08 January 2016

Four free activities in Rotorua

Rotorua is full of things to do for the adventurous thrill seekers and those who want to experience Maori culture (although perhaps in a less authentic way - it is a tourist town after all), which is great if you have plenty of money to spend. We stayed there for four nights but people could easily spend a week here and still not see and do everything that there is on offer. For nature lovers, there are walks for all ages and fitness levels. When you're in beautiful surroundings like these, it's easy to forget that this area forms part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone. Once you breathe in the sulphur you are reminded of the natural forces at play that continue to shape the landscape. For the budget-conscious traveller or families who still want to experience what Rotorua is renowned for without the price tag, here are four activities that should be on your Must Do list - and best of all, they will not cost you a cent except for the fuel needed to travel there:

1. Hot'n'Cold Pools - Waiotapu Loop Road (20 minutes south of Rotorua off State Highway 5)
Once a well-kept secret, it is well and truly out now. We took the second turnoff to Wai-O-Tapu (Sacred Waters) Thermal Wonderland which is a few hundred metres past the Waiotapu Tavern and we were glad we did as the pools are quicker to reach this way. If you are traveling north from Taupo, it will obviously be the first signposted turnoff that you'd need to take. You'll probably be greeted by several parked cars and camper vans parked near the first single lane bridge along this narrow stretch of road so you know you're in the right place. The pools are a short walk down from the road and can be accessed from either end of the bridge. We arrived at about 10.30am and the area was starting to get busy but there was still plenty of room in the pools to find your own spot. It was grey and drizzly on the day we went but it was actually the perfect choice of activity for the weather conditions. We were warned about the possibility of rubbish, thieves and boorish behaviour from other pool users but we saw nothing that made us feel unsafe at all. In fact, this was one of the highlights of our trip and is well worth the journey. The right side of the bridge was where the best pool was found with the water being a more reliable temperature. The pool on the left side of the bridge was too hot to even get in when we were there. If you arrive expecting a hotel-grade spa with clear water, you're in the wrong place. The water is murky, you will get grit in your togs, you will notice the smell of sulphur (although I didn't find it as strong as in other places in Rotorua) and you will get scratched on barbed wire or blackberry bushes if you're not looking where you're stepping on the shortcut out of the pools. Bring a towel, river shoes and an open mind.

Recommended fee-based alternative: Polynesian Spa (thanks Sara)

2. Waiotapu Scenic Reserve
Not much further up the road is the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland which is quite spectacular and you really should visit it if you can but if you're short on time, drive past the attraction and a very underwhelming brown sign marked 'Mud Pool' points down a side road. We may have missed this scenic reserve altogether if we hadn't seen a large tour bus coming out as we drove past. Not far down the road is a viewing platform and short walk to the other side of a large mud pool complete with strong sulphur smells and plopping mud. The area was not crowded at all when we arrived before midday but it was still raining so we had to run for cover and this was the only photo I took, which doesn't really do the area justice.

Recommended fee-based alternative: Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland

3. Lake District
Wherever you go in Rotorua, you'll never be far from any of its lakes. Lake Rotorua is the largest of the 18 lakes in the region and has several nice spots for swimming and walking. There are plenty of black swans which we were told can be quite aggressive but we didn't have any problem sharing the lake with them - just don't feed them. The Blue Lake (Tikitapu) is the smallest of all the lakes near the city of Rotorua, but it is my favourite of the ones we visited. We loved it so much here, we came back twice. It had been raining for three days straight and was still drizzling on our first visit, but something about the mist descending from the hills and how beautiful the water looked just made it feel really special here. The road to the lake is well-signposted, simply take State Highway 30A round Lake Rotorua and turn right onto Tarawera Road. The Blue Lake is the first of three lakes you can access in the area. This is another place to head to even when it is raining although we found on our second visit here, the wind made it less pleasant swimming in the lake. Even though the Blue Lake Resort is right across the road from where this photo was taken, the lake has a feeling of being in the middle of nowhere.
Since you've come all this way, it would be rude not to go and see another one of the lakes reshaped from Mount Tarawera's destructive 1886 volcanic eruption. To get to the pretty lakeshore of Lake Tarawera that is pictured above, continue on down the same road past the Buried Village/Te Wairoa (this archaeological site and museum is also well worth the admission fee). Turn right when you see a small sign that says 'Boat Ramp'. A short winding sealed road will take you down to a spot known as Kotukutuku Bay where there are toilets and, randomly, a cute wooden cafe. This activity is only free if you don't buy the food, drink and yummy homemade fruit ice creams. In between Lake Tarawera and the Blue Lake lies the Green Lake (Rotokakahi) but it is tapu and no swimming or recreational activities are allowed on the water so we only drove past it. The last lake you can access by car in this area is Lake Okareka. We visited it on our return loop home (turn onto Okareka Loop Road just before the Blue Lake Resort). It's quite a lovely settlement but we were pretty laked out by this time, so I didn't even take a photo.

Recommended fee-based add-on: Buried Village

4. Government Gardens
Located in the central city and right on the Rotorua lakeshore, the land was gifted by local iwi to the Crown in 1880, which was then developed into a health spa to encourage foreign tourists to visit. The Tudor-style Bath House now houses the Rotorua Museum. When a building looks this good even in the rain, you know it's a beautiful place and it is easy to see why it is one of the most photographed sites in the country. This cultural heritage trail pamphlet is very handy and outlines several sculptures and points of interest in this one location. You can also download the brochure from the Rotorua District Council website.

Recommended fee-based add-on: Rotorua Museum

Because of the inclement weather when we visited and the fact that I had a child wearing an arm cast that we needed to keep dry, we were hampered a little by what we could experience together. I've mentioned that there are plenty of nature walks. We would have loved to have walked to Okere Falls and if your family is keen on cycling, there look to be some really great mountain biking trails too. If we'd managed to stay another day, we would have also checked out the Redwoods. There is a newly-built tree canopy walk which would have been fun to experience. We have been back in Wellington for just a few days now and I am still thinking about how great Rotorua is to explore, and the free hour parking in the central city was a nice surprise. Have you ever been there? What free activities would you recommend that I haven't included here?


  1. Not only were they free activities, they all look like really beautiful places to see and enjoy! That makes them even better doesn't it! xx

  2. We used Flybuys to buy a family pass for the Gondolas and luge, which we will use in the next couple of weeks, also planning to take in the redwood Forest. I didn't know about Waiotapu pools.