What to do in Rotorua
Rotorua: A Geothermal Wonder
and Treasure Trove of Culture
Nestled amidst the green hills and valleys of New Zealand’s North Island, you’ll find Rotorua, a breathtaking place that combines natural beauty and rich history. Rotorua is a top destination with its 16 crystal-clear lakes, stunning expansive forests, and a mecca for mountain bikers, making it a paradise for outdoor adventurers and culture enthusiasts.
As soon as you enter Rotorua, you are greeted by the remarkable smell of sulfur. This is a sign of the unique geothermal activity of the area, where you can witness bubbling mud pools, erupting geysers, and natural hot springs that invite travelers to a relaxing bath. These geothermal wonders are stunning to behold, but they also hold great cultural significance for the Maori, the indigenous people of the region.
Rotorua is also the heart of Maori culture in New Zealand. It’s a place to immerse yourself in the heritage, from tasting traditional ‘Hangi’ dishes, cooked in earth ovens, to experiencing an energetic ‘Haka’ dance. Listen to local legends and stories that are intertwined with the history of the region, and go home with a deeper understanding of the roots of New Zealand.
Follow us on an inspiring discovery journey through Rotorua’s many attractions. We’ll give you detailed tips and advice to get the most out of your campervan adventure in this extraordinary area. Gear up for an unforgettable road trip through the geothermal wonders and cultural richness of Rotorua.
Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland
Wai-O-Tapu, often praised as one of New Zealand’s most colorful and diverse geothermal attractions, is a must for any traveler exploring the Rotorua region. This geological wonder showcases the beauty and power of the Earth’s internal processes.
The park covers a significant area and has a range of geothermal features, including bubbling mud pools, steam vents, sulfur formations, and expansive sinter terraces. It is best known for the stunning Champagne Pool, a hot spring named after its bubbling carbon dioxide emissions, surrounded by vibrant, artistic palette colors of orange, green, and yellow, created by mineral deposits.
Another highlight is the Lady Knox Geyser, which is set off daily to the great delight of visitors, reaching heights of up to 20 meters. The diverse range of other geothermal features within the park includes the colorful Artist’s Palette, the Primrose Terrace, and the dramatic, steaming craters.
There are well-defined paths that guide visitors through the different zones, each with informative signs explaining the scientific and historical significance of the phenomena you’re seeing. Choose from a range of walking lengths that suit your schedule and mobility, but make sure to allocate at least an hour and a half to fully soak up the experience.
Don’t forget to visit the visitor center, where you’ll find educational exhibits, a cafe to unwind, and a map of the park with suggested routes. Make sure to wear comfortable walking shoes and be prepared for the sulphurous smell that’s typical for geothermal areas. Slip, slop, slap, and wrap – don’t forget your sunscreen and a hat, since there’s not a lot of shade around and the Kiwi sun can pack a punch even when it feels cool out.
Remember, Wai-O-Tapu is a protected natural area; sticking to the paths and respecting the safety guidelines ensures both your own safety and the preservation of this natural wonder for future visitors.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
The beauty and power of New Zealand’s geothermal surroundings come spectacularly to life in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Formed in 1886 following the eruption of Mount Tarawera, this dynamic thermal park is the youngest geothermal system in the world. This area is famous for its unique ecology, rare flora, and intriguing geological features.
In the valley, you can immerse yourself in a range of geothermal wonders. You can discover the Frying Pan Lake, one of the largest hot springs in the world, and marvel at the dazzling Inferno Crater Lake with its bright blue, hot and acidic waters. Hop on the eco-tour boat on Lake Rotomahana for a refreshing perspective on the geothermal wonders and to reach parts of the park that aren’t visible from the walking trails.
Visitors are also treated to the gently steaming Cathedral Rocks that hint at the volcanic past of the area. The lake itself dramatically expanded after the Tarawera eruption and harbors the remains of the Pink and White Terraces. These terraces, considered the Eighth Wonder of the World in the 19th century, consisted of cascading basins of silica deposits, formed by geothermal activity. Unfortunately, these impressive natural wonders were destroyed in 1886, but their remains still lie at the bottom of the lake today.
