Rotorua is a three hour drive from Auckland and we set off at 4pm on a Friday, which unfortunately made it closer to four hours as we fought rush hour traffic out down the Southern Motorway. We had booked into the Rydges Hotel next to Rotorua Racecourse, just a couple of kilometers from town on Fenton Street. As we had a car (Holden was kind enough to lend us a Cruze for the weekend) being a few minutes’ drive from the town centre wasn’t a problem.
There’s enough to do in Rotorua for a week if you’ve got plenty of money. We chose a mixture of free stuff and paid stuff, starting with a walk in The Redwoods in the Whakarewarewa forest. The trails start from the visitor centre.
This human-planted forest, which is just over 100 years old, is a thing of monocultural beauty; a leaf-carpeted wonder of ruddy trunks reaching 70 metres into the sky.
Our chosen walk was the 11.5km Tokorangi Pa track which ascends to a lookout near the old Tokorangi Pa, and back via some forestry roads and mountain bike tracks. This is not a track for armchair warriors. It’s a steady, but not steep, climb to the lookout through differing vegetation. We shared the path with runners and dog walkers, plus occasionally horse riders and mountain bikers where they were allowed. Tokorangi Pa track passes through the Redwoods into areas of exotic species and eventually on to radiata pine plantations.
There’s a good diversity of fungus, including my favourite basket fungus.
The other thing you can do in the redwood forest is mountain biking and, for the adventurous, there are tracks with names such as Grinder and Frontal Lobotomy.
While walking through the redwoods themselves is free, there’s a paid option next to the visitor centre which was the only disappointment of the weekend. It’s $25 to walk the 553m canopy on suspension bridges, but there’s not a great deal of birdlife, it’s not challenging and really the only reason to do it is…well, I can’t think of a reason to do it. Just go for a free walk in the redwoods.
The Fat Dog
I can’t remember a time I’ve been to Rotorua without visiting the Fat Dog. It’s the kind of cafe that is perpetually busy. Despite it being winter, the queue was back to the door. The cafe is quirky and friendly, the cakes are sumptuous and the seats and tables are the kind of rickety random selection that aren’t really that comfortable, but everyone thinks they are cool. Bright coloured walls, some of them with sayings on them, add to the general chaotic environment that seems to draw in locals and tourists alike.
We had to sit on a table with another couple who turned out to be very interesting, having worked in Turkey and done a bit of travelling. They recommended our dinner location: Abracadabra.
After the walk we were a bit sore so headed into Rotorua to soak in the Polynesian Spa. This is the best place to go if you want your swimming trunks and towel to smell like rotting eggs for three months despite how many times you wash them (top tip: don’t wash other clothes with them unless you also want them to have a slightly sulphurous odour).
Situated right on the lakefront it consists of a number of different pools of various temperatures with appealing views across the lake. The hottest pool is the Priest Pool at 42 degrees. 42 degrees is only 5 more than body temperature, but it actually feels quite hot. For the masochists there’s a cold immersion shower which feels like being murdered by a White Walker, then you have to resurrect yourself in the hot pool again. Ultimately you’re sitting in a warm pool of water gradually acquiring the smell of a cabbagy fart at $27/person (we chose the adults-only pools) but it’s the ideal way to soothe muscles sore from 12km of redwood hikes.
Dinner that night was at Abracadabra which is as popular as the Fat Dog. We had to wait for a table because we hadn’t made a reservation. We got one through the back in the bar area which was lively. Food quality was a solid 8/10 for my spicy Moroccan meatballs. Daniela’s calamari salad wasn’t as good. We headed back to the hotel quite early.
Accommodation at the Rydges Rotorua
We got a huge room on level 2 with a spa bath overlooking the racecourse. We did ask for rooms with a view as the opposite side looks out across other buildings, but they put us opposite the door to the hotel bar which meant we could hear people coming and going. It’s best if you get a room on level 3 or above, not level 2 like we did.
