This post was originally published in March 2015 and was updated and expanded in January 2019
“You can actually drive, right?” I asked Gia before we committed to renting a car to explore all the fun things to do in Rotorua, New Zealand. There wasn’t a lot of confidence flying around, but she informed me the only thing she was really worried about was having to drive on the left side of the road. It turned out that was the last thing she should have been stressed about. I’d misplaced my driver’s licence so I was relegated to the passenger seat, but it wasn’t long until I’d been promoted from passenger to nervous driving instructor demanding that she keep in her lane and to not drive too slow or fast, and generally hoping she wouldn’t kill us. It was a rough ride, but we eventually made it Waiotapu, from which point I did my duty to society and took over the wheel for the rest of the day. Despite a stressful first 30 minutes, we had a great day in Rotorua – the geothermal wonder of New Zealand is kaleidoscope of crazy colours, bubbling mud pools and outer space landscapes – here’s what we got up to. Want to know some of the best things to do in Rotorua? Keep reading!
Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland
After some hair-raising driving we arrived at Waiotapu, a geothermal park around 30 km from Rotorua. Tripadvisor calls it one of the 20 most surreal places on Earth, and after wandering around the psychedelic lakes and otherworldly scenery I’d have to agree. If you only have a short time and are wondering what to do in Rotorua, definitely head to Waiotapu first. It’s home to some of the most iconic (and most photogenic) Rotorua attractions. The Champagne Pool is a highlight, with its orange rimmed crater partially shrouded in a cloud of hot steam. The artist’s palette is a strange mix of colours created by various minerals (I don’t really know, I’m not a scientist), and has to be seen to be believed – and even then it doesn’t look real. The dish washing liquid yellow water of the Devil’s Bath is also petty mind blowing.
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A popular attraction at Waiotapu is the Lady Knox Geyser, which holds an induced eruption at 10.15 am every day. I had no idea how someone would go about making a geyser erupt – I was imagining some kind of weird mud masturbating ritual, but instead a guy just threw in a little bag of chemicals (similar to soap) and it started bubbling away before exploding. Waiotapu opens at 8.30 am and if you get there early you’ll have plenty of time to see everything before checking out the geyser eruption (and the crowds will be a lot smaller). Check out Gia’s full post on Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland here.
Located just down the road from Waiotapu, Rainbow Mountain is something I’d highly recommend checking out. There were only two other cars in the car park when we pulled up, and after a 5 minute walk through the forest we came to an opening with a view of a huge multi-coloured rock, AKA Rainbow Mountain. There’s also a bright blue pool close to it, and if you’ve got the time you can walk further than we did for what I’m sure would be better views of both. We were in a bit of a rush so we quickly ate our overpriced sandwiches and headed back to town (don’t worry; I was driving by this point so we didn’t die).
Irish playwright (and Atheist) George Bernard Shaw gave Hells Gate its name in the early 1900s and he summed up this geothermal park pretty well, except I’m sure Hell would be a lot less fun to explore. It really is like stepping onto another planet, and while it doesn’t have the variety of colours that Waiotapu boasts, walking around the bubbling mud and sulphur, covered by a heavy blanket of cloud and drizzle, is arguably one of the most “foreign” experiences I’ve had on planet Earth. The fact that we were pretty much the only people there made it oddly relaxing, and that was before we experienced the mud/sulphur baths at the Hells Gate Spa. After a couple of weeks of fast travel in New Zealand, an hour or two of soaking in mud and sulphur, just like people in the area have done for centuries, was the perfect way to end our trip. If you are trying to fit a lot into 1 day in Rotorua, leave Hells Gate for last – the spa is open quite late and it’s a great thing to do after a long day of sightseeing.
Other Things to Do in Rotorua
If you’re pressed for time (or on an extreme budget) you can always go for a walk around the lake to see some low key geothermal activity. It’s a nice walk but the sights aren’t anything too special if you’ve been to the ones further afield. One cool thing near Sulphur Point is the Rotorua Museum – we didn’t go inside as it was closed but it’s one of the nicer old buildings I’ve seen in New Zealand.
If you’re looking for free things to see and do in Rotorua head to Kuirau Park. This little park in the middle of town has several mud pools and geothermal lakes — it’s definitely not as spectacular as Waiotapu or Hell’s Gate but it’s a cool place to see. There is also a playground and picnic tables, so it could be a good place to stop for lunch (especially if you have kids).
A forest full of massive trees doesn’t sound that exciting (most forests have trees after all), but a visit to the Redwoods Forest (Whakarewarewa Forest) is a fun thing to do in Rotorua. It’s free to explore, but you can also do the treetop walk if you’re willing to shell out for it.
Getting to (and around) Rotorua
Rotorua is located in the North Island of New Zealand; around a three hour drive from Auckland. The geothermal parks are outside of town so it makes sense to hire a car to see them (assuming you actually know how to drive). The transport to Waiotapu alone would have cost us $50 each and the car cost around $70 including petrol (if you get the transport/ticket combo for Waiotapu from a tour company the transport will work out a bit cheaper). If you do the geothermal park/spa combo at Hell’s Gate you can get a free ride on their shuttle bus, but it’d be really hard to see more than one geothermal park in a day if you’re relying on buses, so a car is still the way to go in Rotorua. We mostly travelled around New Zealand by bus the first time (but have since moved back and now travel by car — so much better!). We stayed in a private room in a hostel in Rotorua for just over $50, which was one of the cheapest rooms we had in New Zealand. In general, travel in New Zealand is pretty expensive, but I’m guessing if you’re planning a trip there you’re already prepared for that.
Did I miss any fun things to do in Rotorua? What’s the weirdest scenery you’ve ever seen? Let me know!
Disclaimer: I received complimentary tickets to Waiotapu and Hells Gate — all thoughts and opinions are my own.
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