You can walk through different ecosystems on well-marked paths and marvel at the landscape scattered with geothermal attractions like smoking volcanic craters, hot springs, bubbling mud pools, and silica terraces, all nestled in the regenerating native bush.
For those keen on a thorough experience, there are eco-tours available led by guides. These provide insight into the valley’s history, the impact on the local Māori population, and the rich biodiversity thriving in this geothermally active area.
Whether you spend just a few hours or the whole day in the park, don’t forget that the natural sights may involve steep and uneven paths. So, good walking shoes and a reasonable level of fitness are recommended.
If you have any doubts about accessibility, it’s a good idea to check in advance. The park is constantly changing, so you’ll discover something new every time you come back. And don’t forget to bring your camera to capture the enchanting landscapes.
At the Waimangu Volcanic Valley visitor center, you can explore fascinating exhibits that provide insights into the history, geology, and unique ecosystem of the area. It’s also the starting point for the many walks and tours through the valley. Before or after your adventure, you can pop into the onsite cafe for refreshments and snacks.
Experience the living Māori culture in the Whakarewarewa village, an authentic village where residents still live and utilize the geothermal resources just as their ancestors did. Tours, led by local guides – who often descend from chiefs and prominent figures within Māori history – share knowledge about tribal traditions, crafts, and the integration of geothermal resources into daily life.
The heart of the village pulses around the geothermal activities, with geysers, hot springs, and mud pools that are an integral part of the community. The Pohutu geyser, which means “big splash” or “explosion”, is the main attraction and often erupts up to 20 times a day. The village utilizes geothermal energy for cooking in the form of hangi, where baskets of food are cooked underground in steam boxes, and communal baths that are crucial for daily living.
Cultural performances enrich the immersive experience. The poi dance – involving light rhythmic ball swinging – and the traditional Haka dance bring Māori stories and legends to life through song and dance. Whakarewarewa offers visitors a rare glimpse into the daily life of the Māori, in an authentic and respectful setting to learn more about New Zealand’s indigenous culture.
When visiting, it’s important to remember that Whakarewarewa is not just a tourist attraction, but a home for its residents. Respect for Māori customs, following village culture, and mindfulness of the space are of utmost importance to appreciate this cultural gem.
Buried Village of Te Wairoa
The buried village of Te Wairoa stands as a somber chronicle of the horrific fury of the Tarawera eruption and as evidence of the resilience of the human spirit. Originally established by the Christian missionary Rev. Seymour Spencer in 1852, Te Wairoa served as a model village for the interaction between Māori and European cultures. It was also the gateway to the famous Pink and White Terraces.
The eruption buried the village under layers of volcanic ash, nearly obliterating it entirely. Today, archaeological excavations reveal the remains of cottages, a hotel, and a flour mill, offering a fascinating insight into the life of a 19th-century settler community before the disaster.
The Buried Village includes a well-curated museum with exhibits of excavated artifacts that narrate the events of the fateful night, personal stories, and the social landscape of that time. Further down the path lies the Memorial Rose Garden, a serene space in memory of those affected by the eruption.
Descending onto the Te Wairoa track, you reach the beautiful Wairere Waterfall. Here, despite its tragic origin, nature demonstrates its capacity to recover and flourish, creating a peaceful atmosphere amid the gentle sounds of cascading water. The Buried Village offers both a moving and educational experience for everyone who makes the journey here.
Whakarewarewa Forest Park (The Redwoods)
The Redwoods, or the Whakarewarewa Forest, provide a wooded retreat amidst towering Californian coastal redwoods and lush New Zealand bush. These trees, planted in the early 20th century, now form a majestic forest that attracts nature lovers and outdoor sports enthusiasts within its expanse of greenery.
