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Return to Rotorua

Published
September 23, 2023
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ROTORUA is another place I never get tired of visiting because there’s so much to do and see. Most recently, I went there during the shoulder season.

Rotorua’s popularity has been destroyed lately by the government putting homeless people into emergency housing in the motels, a practice which began in the Covid lockdown era and led to some social problems, but as this policy is due to end in six months, I am sure Rotorua will bounce back.

One good question is, why is Rotorua located where it is? Well, the short answer is, that there is not just one attractive lake next to the town, but eleven!‍

Map of the Rotorua Area. Map data ©2022 Google. North at top.

There’s Lake Rotorua, of course. And then Lake Rotoiti lying just to its east. Further east is Lake Rotoehu, with many fingers on its northern shore, and Lake Rotomā. These all lie on the eastbound State Highway 30.

Then there is Lake Tarawera, at the foot of the volcano Mount Tarawera, which erupted catastrophically in 1886. I have another post about Mount Tarawera, which I will be updating in a week, so keep an eye out for it!

Between Lake Tarawera and Lake Rotorua, there are four smaller but still sizable lakes: Lake Okataina, the northernmost and biggest of the lakes in between; Lake Ōkāreka; Lake Tikitapu, known in English as Blue Lake; and Lake Rotokakahi, a.k.a. Green Lake.

To the southeast of Lake Tarawera are Lake Rotomahana and Lake Rerewhakaaitu.

The origins of these lakes are volcanic: either in the form of eruptions that have scooped them out as craters which then filled with water once things died down, or with great masses of volcanic lava and ash that have dammed valleys and caused them to fill up with water.

The area lies on a line of volcanic activity that stretches northeastward from Mount Ruapehu to Whakaari/White Island; a line of volcanic activity that includes Lake Taupō, itself scooped out by a series of catastrophic volcanic explosions. Many of these places are on the ‘Thermal Explorer Highway’.

Pacific Coast Highway and Thermal Explorer Highway roadsign

Between the lakes, there are many famous geysers and hot pools, both the ones that you can soak in of which there are at least a dozen, and the kind that are hot enough to cook food in, as in this famous publicity photo from the 1960s (a re-enactment by that stage, of course).

Cooking in the pools, Rotorua. Goodall, Gladys Mary, 1908–2015: Scenic photographs of New Zealand. Ref: GG-02–0549–1. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. Slightly trimmed for this post to remove film edges. Original record with more details on natlib.govt.nz/records/23051609.

Perhaps because of its lakes, hot springs and geysers, the area is also known as the Waiariki, meaning waters of the high chief.

Some years ago, scientists discovered that the region sits on top of a huge lake of magma (molten lava), 160 kilometres (100 miles) long and 50 kilometers (30 miles) wide, and only ten kilometres (seven miles) below the surface.

While this renders life on top precarious, in a fashion that was demonstrated most recently and tragically at Whakaari/White Island in 2019, the scientists also think that the great magma lake could supply New Zealand with almost unlimited energy in the future.

Several geothermal power stations have already been built in the area, starting with Wairakei Power Station in the 1950s.

Rotorua City

I have some more posts about the Rotorua region in the pipeline. But first, let’s talk about its number one town.

The city of Rotorua, which has a population of more than 75,000 these days, is famous for its adventure tourism and natural attractions, including hot pools for bathing and the geothermal area of Whakarewarewa. But the city, and the region, have a really strong Māori cultural presence as well. The Rotorua area, including all the major lakes, is the homeland of a tribal confederation called Te (‘the’) Arawa. You can find out still more about the tribal history of Te Arawa, pre-European and more modern, from the website Great Te Arawa Stories.

The region’s unique combination of geothermal attractions, and cultural tourism, has been drawing visitors since the nineteenth century.

Map of the Rotorua area dated 1946, a detail from a larger ‘Tourist Map of New Zealand’ drawn for the NZ Government Tourist Board, on display at the Auckland Public Library in April 2018. The “chasm” at the top of Mount Tarawera is much longer than shown. Crown Copyright reserved.

Māori tribes claim descent from semi-mythological voyaging-canoes by which the ancestors arrived from the ancestral homeland of Hawaiki, which has the same root as the name of the 50th US state but refers to a different part of eastern Polynesia, if not to somewhere more magical. The ancestral canoe of the Arawa was the Arawa, which by some accounts was named after a shark that saved the voyagers from being eaten by an even more fearsome sea monster.

Since the 1800s, Te Arawa have benefited from the tourist attractions in the area, which they have controlled, managed and developed, even as other Māori tribal groupings were dispossessed or driven off their land in other places, such as the Waikato.

There are many famous stories about Rotorua, including the story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai, two lovers of different social ranks who met in secret on Mokoia Island in the middle of Lake Rotorua, Hinemoa hiding in a hot pool to warm up after lashing gourds to herself for flotation and swimming to the island where Tūtānekai’s family lived, guided across the water by Tūtānekai’s flute-playing. Once there, Hinemoa managed to attract Tūtānekai’s attention and arose from the pool “as beautiful as the wild white hawk,” which no doubt attracted his attention even more. The pool still exists, and is known to this day as Hinemoa’s Pool.

Here is a map of the city centre, under an image of Tūtānekai’s father.

Tūtānekai’s name is commemorated in the name of Tūtānekai Street, the main street of Rotorua.

Like much of urban New Zealand, Rotorua feels a bit more like a real city than it used to be. Its downtown has been greatly beautified. It’s also become more cosmopolitan. A few years ago I went to a Tunisian restaurant, something that was par for the course already.

