On the way to Rotorua from Auckland, I had some brochures and my guidebook out and I was reading up on the city we were soon to arrive in. Every single attraction- geothermal reserves, wildlife parks, even the sheep show at the Agrodome- charges an exorbitant entrance fee, between NZ$25-30 per adult. The newish Te Puia, which is home to the Maori Arts and Crafts Instituate and Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, charges $43! Nothing seemed to be free except for gazing out at Lake Rotorua. I resigned myself to paying the high prices and told Bob, “We’d better just pick one thing, so we don’t end up spending too much money.” We had to. There was nothing else to do in Rotorua, right?
Wrong. There is plenty of free stuff to do, and the only money we ended up spending in Rotorua was on meals. Our couchsurfer host, Bheema, gave us most of this advice, but some things we found on our own. He had lived in Rotorua for a year, if I remember correctly, but is allergic to paying for fun. We were so lucky to be staying with him, but we know not every visitor to the Rotorua area can visit his house. Here are his (and our) top things to see and do:
- Tamatekapua Marae/ St. Faith’s Anglican Church (Ohinemutu) -this is a working marae, so I don’t think visitors are allowed inside, but it’s still wonderful to look at from the outside. Visitors are welcome inside St. Faith’s, which is an Anglican church built in the early settlement years. The strong Maori decorative influence inside is a must-see. Don’t forget to check out the stained-glass window of Jesus walking on Lake Rotorua! The fascinating graveyard out back is the final resting place of many of the first Maori converts in the area, as well as missionaries who came out to NZ and never went home. Bonus: while walking around the area, you’ll see lots of tiny, bubbling springs. Many are simply in resident’s front yards or along the side of the road. Check if they’re hot!
- Pohutu Geyser -I know, you want to see a geyser. And Pohutu, which is inside the Te Puia complex, is one of the most reliable, going off 10-15 times per day. If you don’t want to pay for Te Puia but do want to see a geyser, you can. It’s easiest if you have a car. Drive south on Fenton Street, past several motels, until the road curves right and there is a parking lot right in front of you. That’s Pohutu. If the geyser’s going off, you’ll be able to see the steam from a kilometer or two away. Park in that parking lot and look through the fence. You’ll be able to see the entire geyser.
- Government Gardens Park, War Memorial Park -Parks are always good for a stroll, and both of these parks have lakefront views. Government Gardens has, as you might have guessed, lovely gardens. The playgrounds are nice too, especially in War Memorial Park.
- Sulphur Flats -not far from Government Gardens lie the Sulphur Flats, an area that’s particularly geothermically active. There are walking tracks running through, and (though the signs say not to) it’s possible to walk a few meters off the track and check out those bubbling hot mudholes. I know I probably shouldn’t recommend that kind of thing (just asking for a lawsuit) but they’re not that big and you’d have to be really determined to fall in. The tracks are not that long, you could just as easily spend 5 minutes or one hour here. It all depends on how long you can stand that eggy smell!
5. Kerosene Creek -speaking of smells, this creek is not so eggy but truly smells of kerosene. It’s heated geothermically, and has a temperature similar to bathwater. It’s great for a swim. To get there, drive out of Rotorua on SH5 to Taupo. Just before Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, there is a road called Old Wai-O-Tapu Road. Turn left, and a short way down that road you’ll see signs and a parking lot for Kerosene Creek. Nearby, you’ll also see signs for Rainbow Mountain; it’s definitely worth walking 10 minutes to the lookout.
6. Lake Okataina -this lovely lake has the remains of a Maori pa, or fortified hill site, as well as several walking tracks around the lake and the pa. There are several different tracks, ranging in length from a few kilometers to 22. To get there from Rotorua, head towards the airport on SH30. Pass the airport and a Shell station, then take a right (staying on 30) heading towards Whakatane. Pass Hauparu Bay and go to Ruato Bay, on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. When the lake comes into view, you will see a sign for Lake Okataina- 7km. Turn right and follow this road to the end. It takes about 20 minutes to walk up to the pa and you could easily spend half an hour to an hour investigating the area. There are a lot of dug-out areas that were obviously used for storage; signs on the pa suggest that it was for earthenware, but we didn’t see any.
Above all, enjoy yourself! Rotorua is an interesting place to while away a few days, and it needn’t break the bank.