After two months in New Zealand, where we settled into our new home and job, we were happy to find some time to explore part of the North Island. Our first long weekend away saw us exploring the heart of geothermal landscapes, and Maori culture in and around Rotorua.
Volcanoes, geysers, and hot springs were the main theme throughout our trip and we found plenty of things to do in Rotorua. But our first stop would be something entirely different; a place I had been dreaming of visiting since 2001: Hobbiton!
Hobbiton – The Redwoods – Maori Village
Around 8am on Friday morning, we flew with Air New Zealand from Wellington into Hamilton. We picked up our car from the budget rental office inside the airport – and off we went on our adventure!
Hamilton airport is small and only services domestic flights. If you only have carry-on luggage, you can arrive 30 minutes before departure.
Hobbiton Movie Set
We drove for 45 min along windy roads, through lush green hills, until we arrived at our first stop: Hobbiton. Unbeknown to us, we had arrived on probably the busiest day of the year: International Hobbit Day.
Luckily, we had purchased our Hobbiton tickets in advance and were able to join our tour soon after arriving. Hobbiton was everything I had expected and more. The set is enormous, with its myriad of colourful Hobbit holes dotted around in the hills. The gardens are maintained by professional gardeners throughout the year, and real food and drinks are served at the Green Dragon Inn.
After our 2-hour tour and filling our camera memory cards with hundreds of photos, we relaxed at the Green Dragon Inn. Its interior resembles true Hobbit craftsmanship. After sampling an ale and cider, brewed exclusively for Hobbiton, we continued our journey towards Rotorua.
Arriving in Rotorua
The trip to Rotorua took us just under an hour. The landscape changed on the way to the city, with puffs of steam rising from the surrounding land. Rotorua is surrounded by geothermal systems, which appear almost otherworldly. We couldn’t wait to start exploring the many features in the next few days.
Upon arrival, we first checked into our boutique hotel, The Regent of Rotorua, an elegant luxury hotel in the centre of town. After dropping off our bags, we ventured into the town. Wafts of sulphur followed us throughout our walk, a constant reminder of the volcanic activity in the area.
A BOUTIQUE STAY IN ROTORUA
We first walked through the Government Gardens, beautifully landscaped in front of the Museum of Rotorua. The museum – formerly a bathhouse – is housed in a heritage building over 100 years old.
Unfortunately, after the Kaikoura earthquake in November 2016, the museum closed as a precautionary measure after cracks were found in the building. For the foreseeable future, the museum remains closed, as the building is renovated according to earthquake safety standards. For now, you can admire the exquisite architecture from the outside while strolling around the gardens.
Redwood Forest Rotorua
Up next was the TreeWalk at the Redwoods, Whakarewarewa Forest, just outside of Rotorua. The TreeWalk consists of 21 suspension bridges among the impressive, stately redwoods. We walked 12 metres above ground on this very peaceful walk through the forest.
Tamaki Maori Village
Late afternoon, we made our way to Tamaki Maori Village, a Maori cultural experience 20 minutes from Rotorua. Upon arrival, we were treated to an ancient ceremony of welcome. Afterwards, the Maori showed us aspects of traditional Maori way of life in a recreated Maori village and performed traditional dances and songs.
At the end, we enjoyed a Hangi buffet meal. It was an interesting experience to learn more about the Maori. However, a few aspects felt a little too forced and I’m not sure if I would recommend it on a visit to Rotorua.
After the Maori feast, we made our way back to the TreeWalk at the Redwoods, to see the trees illuminated by thirty suspended lanterns. It was a completely different experience than our daytime walk, and a great way to end a busy day.
Back at the hotel, we enjoyed a delicious cocktail at the bar before turning in; we had another busy day ahead of us!
White Island – Polynesian Spa
White Island, or Whakaari, is an active stratovolcano located 49km north of the north coast. It’s the most active cone volcano in New Zealand, with an almost constant volcanic activity of steaming fumaroles and boiling mud. And yes, we walked on the surface of this volcano…
We boarded our boat, with White Island Tours, in Whakatane, after getting the all-clear that the tour would go ahead. They only confirm either the evening before or on the morning of the tour, if the weather and volcanic conditions are safe enough to venture up into the volcano.
The journey to the volcano takes roughly 1.5 hours, where you have a chance to see wildlife, such as dolphins and whales, along the way. Unfortunately, my stomach doesn’t agree with smallish boats, and I felt ill the entire route. Once on the island, I felt much better and could finally enjoy the experience.
Armed with a helmet and gas mask, we made our way through the crater on a 1.5-hour guided walk. We learned about the geology and the history of the volcano and marvelled at the surreal, out-of-this-world landscape.
We came up close to steam vents, which literally took our breath away (thank god we had the gas masks!), and the subsequent coughing fits made us realise how dangerous this place can be. Walking around the volcano and the crater was an exceptionally unique experience that Ash and I will not forget anytime soon.
The drive to Whakatane takes around an hour and the trip itself around five hours. We were exhausted when we got back to Rotorua, so we decided to unwind at the Polynesian Spa, a mineral bath and spa retreat in the town centre.
It was the perfect place to relax our tired muscles before heading to Atticus Finchfor a delicious evening meal.
After that, we switched hotels and checked into the Prince’s Gate Boutique Hotel: a beautiful historic hotel, with a classical style, dating back to the late 19th century.
