Luxury Escapes Guide to Rotorua
New Zealand's most historic tourist destination is further enhanced with exciting new ways to explore a spectacular landscape of forests and lakes.
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Things to see and do
Negotiate the Redwoods Treewalk
Around 3km southeast of central Rotorua, Redwoods Whakarewarewa Forest is the legacy of early 19th-Century trials to see what tree species could be grown successfully for timber. More than 170 species were tested, and this grove of soaring Californian redwoods is now popular for walking and mountain biking. The Redwoods Treewalk is a 700m-long elevated walkway made up of 28 wooden bridges suspended between the century-old trees. Visiting after dark is recommended when wooden lanterns hanging in the trees illuminate a shadowy way ahead.
Ride the Skyline gondola
Providing stellar lake views as it ascends Mt Ngongotaha, Rotorua's Skyline gondola is an attraction in itself, but also provides access to a day's worth of other activities. The popular downhill luge negotiates three tracks of differing speeds and complexity. Start off with the easygoing Scenic track before graduating to the faster Intermediate or Advanced tracks. Other quintessentially Kiwi ways to challenge yourself include the Zoom Ziplines and the gravity-defying Skyswing. After all that excitement, relax with a glass of wine or a beer at the Stratosfare Restaurant & Bar.
Visit Rotorua's unique winery
One of New Zealand's most unique places to sample wines comprises a winery at the foot of Mt Ngongotaha, and an associated wine bar and tasting room only accessible via the Skyline gondola. Grapes are sourced from the best of the country's wine-growing regions and standout varietals best enjoyed with stellar views of Lake Rotorua include a spicy pinot noir made from Central Otago, and an easy-drinking Hawke's Bay chardonnay. Mediterranean-style food platters are also available. For a special purchase, ask if the 12-year-old Premium Tawny port is available.
Zipline gently through the forest canopy
While Rotorua's more extreme adventure-sport credentials include bouncing down a hill in a giant plastic ball – the thrills of Zorbing – the area also offers gentler and more easygoing activities. With a forested network of swing bridges, platforms, and ziplines – all 22m high in the forest and often soundtracked by native birdlife – Rotorua Canopy Tours' experiences are achievable by pretty much anyone. Sign up for the Ultimate Canopy Tour to factor in an exciting spiral staircase, a cliff walk and a more-challenging controlled descent, all in ancient forest where some trees are over 1000 years old.
Relax in a forested hot tub
The perfect way to crown a day's exploring and adventuring around Rotorua are these bush-clad hot tubs in the Whakarewarewa forest. Crafted in New Zealand from western red cedar – infusing the experience with the relaxing fragrance of cedar oil – the tubs are filled with mineral-rich water from a nearby spring that's been filtered through volcanic aquifers. The tubs are a favourite post-ride rendezvous for mountain bikers after negotiating Rotorua's world-renowned forest tracks, and it's also possible enjoy the experience with a craft beer or cider from Hamilton-based Good George Brewing.
Geothermal activity and Māori culture at Te Puia
Part of the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, Te Puia combines excellent viewing of the area's geothermal attractions – including the spectacular 30m-high Pōhutu (Big Splash) geyser – and the opportunity to learn about Māori culture and arts and crafts. National schools teaching the Māori crafts of woodcarving, weaving, and stone and bone carving are all represented at Te Puia, and there is also a conservation centre helping to protect New Zealand's avian icon, the kiwi. Book for a two-hour guided tour of the entire complex at 10.30am or 1.30pm from Thursday to Sunday.
Kayak to lakeside hot springs
River Rats can arrange exciting river rafting trips – including plunging over a 7m-high waterfall on the challenging Grade 5 Kaituna River – but the most soothing and relaxing experience is a guided twilight paddle to hot springs on the banks of Lake Rotoiti. The Manupirua Springs Hot Pools can only be reached by boat, and while kayakers are relaxing in the pools, a barbecue dinner is prepared. Following dinner, it's a sunset kayak back home with a stop en route at glowworm caves. Kayaking experiences only run from November to April in the New Zealand summer.
Visit Lake Rotorua's mythical Mokoia Island
One of New Zealand's most enduring Māori myths is the story of star-crossed lovers, Hinemoa and Tutanekai, who reputedly met in secret on this forested island in the middle of Lake Rotorua. Visiting the island is now only possible with Katoa Lake Rotorua, with one-hour experiences incorporating an exciting 30-minute spin in a jetboat and a guided walk on Mokoia to learn about its mythical past and vital contemporary role as a bird sanctuary. Boats leave from the jetties at Rotorua's lakefront.
Top places to eat and drink
The most sophisticated of the cafes, restaurants and bars along Rotorua's pedestrian-only Eat Streat – yes, that's how it's spelt – Atticus Finch delivers a cosmopolitan menu of shared plates with global influences. Secure a spot out the front and watch the passing parade of browsing diners, secure in the knowledge you've already made a wise decision on where to eat. Try the chargrilled miso prawns with kimchi mayo with a crisp Peregrine riesling, or team the Middle Eastern-spiced lamb rump with the berry and pepper notes of a Mt Difficulty pinot noir.
New Zealanders love to devour savoury pies, and while classic flavour combos like steak and mushroom or chicken and vegetable remain popular, the award-winning pies from Goldstar are anything but ordinary. Part of a network of central North Island bakeries run by an enterprising Cambodian family, baked deliciousness at Goldstar includes roast pork, apple and cheese, and garlic prawn varieties. Head baker Patrick Lam has been judged supreme winner in the New Zealand Pie Awards seven times, so he's obviously doing something right.