Downtown Rotorua, a few years back

In fact, the lower, pedestrianised part of Tūtānekai Street, around the intersection with Whakaue Street, is called ‘Eat Street’ these days, because it is the main restaurant and café strip.

Street signs on the intersection of Tutanekai Street and Whakaue Street

‍Here are some photos of Eat Street.

The covered mall in Tūtānekai Street

Inside the covered mall in Tūtānekai Street

Foodie signs

More foodie signs

‘Wholly Smoked’

There were one or two pubs where you could dance, such as the Pig and Whistle, and the social club which opens at midnight. The downtown area is actually quite safe despite the emergency housing.

The Visitor Centre is worthwhile and helpful.

I went to the markets at 7:30 on Saturday morning at Kuirau Park, where you could get rēwena bread and whitebait fritters — that was really nice, worth it just for the food — and browsing stalls that sell artwork and jewelry. There is also a beautiful wooden walkway that extends over the thermal pools in this city park.

Kuirau Park, Rotorua. Photo by Michal Klajban, 20 September 2014, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

There are also free foot baths there.

East of the downtown lies the huge Government Gardens, with a lattice over the main entrance called the Prince’s Arch, or the Prince’s Gate Archway. This was erected in 1901, for the visit of the future King George V and Queen Mary. It was decorated with fronds of vegetation at the time. Here’s a view, taken in 1901, across Hinemaru Street to the Grand Hotel, now called the Prince’s Gate Hotel.

Decorated arches in front of Grand Hotel, Rotorua. Photograph by Gilbert Henry Mair (1901), Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington. Reference PAColl-2315–04.

Here’s the entrance today, with additional Māori carvings by Tene Waitere ‍on the side facing the street.

The arch with the sun behind

And here is the Prince’s Gate Hotel, formerly the Grand Hotel, today.

The Prince’s Gate Hotel

There are lots of old, historic buildings in this area, including many of the buildings in the Government Gardens themselves. Here is the old bath house, which is now the Rotorua Museum.

The Old Bath House and a sports green

Here is a close up of things to do.

Sign showing things to do, near a shelter on the sports green in front of the Old Bath House

The premises of the Rotorua iSite or visitor information centre, on Fenton Street, are just as exotic!

The Rotorua iSite

‍Inside the gardens, I was also struck by the Te Arawa War Memorial, on a roundabout:

The Te Arawa War Memorial

Here’s a collage I made, which includes a couple of photos of Tene Waitere's carvings in front of the arches of the Government Gardens.

At 1220 Hinemaru Street, just outside the Government Gardens, are the premises of the Tamaki Māori Village, billed as “the most award-winning cultural experience in New Zealand.

I also thought of going for a ride on the Skyline Rotorua gondola, but as we have one in Queenstown I decided to save my money. Still, I would recommend it for others!

Here are the premises of another cultural activity, the Matariki Hangi (feast) and Concert. This takes place at the lake end of Tūtānekai Street, in a reserve area that is even closer to the lake than the Eat Street.

Matariki Festival premises

A few years ago, once more, I was able to stay on a campsite at the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park, run by Kiwi Holiday Parks, for only $20 a night (they also have cabins), taking advantage of the hot pools, which have a range of temperatures. I stayed there again last year, and found that the price has gone up to $22!

Signs outside the Rotorua Thermal Holiday Park

But in the shoulder season you can stay in proper cabins, $112 for two people in a cabin, no ensuite however. The beds were clean and it was very worthwhile.

When I was there a few years back, I had Māori massage which was offered in two forms, the relaxing Mirimiri and the deeper and harder Romiromi technique. The Hawaiʻians have a form of traditional massage called Lomilomi, so I imagine these techniques have been around for a long time. The woman giving me the massage said that she had to concentrate and breathe white light into my soul and the areas of the body that are sore. Her grandmother was a fully-fledged Māori healer, she told me.

A sign for the place where I got the Māori massage

This time around, I also visited Ōhinemutu, a now-suburban Māori village on the Rotorua lakefront, about ten minutes’ walk northwest of downtown. Among other things, it’s where the activist Donna Awatere-Huata, author of Māori Sovereignty (1984), comes from.

Donna Awatere-Huata’s father, Lt-Col Arapeta Awatere, was a commander of the famous Māori Battalion, formally known as the 28th New Zealand (Māori) Battalion. Here’s a video about the battalion and the backstory to an iconic photo of its members performing a haka in 1941.‍

The Māori Battalion was recruited from several tribal areas, and many Arawa from the Rotorua area joined up as relations between the Arawa tribes and the British settlers of New Zealand had traditionally been quite good. In other areas, though, such as the Waikato, where the local Māori had been driven off their lands by more aggressive colonists in the 1860s, recruitment correspondingly suffered.

Te Papaiouru Marae, Ōhinemutu village

St Faith’s Anglican Church, Ōhinemutu

Jesus in a Māori cloak, appearing to walk on water as seen from inside St Faith’s Anglican Church, Ōhinemutu. Photo by ‘Cherub51’ (1 May 2012), CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tunohopu Marae, Ōhinemutu


Te Papaiouru Marae, Ōhinemutu

The main overall tourist website for Rotorua and its region is rotoruanz.com.

As I mentioned, I have more posts about the Rotorua thermal region to come. In a few days, I will put out the first follow-up, called Around Rotorua..

For more, see my book The Neglected North Island: New Zealand’s Other Half, available on this website a-maverick.com.


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