Rotorua is one of those places in New Zealand that I’d passed through a few times visiting people but never actually took the time to slow down and explore on my own. I have so many places like that on my neverending travel list, I am hoping to really take a step back this year and get to know them better.
After all, why shouldn’t we be able to stop and smell the roses? Or in Rotorua’s case, the sulfuric geothermal steam?
Known for its geysers, mud pools and bubbling lakes, Rotorua is a figurative and literal hot spot for tourists in New Zealand. But like with all my travels, I wanted to avoid the more well-known “Rotovegas” in exchange to get to know its secret spots and hidden gems. Visiting in the spring meant it was peaceful, warm, verdant and just plain lush, an amazing combination.
I have so many stories to share from recent trip, but I wanted to start by introducing this magical place through 25 of my favorite photos from my trip there this spring to inspire you to visit Rotorua. Enjoy!
Spend half a day wandering around the Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Rotorua is home to some amazing geothermal activity, and there are plenty of geothermal parks to chose from to visit. I first visited the Waimangu Volcanic Valley way back when in 2013 and couldn’t wait to return three years later. More quiet and spread out than some of its counterparts in the area, it seems to be it’s only little national park filled with stunning scenery and epic views.
It’s a little park which means you should give yourself a few hours to spend there walking and exploring.
One of the youngest geothermal parks in the world, it was created 130 years ago when the nearby Mount Tarawera erupted. Now there are several lake-filled craters filled with boiling and steaming water of various colors hidden amongst lush native plants and forest transporting you to another age.
Yes, you basically feel like you are in jurassic park here.
Join in on a kiwi tour at Rainbow Springs
Perhaps a side of Rotorua that not many people know about is it’s commitment to conservation, especially of the bird kind. It’s also one of the few places in New Zealand where you can have a kiwi experience over at Rainbow Springs Nature Park. Kiwi are New Zealand’s iconic endangered native bird, flightless and nocturnal, they are relics of a bygone age and they have suffered greatly when humans introduced predator animals to New Zealand.
In New Zealand 95% of kiwi born in the wild WILL DIE mostly due to stoats and dogs – and if we don’t intervene, the Brown Kiwi will be extinct within 2 generations. How terrible is that? But luckily Rotorua is the lead kiwi hatchery in New Zealand, letting them grow big enough that they can defend themselves when they are released back where they were found. They’ve hatched over 1500 eggs over the years!
If you find yourself in Rotorua, be sure to head over to Rainbow Springs and join in one of the behind the scenes kiwi encounter tours of the hatchery, and if you’re lucky you might even see a newborn kiwi or even one hatching!
Explore the rest of Rainbow Springs while you’re at it
And while you’re visiting the kiwi, be sure to explore the rest of Rainbow Springs and get to know New Zealand’s native wildlife. With a deep commitment to conservation, it’s the perfect introduction to any trip to New Zealand and a great place to explore if you’re in town to learn about the amazing animal history here.
A chubby kereru hiding away, New Zealand’s native wood pigeon
Go for a walk amongst the Redwoods
Yes, for some reason Rotorua is home to some magnificent Redwoods forests. Next to town, the Whakarewarewa Forest is a magical place worth visiting for walks and is very well known for its epic mountain biking.
Now there is a brand new tree walk that gets you up amongst the canopy in a series of connected swing bridges that help share the story of the place. Give yourself at least a half an hour and if you go first thing in the morning, it’s all yours.
Go for a soak at the spa
You can’t visit Rotorua and not go for a dip at one of the many hot springs and pools around.
Growing up, I was never one of those people that enjoyed massages or hot pools, but OH MY GOD how times have changed. Now I actively look for hot pools when I am traveling, which means I clearly need to move to Rotorua stat.
I stopped by the classic Polynesian Spa downtown a few times but preferred in the morning when I had the place to myself. With dozens of amazing pools of all types of water and temperatures with great views of the lake, it’s the place to be, especially on a rainy day.
Standing in awe of Mt. Tarawera
Quite possibly my favorite place in Rotorua, Tarawera is not actually in the town itself, rather a small little community down the road of mostly crumbly holiday homes and baches on the shores of Lake Tarawera. A sleepy village that made me feel like I was in the 70’s, it had a vibe about that kept drawing me back there, especially with the legendary volcano Mt. Tarawera looming over it in the distance.
