Rotorua is a small city on the southern shore of its namesake lake in the Bay of Plenty, right at the heart of the North Island. It’s rich in both Maori culture and geothermal activity, and your Rotorua hire car is the perfect way to explore the diverse charm of this special region.
Spend time at the fantastic Te Puia cultural centre in Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley. You’ll find boiling mud pools and dozens of exploding geysers here, including Pohutu, which soars 30 m high. Hear songs and watch swirling poi dances and haka performances in the meeting house. See how Maori lived in the traditional village, discover their stories and history through gallery displays, visit the National Carving and Weaving Schools to learn ancient crafts, or spot a kiwi at the Kiwi House.
Spend an evening enjoying cultural performances at Mitai Maori Village, where warriors paddle downstream in traditional canoes at Tamaki Maori Village, with optional overnight stays, or at the award-winning Matariki Hangi and Culture Show. The excavated site of the Buried Village and the Rotorua Museum, in an iconic building in the Government Gardens, are great places to learn more about local history.
The geothermal park Waimangu Volcanic Valley, offers walking tours along crater pathways and cruises across Lake Rotomahana. Admire the colours of the Champagne Pool at Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland or venture through Hells Gate to settle into a warm mud bath. For a hot dip in town, the historic Blue Baths are sublime, but equally tempting is the lakeside Polynesian Spa or the heated indoor and outdoor swimming pools at Rotorua Aquatic Centre.
Cruise tranquil lakes aboard a paddle ship, ride on an amphibious WWII ‘duck’, sail aboard acatamaran, visit the sacred island bird sanctuary or try trout fishing. Rotorua’s rivers are also perfect for jet boating, rafting and kayaking. Adrenalin addicts can roll downhill in a water-filled bubble at ZORB or OGO. Quad biking and sky diving can seem tame by comparison.
For a spectacular view of the lake and its environs, ride the gondola cable-car up Mount Ngongotaha to Skyline Rotorua. Delight at the exhibits in the Jelly Belly gallery and whizz back down on a luge. The Agrodome sheep show and farm tour offers a truly unique agriculture experience and the chance to feed lambs. View opossums, wallabies and lions at Paradise Valley Springs, or see kiwis and get a soaking on the Big Splash ride at Rainbow Springs. The magnificent Whakarewarewa Forest is full of walking and biking trails – hire a bike or join a tour at Planet Bike.
Top dining choices include Latin American favourite Sabroso, fresh Pacific-rim fare at lakesideMokoia Restaurant, the excellent café-style Capers Epicurean and the best breakfast in town at Picnic Café (1174 Whakaeu Street).
Rotorua boasts a wide range of accommodation with backpacking hostels, self-catering motels and luxury hotels aplenty. The Regent of Rotorua boutique hotel and spa is highly recommended, but for more budget-conscious stays check in to the quiet Sport of Kings Motel or the downtown Malfroy Motor Lodge with its lush gardens and relaxing mineral pool.
Explore the wider region by aiming your Rotorua rental car due west to Whakatane and the long stretch of white sand at Ohope, or drive 60 km north to Tauranga and neighbouring seaside destinations of Mount Maunganui and Papamoa. Further north up the coast, delve into the glorious Coromandel Peninsula [www.thecoromandel.com], with its misty rainforests and gorgeous golden beaches.