Breakfast was included in our $318, two-night stay and it’s amazing how much you can eat when the food is free. I wouldn’t usually have pastries, eggs, sausages, bircher muesli, pears, mushrooms and apple juice in the same meal, but when I’ve already paid for it, why not?
Breakfast was a definite hit, but the room itself had noisy air conditioning and the water in the spa bath wasn’t warm enough so we ended up boiling kettles to bring it up to temperature.
Kuirau Park and Government Gardens
Day two was packed with steamy adventure. We decided on a morning walk after checking out of the hotel, full to the brim with buffet breakfast.
The first stop was Kuirau park which is a large park not far from the centre of town. It has a large number of fenced off mud pools and ponds, some bubbling away like a witch’s cauldron, while others sit placid under dancing steam. Crevasses hiss and in places the rocks are warm to the touch. After this we headed to Government Gardens.
Government Gardens is a very British place to have an early morning walk and you can admire the Tudor-style Rotorua Museum while you amble around the manicured bowling greens, lawns, ponds and statues of people wearing breeches and looking serious.
This historic Blue Baths building is also here, but we headed to the lakefront to get up close and personal with some more geothermal stuff. There’s a small walk around the lakefront and you can find a couple of warm pools with mud, and an area of warm rocks right on the shore. Think the lake is warm? Think again – it was winter and cold!
Next to the events centre you can find Footgolf: it’s a mixture of football and golf and I haven’t seen this anywhere other than Rotorua. Think of it like a golf course but where you have to kick the ball to the oversized cup. We kicked the ball about two kilometres. Despite being born in the home of soccer, my score was pathetic and Daniela showed some questionable technique too.
We bought the $35 package which also included a bucket of balls on the driving range and some baseball practice. All good for a laugh seeing as we took far more swings than the number of balls we hit.
Wingspan is back towards Auckland from Rotorua. It’s a charitable trust that supports conservation efforts for the New Zealand falcon and other birds of prey.
There’s an aviary with a number of plump moreporks (ruru) and various other birds. They have a couple of endangered NZ falcons which they do a falconry display with at 2pm, so the best time to arrive is 1.30 to look around the small museum and the aviary, then head outside where you might get a chance to wear a glove and hold one of the falcons.
This was well worth the $25 entrance fee as the display was a good 45 minutes long and very educational, plus you can talk to the falconers about what they do.
Not far from Wingspan is the Agroventures Adventure Park. There are a number of adrenalin activities you can do. When you look on a dollar per time basis, they’re quite expensive, but some of these are unique in the world, or difficult to find anywhere else. One of them is the Shweeb which is a suspended recumbent bicycle monorail on a 200m track. Two competitors race around the track three times for glory (and an elevated heart rate). My challenge was to beat the 56.2 second time for my age group. I watched a woman do 1m 34 and thought I’d be lucky to get 1m 20 but actually posted a respectable 1m 00.4 seconds, despite a bit of soreness from the Tokorangi Pa trail.
The Shweeb swings outwards in the corners and, as it’s one of the most efficient vehicles in the world, once I finished pedalling I managed to coast twice around the track, still with a good deal of speed remaining. It’s pricey at $49 each, but worth it (just about). I’ve previously tried other things at the Agroventures park, the pick of which is the jetboat ride.
Here you have our jam-packed itinerary for two days:
- Redwoods walk (11.5km) – free
- Canopy walk – $25 (not worth it)
- Fat Dog cafe (cake is good)
- Polynesian Pools (iconic and not to be missed)
- Abracadabra (pretty good food)
- Kuirau park – free and good for 20-30 mins
- Government gardens – free and good for 30 mins, or more if you want to have tea at the Blue Pools
- Footgolf, driving range and baseball practice – $35 for 90 minutes of activity (worth it)
- Wingspan – $25 (well worth it)
- Shweeb – $49 (cool, but pricey)