For my full travel guide to The North Island click here
If you're planning a vacation to New Zealand's North Island, you've got to make a stop in Rotorua. It's the island's volcanic and cultural epicenter and a perfect location for checking off multiple sights on your New Zealand bucket list. Unfortunately, because Rotorua is so packed with beauty and activities, it's fairly touristy... like it's one of the few places we visited on the island where we passed multiple fast food restaurants and major hotel chains kind of touristy. However, don't let this scare you away, if you look beyond the initial "Orlando" facade (if you've ever been to Orlando, you'll know what I'm referring to), there's many unique and worthwhile gems to explore.
A few important notes before you begin: My husband and I visited in early spring (August/September) so Rotorua was fairly quiet compared to the very busy summer months and we stayed for three nights, which is just enough for both activities and relaxation, but 2 nights is doable if you cut out the relaxation part. Keep the time of year in mind when it comes to booking tours, activities and places to stay because you'll want to plan ahead and do expect crowds during high season (October - April). Finally, anticipate a strong sulfur smell due to the volcanic activity, especially during warmer months (on the bright side, passing gas in public was never easier).
Where to Stay
There are really only a few high-end accommodations in the area and aren't as easy to find as you would expect. Like I said, this is a city flooded with chains like Holiday Inns and family friendly motels... not exactly my scene, but there are three luxury lodges that meet my Type-A personality and one of those that I highly recommend. I'll list them all for you and include a full feature of my favorite, The Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel and Spa.
The Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel and Spa
Just minutes from the center of town is a hidden sanctuary of solitude and panoramic views unlike any in the city. The Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel and Spa is a family owned lodge that provides all of the touches of a high-end hotel, while offering a personalized and authentic customer experience. The location is fantastic because you can quickly and easily be at any of the main attractions in town, but can also hide away from the hoards of travelers without losing the gorgeous view. My favorite part about the Black Swan are the grounds - imagine The Secret Garden meets Dante's Peak meets the finale episode of the Bachelor... ok, maybe that wasn't very helpful. Bottomline, it's postcard perfect with a cooked-to-order breakfast each morning and, of course, dozens of black swans waiting to greet you lakeside. But, I'll be honest, the decor is a bit too contemporary for my taste and the website leaves much to be desired, which is why I've tried to provide as many photos to show off what this exquisite property has to offer.
The hotel has lakeside, lakefront and garden facing rooms, but my preference would definitely be the lakeside suites. These spacious rooms are somewhat detached from the main building offering added privacy, have their own porch fireplace looking out at the lake and some are even equipped with a separate alcove with a twin bed, perfect for families. Rooms have a stocked mini fridge and snacks, all included in your stay. The bathrooms are huge, with double sinks, glass shower and a luxurious stone soaking tub (quick note: the bathtub does get a dark ring around the drain as do some of the other white stone fixtures due to the volcanic matter in the water, I promise it's not dirty - just a minor adjustment for being in a geothermal hotspot!).
The property has other amazing perks as well, including onsite parking, a lakefront facing game/sitting room, solar heated swimming pool, old fashioned gardens and gazebo, helicopter pad, private dock, sauna, day spa and a secluded sandy beach. My favorite spot is on the second story wrap around balcony watching the sun go down with a cup of tea and a blanket; the view is unbeatable. Even though there were so many things to do in the area, one of the days we simply cancelled all of our plans to enjoy the peace and quiet of the property.
Other Accommodation Options
Solitaire Lodge - 5 star, starting at $1,200 USD per night
Treetops Lodge - 5 star, starting at $1,200 USD per night. We had reservations to stay here for one night, but it was later cancelled due to the property shutting down for renovations. As a customer experience, it wasn't the best so I would think twice before booking a stay here in the future.
What to Do
There are so many great outdoor activities in Rotorua, especially if you take some time to drive just beyond the city. Some of the country's finest lakes, hikes and conservation efforts can all be found here so be sure to plan time to explore.