Various walking tracks invite guests to behold the majesty of the Redwoods, with routes such as the Redwood Memorial Grove Track, a two-kilometer loop that can comfortably be walked in less than an hour. Among the tall treetops, songbirds chime in, making day hikes a sensory experience. The forest also possesses a nightly magic, particularly through the Redwoods Nightlights experience designed by David Trubridge, where hanging lanterns illuminate paths, blending art and nature into an enchanting display.
For mountain bikers, the Whakarewarewa Forest is nothing short of a pilgrimage. The diverse network of trails offers an exciting ride across various terrains and difficulty levels. Whakarewarewa is home to world-famous tracks like The Dipper, a rolling course perfect for those seeking thrill without too much risk, and Split Enz, offering panoramic views and a series of hairpin bends to satisfy any experienced rider. The forest is beautifully set up for enthusiasts, with plenty of bike rental companies and wash stations available.
Visitors find solace in the embrace of the forest—the natural serenity in the groves of ancient giants, the thrilling descent of mountain bike trails, or the illuminating beauty of the Nightlights make it an attraction for everyone.
Mountain biking in the Whakarewarewa Forest
Mountain biking is synonymous with Rotorua, and the Whakarewarewa Forest stands as testament to this passionate pursuit. With over 180 kilometers of dedicated trails, the forest is a magnet for both amateur and professional riders from all over the world.
The Grade 5 trail Tuhoto Ariki, known for its technical descent through native bush, poses a challenge for mountain bikers, with tree roots, rocks, and natural drops. This coveted trail offers the essence of mountain biking in New Zealand with an authenticity that can’t be replicated anywhere else.
With a community spirit, the ongoing development of trails ensures that every visitor, regardless of skill level, can enjoy a safe, exciting two-wheeled experience. Seasoned enthusiasts participate in events like the Enduro World Series, while family-friendly races encourage fun and participation within the breathtaking landscape.
Crankworx, the MTB event to be at!
Every year, Crankworx transforms the Whakarewarewa Forest into an international amphitheater where the mountain biking elite perform spectacular, gravity-defying stunts during the Crankworx World Tour. This gathering encourages amateurs and professionals alike to test their skills in events such as the pulse-pounding Downhill, Air DH, and Pump Track races.
Crankworx is more than competitions; it’s a festival that celebrates mountain biking culture—with clinics, youth competitions, and expos where tech enthusiasts can connect with industry innovators. Here, visitors mingle with athletes, soak up the festival atmosphere, and get inspired by the competitive and communal joy of biking.
The highlight of the festival, the Slopestyle Championship, is an aerial art exhibition that crowns the top athletes of the discipline. Crankworx encourages riders of all skill levels to join in the action, while spectators come together to witness mountain biking history being made, all in Rotorua’s backyard. March 16 – 24, 2024
Ohinemutu is a village that we highly recommend you visit. In this village, you can see the geothermal hot springs that emit steam in many gardens.
A frequently visited and well-known attraction is St Faith’s Church, an Anglican church. Although it’s a small church, it makes a big impression on visitors. The inside of the church is intimate and cozy, with the decor consisting of vibrant Māori carvings (whakairo), wall panels (tukutuku) along with Māori and European stained glass decorations.
The church, also known as Ohinemutu Maori Church, was consecrated in 1914 and is an important cultural landmark in the heart of Ohinemutu Village, situated on the shores of Lake Rotorua. It beautifully combines Māori architectural features with a traditional Anglican church design. The interior is enriched by the intricate Māori carvings and woven tukutuku panels, creating a spiritual and historical atmosphere.
One of the highlights is the stained glass windows, particularly the window that shows an image of Jesus dressed in a Māori cloak, making it appear as though He is walking on the water of Lake Rotorua.
The church is located on an important Maori meeting ground, called a marae, and serves as the focal point of the local Maori culture and community. It is a place where visitors can learn more about the integration of Māori customs and Christianity.