Wai-o-Tapu – Orakei Korako – Lake Taupo – Wairakei Terraces – Waikite Valley Thermal Pools – Rotorua gondola
Day Three proved to be a very busy day. We left Rotorua early and drove to Lake Taupo, visiting several geothermal parks along the way. The first one was Wai-o-Tapu, an exceptionally colourful park, with unique features found throughout the diverse landscape. One of the more popular park attractions is the Lady Knox Geyser. At 10:15 am each day, you can see the geyser erupting in all its glory, reaching a height of up to 10 – 20 metres.
Orakei Korako Geothermal Park
For the next park, Orakei Korako, we had to take a short detour from the main road but it is definitely worth the extra kilometres. We took a quick boat ride across the lake to reach the stunning geothermal wonders. We set off on a walk around the features, passing thermal pools, geysers, a cave and mud pools, which are weirdly satisfying to watch.
After a quick bite at the MudCake Café, at Orakei Korako, we drove to Lake Taupo. Huka Falls was next on our itinerary. Apparently, it is one of the most visited – and photographed – natural attractions in New Zealand.
As we walked up to the waterfall, we could see why this natural display of force was so popular. The 11-metre waterfall carries 220, 000 litres per second and is a vibrant blue colour. There are several hiking and biking trails around the falls.
If you have some time, you can take a jet boat up to the base of the waterfall. We decided to stay on dry land and admire the falls from above.
Lake Taupo is the biggest lake by surface area in New Zealand and lies in the caldera of the Taupo volcano. There is plenty to see and do around the lake, but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time to explore the area. After deciding to come back for a weekend around the lake, we made our way back to Rotorua.
We were keen to try another geothermal spa, so, when we passed the Wairakei Terraces, we had a quick look around. Apart from the thermal pools, you can also visit the terraces. The terraces, as well as the geyser, are manmade but are still impressive to watch.
Geothermal water is pushed up from 1.5km underground and flows down the terraces, depositing large amounts of silica along the way. The pools, situated under the silica terraces, looked like an oasis of tranquility. We wouldn’t have minded taking a short break here, however, we were keen to check out another spa not too far away: Waikite Valley Thermal Pools.
Waikite Valley Thermal Pool
At Waikite, the thermal water comes straight from the Te Manaroa natural boiling spring. Apart from four thermal pools, the complex provides private pools, where you can relax on your own while enjoying views over the valley. We spent around 40 minutes in the private tub, taking in the serene landscape.
Rainbow Springs Nature Park
After stopping at our hotel to freshen up, we visited Rainbow Springs Nature Park, a place where you can encounter some of New Zealand’s native wildlife. The park isn’t big, but features many species such as: the Tuatara, Kea, Kākā and the elusive kiwi.
The park is also a successful kiwi conservation centre, where you can see these birds up-close in the nocturnal kiwi house. Our ticket was valid for the whole day, including evenings, so we came back after dinner to see the kiwis awake.
Skyline Gondola Rotorua
For dinner, we boarded the gondola at sunset and enjoyed a 900-metre, scenic ride up the Skyline Rotorua Complex. At the top, you can try a variety of activities such as: mountain biking, luge, zipline or the skyswing. We skipped the activities and went straight to the Stratosfare Restaurant & Bar.
The dining area had an elegant interior, with large windows overlooking the city and lake. Meals on offer are displayed buffet-style on an array of tables across the length of the room. Options range from seafood to rotisserie, as well as a varied dessert selection. The freshly prepared buffet and cooked-to-order dishes were by far the best buffet-style dinner we’ve ever eaten.
Te Puia – Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park – Waitomo glowworm cave
On our final day in the area, we visited Te Puia, the last geothermal park on the itinerary. Te Puia is located in Rotorua, and not only has geothermal features, like the Pōhutu geyser, but you can also visit the kiwi nocturnal house, and learn more about Maori culture, architecture and arts and crafts.
We spent around two hours wandering around the park. We saw the Pōhutu geyser erupting, but unfortunately, we saw no kiwis in the nocturnal house.
Otorohanga Kiwi House
Following Te Puia, we had a bit of a trip ahead of us. We drove from Rotorua through the beautiful countryside towards the Waitomo district. After 1.5 hours we arrived in Otorohanga, where we were just in time to join the kiwi feeding talk at the Otorohanga Kiwi House & Native Bird Park.
Just like the Rainbow Springs Nature Park, the kiwi house features many native birds, however, the kiwi feeding talk was the highlight of our visit.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Next on our itinerary – and our last activity for this trip – was the Waitomo Glowworm Cave. We had been looking into more adventurous options to see the caves, such as tubing, however, due to time constraints, we opted to go the more traditional route and join the walk and boat ride.
After a quick introduction to the cave, its discovery and features, we boarded a small boat in almost complete darkness. We slowly glided through the water in silence and marvelled at the glowing blue dots covering the cave ceiling all around us.
These glowworms, which are unique to New Zealand, glow through bioluminescence. They are found all over New Zealand but they particularly seem to like caves. The boat ride was short, but it was a truly magnificent experience and we would do again in a heartbeat.
After our trip through the cave, it was time to make our way back to Hamilton airport. We had hoped to visit New Zealand’s only commercial tea plantation, Zealong Tea Estate – found 10 minutes away from Hamilton – however, it closed at 5pm, so it’s on our list of things to do next time we’re in the area.