There is currently only one Canopy Tour on the North Island of New Zealand and Rotorua Canopy Tours is it. I know what you're thinking - you've gone zip lining before in Hawaii or Costa Rica or whatever tropical place you've been to in your lifetime... so have I. But let me say, this one was by far my favorite and not just because it has some of the tallest and longest zip lines I've ever experienced - it's because of the incredible knowledge you gain about New Zealand's unique eco system and the intense conservation efforts that this group is doing to save the island's native birds. What I didn't realize before going on the tour is that nearly all of the island's indigenous bird population are under attack and fearing extinction due to predators such as cats, rats and possums that have been introduced into the once predator free eco system over the years. Because these larger rodents have no natural predators to naturally control their rapidly growing population, they are killing off the island's native birds at an alarming rate (every night 70,000 native birds are killed by pests in New Zealand, with about 260 million killed each year) and the team at Rotorua Canopy Tours is working hard to raise funds and awareness to protect these endangered animals.
The three hour tours are small, no more than 10 people at a time, with 2 fun and knowledgeable guides to keep you safe and entertained along the way. I am terrified, and I mean terrified, of heights (can barely stand on a chair without getting dizzy kind of fear), but the guides did a phenomenal job of helping me through the course and putting me at ease. This is a really fun and fulfilling adventure for kids and adults of all ages and abilities - trust me, if I can do it, anyone can!
Tips: Bring a camera, closed toed shoes and dress appropriately for the weather - but if it's cold, they have extra gloves, hats and scarves you can borrow for extra warmth!
Hells Gate Mud Spa
Looking for some relaxation? Then Rotorua is your spot for some of the purest, silkiest mud spas in the world. Hells Gate Mud Spa is my personal favorite for a few reasons - it's less touristy, it's an authentic experience (this isn't a high-end European spa, much more rustic and spiritual) and has an extensive thermal park with guided tours so you can get a better understanding for this sacred, geothermic region. For the ultimate experience, book a tour and schedule a soak in both the geothermal mud baths and sulphur spa, with natural minerals and health benefits coming right from the source. I also brought home quite a few of the Alite products that are made from mud from there at the thermal park and super inexpensive compared to the hundreds of dollars similar products cost in the states. Also, at the end of the tour, you get a chance to learn about the art of Maori carving and make your own carving block (it's a lot harder than it looks... let's just say that mine won't be hanging on the wall anytime soon).
- Make sure that everything you bring can be washed with the potential to be tossed! The sulphur is strong and will stick to your clothes. If you don't get it out, the last thing you want to do is put it in your luggage with everything else because your entire wardrobe will wreak of rotten eggs. I can't stress this enough. I brought plastic flip flops, cheap cotton clothing and an old bathing suit that I threw away after. Bring a plastic bag to put all of your wet stuff in too. You can also rent a swim suit there for $5, which is a really good option to save you some stress.
- The sulphur water stings the eyes and even if you don't get the water directly in your eyes, it comes up through the rising steam. I brought eye drops which helped as well as wearing sunglasses or even goggles if you're super sensitive.
- Drink plenty of water, it's hot and you can get dehydrated quickly.
- Try not to get the sulphur water in your hair, but if you do be sure to wash it thoroughly as soon as possible. I was an idiot and didn't wash my hair until the next day and even though I only got water on the tips of my hair, it smelled for weeks! However, this only happens to totally lazy people like myself who fall asleep before a quick shampoo; normal, responsible people won't have any issues. Which reminds me - ladies, be sure to bring a hair tie!
- There are showers there to wash it all off so definitely utilize this for your body, hair and your wet clothes.
Tamaki Maori Dinner and Cultural Experience
One of the most beautiful parts of New Zealand is the Maori culture and a visit isn't complete without learning about the history, customs and culture of the Maori people. The Tamaki Maori Experience is the highest rated and most popular in the area, even by locals and is a unique and entertaining event for all ages. The three hour evening includes a tour through the village where you learn about traditions and customs, an entertaining performance and a Hangi buffet feast with typical New Zealand desserts. It's fun, engaging, energetic, moving and delightfully filling - a great way to spend an evening in Rotorua.
Local Walks and Hikes
There are a plethora of fantastic outdoor activities in and around Rotorua to take part in. Here you'll find some of New Zealand's best lakes, hikes, adventure sports and conservation efforts so be sure to plan time in your itinerary for some exploring in this picturesque city.