Because it is an active place of worship, visitors are expected to be respectful, bearing in mind that there may be church services and cultural events taking place. We recommend checking the visiting hours before arriving, and perhaps even taking a guided tour to gain a better understanding of the cultural significance of the place. Also keep in mind that taking photos inside the church may be restricted, so it’s always best to ask for permission in advance.
For visitors who want to view the inside of the church, a small donation is now requested.
Opposite the church, you’ll find the historic community house, Tama-Te-Kapua,
a very important historical building in Ohinemutu and a legendary figure in Maori culture. Tama-Te-Kapua was the captain of the Arawa canoe that brought the Polynesians to New Zealand. Check out the legend here.
The building, named after this figure, is a Maori meeting house that occupies a central place in the village of Ohinemutu. It is richly adorned with traditional Maori wood carvings and tokotoko (painted wooden pillars). The detailed carvings tell the stories of the Maori ancestors and the journey of the Te Arawa tribes to the region.
Near the church and Tama-Te-Kapua, there’s also a small craft center where you can buy handmade items made of wood, bone, flax, paua shell, and greenstone.
Kuirau Park is truly a magical spot in the heart of Rotorua, and what’s more, it’s free to visit. This unique public park is full of geothermal attractions, offers you the chance to experience the power of nature up close, and it’s just next to the city center!
As you walk through the park, you can discover a variety of thermal wonders. There you’ll find a crater lake, mud pools, and hot springs, and there’s even a free thermal foot bath! Everything is beautifully landscaped, full of flower beds and native flora, and carefully maintained.
It’s also a wonderful place to relax, play, and have a picnic. There are barbecues, picnic tables, a playground for children, and toilets, all free to use. And if you happen to go on a Saturday, you can enjoy the delicious aromas from various stalls with local food and fresh produce at the weekly farmers’ market – perfect for a tasty breakfast or lunch!
Long ago, in the time of the Maori, the small lake in the park was much cooler and was known as Taokahu. According to legend, a beautiful young woman, Kuiarau, was pulled into a taniwha‘s lair beneath the lake while she was bathing in the water. The gods were so angry that they made the lake boil, thereby destroying the Taniwha forever. From that moment, the bubbling lake and the steaming land around it are all known by the name of this lost woman.
Kuirau Park is a truly living and breathing geothermal landscape. It continues to change constantly, and new eruptions occur from time to time. But don’t worry, as long as you stay on the safe side of the fences, you can enjoy this amazing natural wonder without any concerns.
The Rotorua lakefront is an integral part of the city’s identity, with serene views of Lake Rotorua against the backdrop of Mokoia Island. The lakefront has undergone significant redevelopment, enhancing its appeal as a recreational area for families, tourists, and locals.
Key to the lakefront’s appeal is the combination of natural beauty with recreational facilities. The public artworks and Maori carvings inform visitors about the local culture, while the bustling energy of swan-shaped pedal boats and stand-up paddleboards cater to those seeking adventure on the water.
The nighttime ambiance at the lakefront is distinctively vibrant, with markets showcasing local art, crafts, and gastronomy. Here, the community intertwines with lake-based leisure and embodies Rotorua’s ethos—a place where heritage and natural splendor come together.
As the day comes to an end, the reflective waters of Lake Rotorua absorb the hues of the setting sun, offering a tranquil setting for reflection and serenity.
Okere Falls Track
The Okere Falls Track, located near Rotorua, offers visitors a mix of ecological beauty and thrill-filled excitement. Home to the Kaituna River, known for its whitewater rafting, kayaking, and zipline over waterfalls, the track provides a front row seat to nature’s spectacle.
The track has a relatively easy difficulty level, unlike the rougher terrains of other Rotorua attractions. The track is well-formed and leads through a stretch of native forest that is rich in birdlife—Tui, Kereru, and Bellbirds enrich the ear with their calls.
Viewpoints along the track offer a glimpse of rafters and kayakers as they tackle the river’s three waterfalls, including the 7-meter high Tutea Falls—the highest commercially navigable waterfall in the world. The contrasting serenity of the native forest with the bustling river captures the duality of New Zealand’s natural offerings.