Popular with Rotorua's mountain bikers – look for the knobbly-wheeled transport out the front – Brew is the hoppy hub for Rotorua's Croucher Brewing. The boisterous shared tables out front are good for meeting the locals, while inside is more cosy and quiet. Select a four-beer tasting flight from the rotating taps – including Croucher's own brews and regular guest beers from around the country – and order from the menu of pub classics. The combination of a buttermilk chicken burger and the New Zealand-hopped Enduro Pale Ale is a good place to start.
With lake views and a location adjacent to Rotorua's leafy village green, Terrace Kitchen is one of the city's most versatile restaurants. Enjoy the first coffee of the day with Middle Eastern-style shakshuka baked eggs, or snack on creamy chicken croquettes and Nepalese momo dumplings for lunch. Later at night, Terrace Kitchen's drinks list comes into its own with good cocktails providing the entree to partnering confit swordfish and tamarind rice with a zingy New Zealand sauvignon blanc. Herbs and edible flowers are often sourced from Terrace Kitchen's own compact garden.
Abracadabra Cafe & Bar
Don't be deceived by the compact veranda at the entrance to Abracadabra. Continue exploring past the counter and kitchen to reach a spacious outdoor deck that also doubles as a popular beer garden later in the day. Scrambled eggs with dukkah, barbecue jackfruit sliders, and chicken fajitas all feature on a menu that travels confidently from Morocco to Mexico. Versatility is the name of the game with Abracadabra morphing from an easygoing brunch and lunch cafe to a more energetic wine-bar ambience at night.
Factory Smokehouse & Grill
Definitely worth the five-minute drive from central Rotorua, the Factory Smokehouse & Grill has a singular focus on sourcing ingredients from local suppliers. Beef is 100% grass fed, all produce is free range, and their attention to detail includes housemade pasta and their own seasonal rum infusions. Come hungry – the huge burgers can be gravity-defying – and look forward to craft beers from Rotorua-based Croucher Brewing. Try and leave room for the Nutella mousse with hazelnut and white chocolate.
Rotorua Night Market
Like many places in New Zealand, migration from other countries has made Rotorua a more culturally diverse place, and the weekly Thursday night market is a fine place to meet some of the city's more recent arrivals. Tutanekai Street is closed to traffic for the market, providing plenty of scope to stroll and snack on Argentinean empanadas, Japanese takoyaki and Sichuan dumplings. Look forward to an eclectic soundtrack of roving street performers and stalls selling locals arts, crafts and souvenirs.
Okere Falls Store
With a location on the northwest edge of Lake Rotoiti – around 20km from central Rotorua – the Okere Falls Store is one of New Zealand's best regional cafes. A fridge full of local craft beers promises easygoing good times in the beer garden, while there are excellent lake views from the sunny deck. The diverse menu is popular with Rotorua's river rafting community – especially hearty snacks like the 'kimcheese' toasted sandwich – while seasonal fruit smoothies are popular during summer. Stock up on edible gifts and souvenirs of local gourmet products from the instore deli.
The clue is in the name and the logo at this family-owned cafe in central Rotorua. Owners Steven and Dana Greer have a passion for hunting, and the hearty venison burger is world-famous (in Rotorua). Beyond the occasional locally sourced game dish, Scope also delivers big breakfasts perfect to kickstart a day's exploring, regular seasonal lunch specials, and freshly baked treats that often sell out by mid-morning. Get there slightly earlier to partner a coffee with a peach and white chocolate muffin or a pear and blue cheese scone.
Catch trout on a guided fly-fishing experience
The lakes and rivers around Rotorua and the surrounding Central Plateau are world-renowned for trout fishing. The best chance of success in landing a brown and rainbow trout is to hook up with an authoritative local guide, especially if you're keen on accessing more remote back-country
streams and pools most easily reached on a heli-fishing expedition. The water in these remote locations is usually as crystal clear as gin or vodka, and the opportunity to catch trophy-winning fish brings many international anglers back to Rotorua on a regular basis.
Tailor your escape to Rotorua
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Explore Mt Tarawera by helicopter
Transformed by a massive volcanic eruption in 1886, the spectacular landscapes around Mt Tarawera are best seen by helicopter. Taking off from the Rotorua lakefront, sky-high sightseeing trips take in Waimangu Volcanic Valley, Lake Tarawera and Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, and are a brilliant way to see how the region's violent volcanic past has created a landscape blending lush native forests, cobalt lakes, and the surreal orange and lime green Day-Glo hues of geothermal pools. There's also the chance for a short, guided walk on the fractured summit of Mt Tarawera, ripped asunder by New Zealand's biggest eruption in recent centuries.
Relax and recharge at the Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort
Travellers have been bathing in Rotorua's thermal waters for several generations, and the most luxurious way to enjoy the region's heritage of spa treatments is at Wai Ora. Translating to 'Living Waters', Wai Ora's most popular experience is the two and a half hour Pamper Package. Three different spa and massage treatments can be incorporated – including a traditional Māori-style massage and a mineral-rich geothermal mud wrap – and spa platters from Wai Ora's Mokoia restaurant incorporate indigenous Māori forest herbs.