Green Lake & Blue Lake
This is a great stop a short drive from the city. It's hard to tell from the photo, but Green Lake is on the left and Blue Lake is on the right and you can leisurely walk/hike around the perimeter of both of them. Green Lake is actually privately owned, sacred Maori land so it's glassy, eerily still and seriously green (which is why it's so hard to see in the photo) and Blue Lake is recreational and there are activity rentals available for use. Colin and I packed a picnic one chilly afternoon and sat at one of the tables around Blue Lake and spent the day taking photos. If you just want to soak in the view, there's a parking/lookout area just beyond Blue Lake that takes you to the spot between both lakes.
Tarawera Trail was one of those unplanned stops that we made while we were driving around and exploring the area. Just off of the main road we saw a parking lot next to open landscape, perfect for leisurely trekking along, because as you know I'm afraid of heights. Well, my dream of trampling through open fields was short lived because the scenery was wildly deceiving. There is one trail that you take, that takes a turn from the flatlands taking hikers on a one track hike deep into a vast canyon where all you can see is the tops of trees and all you can hear is the sound of (what I can only expect) is a very large waterfall somewhere in the distance. For many, this is paradise... for me it's my worst nightmare. Needless to say, about 2 miles in we turned back after Colin ran ahead and there was no end of the cliffs in sight. I sat, clinging to a mossy rock taking photos without looking down. We've learned from our previous experiences not to push me too far unless we can afford for a helicopter to come save me when I inevitably become I'm paralyzed with fear (at this point we cannot afford such luxuries). No matter what, the first mile and a half is perfect for all ages and a super easy and beautiful walk through New Zealand's native brush and if you're adventurous and enjoy a good hike, keep going! You'll eventually end up at Hot Water Beach for a fabulous hot spring experience right on the beach. Don't worry if you don't think you can make it all the way, you'll know when to turn around, it's pretty clear.
When I was doing research for our trip, I kept coming across these photos of redwood trees, which I thought was so odd considering they are called California Redwoods for a reason... Well, it turns out that in 1901, someone brought trees over from Cali and planted them in the middle of New Zealand, how random. What we found was Whakarewarewa Forest - this serene redwood park next to this incredibly clear, turquoise lagoon filled with wild birds. It's actually kind of crazy, when we parked, we got out of the car and dozens of ducks, chickens, geese and random birds came running up to us - initially I thought it was because I was a fairytale princess and they were coming to pay tribute... but then realized they are just used to being fed by visitors. Lame. You can do the walk around the lagoon and through the redwood grove in about an hour and there's miles of hiking and walking paths just beyond the water for a longer adventure.
Where to Eat
Like I said, this is a city filled with chain restaurants and mediocre tourist spots so it was a little harder to find unique, unforgettable restaurants - but we did find a couple really memorable places.
Ciabatta Bakery is a just right for breakfast and a perfect stop for grabbing goods for a quick bite or lakeside picnic. Sandwiches are fresh and delicious and they have a large variety of pastries, including gluten free and paleo friendly snacks!
Be Rude Not To Cafe
This is a local favorite right in the center of town. Stop in Be Rude Not To for a good coffee, gourmet sandwich or hot pizza. They use high end ingredients to create unique twists on lunchtime favorites and traditional New Zealand dishes.
We had one of the best meals we had here at Bistro 1284 - a hidden gem and local Rotorua favorite. We actually found out about it because it's owned by the same family who owns The Black Swan Hotel and they offer to shuttle guests to and from the restaurant for free - which meant we actually got to share a bottle of wine (instead of me having a glass, Colin having 3 and then me driving us home while he snores in the passenger seat). This is a fine dining neighborhood bistro with an innovative menu, strong wine list and dishes packed with local, seasonal ingredients. My only regret is not eating here two nights in a row (I wasted one of our nights at a terrible restaurant... I should have known that a buffet that you have to take a Gondola to is a clear tourist trap. I make mistakes too, ok?).
Remember to check out my full travel guide to visiting The North Island here.