At the end of the track, the calm Trout Pool Falls presents a peaceful place to rest. Here, beneath the cascading water, fish navigate effortlessly through the current, unaffected by the tumultuous journey upstream. The entire track represents the harmonious balance in the region—adventure intertwined with tranquility.
Okere Falls is best known as the go-to destination for whitewater rafting, but there’s also plenty to enjoy if you’re not after an adrenaline rush. There’s a fantastic walking track that takes you past three thundering waterfalls, a beautiful emerald green swimming spot, and even a secret glowworm cave if you’re looking for an adventure after dark.
The historical eruption of Mount Tarawera remains a haunting reminder of nature’s slumbering power. A visit to this dormant volcano often begins with a journey across Lake Tarawera, the calm waters contrasting with the mountain’s violent past.
Guided tours are valuable, providing context about the geological and cultural significance of Tarawera. Such tours traverse the barren, volcanic landscape to the crater’s edge, where vast panoramas of the surrounding lakes and fissures retell the seismic story from 1886.
Helicopter tours offer aerial perspectives that reveal the expanse of the volcanic system, including the waves of the Waimangu Volcanic Valley and the steam from Frying Pan Lake.
The Mount Tarawera area is sacred, and reverence is expected when exploring. It is a place that blends cultural heritage with geological spectacle – a must-see for those seeking to understand the heartbeat of the region.
Skyline Luge Primary Launch Area
The Luge in Rotorua is a unique attraction that offers fun and excitement. Riders sit in small carts and can steer and brake themselves as they zoom down a sort of toboggan track. The carts are specially designed for the Luge and slide on wheels along the concrete tracks that snake down the mountain.
Suitable for the whole family, the Luge offers three tracks to cater to all experience levels and bravery. Accessible via the Skyline Gondola, the Luge combines the thrill of a downhill ride with enchanting views of Lake Rotorua and the city beyond.
Tracks like the Advanced Track invite speed demons, with a complex maze of hairpin turns and tunnels to navigate. In contrast, the Scenic Track offers a gentle descent suitable for novice riders and those wanting to soak up the surrounding landscapes.
The descent circulates laughter, adrenaline, and friendly competition – the shared experience that forms lasting memories of Rotorua’s adventurous landscape.
Getting on the Luge means embracing a unique, accessible outdoor activity that merges with the story of the land – an activity that has become emblematic of Rotorua’s diversity of recreational opportunities.
Eat Streat Rotorua
After a day of adventure and discovery in our stunning New Zealand nature, we recommend you check out “Eat Street” in Rotorua. Located just 30 minutes away from us, everything on this street is within walking distance. It’s a true culinary hub where you can taste local and international flavours.
You’ll find everything from the best gourmet burgers and contemporary New Zealand dishes to top-notch Indian, Italian, and Mexican meals. The selection also ensures that there are plenty of delicious options for everyone, including vegetarians and vegans. The restaurants feature outdoor terraces, perfect for warm evenings, making the street atmosphere extra lively.
Even better, Eat Street isn’t just for eating. It’s also a melting pot for social interaction. Want to try a locally brewed beer, taste an exquisite New Zealand wine, or sip on a special cocktail? You’ll find it all here. Local bands often perform here, so music lovers will definitely have a good time.
For our campervan travellers, we highly recommend Eat Street. It gives you the chance to take a break from cooking, stretch your legs, and experience the local culture and flavours that Rotorua has to offer. Don’t forget to tell us about your favourite dish!
Have the stories and photos of Rotorua convinced you? Are you ready for the adventure?
Discover the stunning nature and unique culture of this special place with one of our campervans and explore New Zealand your way.
The lakefront has undergone significant redevelopment, enhancing its appeal as a recreational area for families, tourists, and local residents.
The keys are already waiting for you.
Jeroen and Lorraine