 million people, 30 million sheep!) Everything is centrally located around a few streets. There is really not much to do in town- a few bars and a handful of restaurants and shops. The real draw is all the activities around the city that people can do. You can easily fill a few days here. Here are some of the big things to fill those days:

Rotorua, New ZealandVisit the Whaka Thermal Reserve If you like geysers, than the thermal reserve is a good place to see some as well as learn about the natural history and geology of the area. While it’s not free to get into, the guided tours are free. The reserve is split into two parts, with the more touristy one, Te Puia, closet to town.

Head Out into the Lake. Rotorua sits right on a lake. There’s even an island in the middle. A good way to spend a beautiful afternoon is cruising along the lake and hiking around the island. Just wear sunscreen! The burn time here in NZ is 7 minutes…and trust me, it’s a quick 7 minutes!

Walk the City. Rotorua has a great museum that gives you a look at this town’s history. It’s been a tourist town for over 250 years, though tourism was a bit more difficult back in the beginning. The Government Gardens are pretty nice to look at too. I found walking around the city was quite charming and a good way to spend about an hour. (It’s a small city).

Rotorua, New ZealandCatch a Maori Cultural Show. Rotorua has one of the largest population of Maoris in New Zealand and is the center of cultural experience tours. Many of them are a bit like Disney World and pretty cheesy. But they are a good chance to learn about the Maoris, see some of their dances, and eat a huge meal at the end. Just make sure you get on a good tour. The better ones cost more money but the extra price is worth a more authentic experience.

Going Zorbing. This is a popular activity with backpackers. You get put into a giant see through ball and rolled down a hill. I picture it very much like what being in a washing machine would be like. It’s pretty expensive for the 5 seconds you get though so I didn’t do it. You also have the option to add water into your ball, which is probably really like being in a washing machine.

Relax in a Hot Bath. All the sulfurous springs in the area means that there are lots of hot springs to relax in. There is the big Polynesian Spa where you pay for all day access and drinks. The Blue Baths also has a heated pool. If you just want a lazy day relaxing, a heated pool/spa is the way to go. I spent a good afternoon in the Polynesian Spa and I felt like a new man.

If you are traveling around New Zealand, you’ll probably stop here. I wouldn’t say that Rotorua will be remembered as one of my highlights but it’s definitely a cool place to spend a few days.

  1. Geri

    Hey Matt! You didn’t raft the 24-foot waterfall on the Kaituna, did you? Maybe I emailed you too late. Travelers, add that to your list as a must-do for Rotorua! It’s the highest commercially raftable waterfall in the world. And way awesome! :)

    Where to next, Matt?

  2. Cris

    Hi Matt,

    I have this feeling that in 2010 I will visit New Zealand.

    Can´t wait to smell this city :)

    Merry Christmas and amazing 2010. May you keep travelling beyond the infinite.

  3. Sofia

    New Zealand is such a strange countrey i think. I mean sure, you can find the geysers, thermal pools, fjords, limestone rocks and wales in many places across he globe, but never all of them in the same tiny little piece of land?!?!! It’s such a small countrey and yet it covers so much. :)

    I really enjoy reading all you’re up to!
    Merry christmas

  4. Hi Matt,
    I just discovered your site after reading the Q&A in the NYT. I’m on a year-long round-the-world trip with my family (2 schoolage kids) and we were just in Rotorua. I have mixed feelings about the place as well and discovered that the best parts of it are free — e.g. The Redwoods forest and Tarawera Falls. If your readers are interested, you can check out our ZORBing video, see Rotorua pics and read about how long-term travel has affected our family.
    We are in Nelson through new year’s, then the West Coast and Queenstown. If you’re in Nelson between now and Jan. 2, perhaps we could get together; I’d like to hear more about your blogging and travels. Happy new year!

    • NomadicMatt

      I’m in Christchurch until after the New Years. After that I am off to Nelson and then down the west coast towards Queenstown. Maybe we will overlap at some point.

  5. Hi Matt!

    Thanks for the great tips! We appreciate having an idea of how long walking around will take. It’s hard to tell sometimes how much time to budget. We’ll add the Polynesian Spa to our list! Can you recommend a good Maori Cultural Show that’s less Disney? We’re headed to New Zealand soon and getting excited!

    Thank you!

  6. One of my favorite cities in New Zealand. Good roundup, but don’t forget the amazing redwood forest just east of town; because of all the rich volcanic soil, trees grow at five times their usual rate.

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