Responsible for one of the biggest eruptions in New Zealand, this volcano is steeped in myth and history. Violently erupting in 1886, it buried multiple towns nearby, changed the face of the Rotorua landscape and killed 120 people. It also buried or destroyed the world famous Pink and White terraces, which until that year had been one of New Zealand’s main attractions.
Nowadays it’s a spiritual place filled with historical and cultural significance.
Prepare to be wowed at Hamurana Springs
Tucked away on the other side of the lake, there is a magical forest walk that takes you to one of the most beautiful freshwater springs I’ve ever seen. Like I literally had to rub my eyes to make sure I wasn’t imagining it.
Hamurana Springs is the deepest freshwater spring on the North Island at 15 meters deep. It’s an easy walk there through a stunning patch of Redwoods. It was the kind of place that I thought I would be there for maximum an hour and ended up being there for three.
There is just something so pleasant about sitting amongst such giants while gazing at trickling water that is so blue it looks dyed.
Go for dinner at the Skyline Gondola in town
I’m not one for more packaged tourism but even I was wowed by the views at the Skyline Gondola in Rotorua. Heading up at sunset, I was impressed at the views out over town and the lake, not to mention the epic bike trails and forest around the Gondola, reminding me of the one in Queenstown.
Tucking in for the most epic buffet dinner at the Stratosfare Restaurant, make sure to come up before the sun goes down, bring your camera and an empty stomach.
Rest your head at the Black Swan Hotel
There are some great boutique and luxury hotels and lodges if you visit Rotorua, and the Black Swan was no exception. A beautiful property with one of the best gardens I’ve ever seen at a hotel, it’s the perfect place for those looking for a boutique spot to sleep on a beautiful piece of land on the lake.
Make sure you give yourself enough time to spend at the property itself, especially at the spa pools in the garden.
Check out the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world on the Kaituna River
Just on the other side of Lake Rotorua you’ll find the amazing little community of Okere Falls. Be sure to stop at the quirky Okere Falls Store for a snack or a beer before heading out to a walk or two in the area. It’s so quaint and lush out here, if definitely doesn’t feel like you’re in Rotorua anymore.
Go for a walk on the Okere Falls Track to see some of the beautiful waterfalls and forest. If you’re lucky you might even get the chance to see some brave kayakers or rafters go over the falls (not me, not this time). You can even go too.
Get your farm on at the Agrodome
The Agrodome farm tours are cheesy as hell, no two ways about it, but they are also pretty damn impressive. Sometimes you just have to embrace being a typical tourist. But if you want to learn about sheep and farm life in New Zealand, which is a PRETTY big part of the history and culture here, then stop by.
If you manage to visit in the spring, you’ll be able to cuddle some of these adorable orphan lambs, which is where I spent most of my time there. Until I remembered I ate lamb for dinner the night before AND loved it. Bad Liz, very bad.
Go for a drive to the surrounding lakes
Rotorua in Māori means “second lake,” of many lakes in the nearby region of the Bay of Plenty. You should probably have a car if you want to properly visit Rotorua and its surrounds which means you’ll be able to check out all of the nearby 18 lakes.
Spend a day driving between them all and taking them in, going for walks and even for a swim if you can. The forest around them is filled with amazing native trees and bush, and are lush with ferns.
Many of them feel like classic kiwi holiday spots with old-style baches, local cafes and hidden gems waiting to be found.
Stuff your face at Atticus Finch
Hands down, one of the best meals I’ve had in ages. Do not visit Rotorua and miss out on a meal at Atticus Finch.
Obviously I was going to love a To Kill a Mockingbird themed restaurant no matter where it is or what it serves, but this one was amazing.
Enjoy the green spaces in town too
Rotorua has so much to offer, but make sure to take the time to explore the downtown, go for a walk and enjoy the beautiful green spaces right in the city center. If you’re there in spring, there is an amazing tulip festival that happens otherwise head over to the botanical gardens on the lake. I went here almost every morning before the town woke up.
Have you ever been to Rotorua? Do you want to head here? What’s your favorite spot?