If you told me a few months ago that I would soon ride a gondola in the middle of the Pacific Northwest, I would’ve thought you were crazy. A gondola in the Pacific Northwest? It seems like such an absurd notion, but it’s an experience that was all kinds of awesome once I experienced it for myself.
The only other time I stepped onto a gondola was in Venice, Italy back in 2011 when I was on a TopDeck tour around Europe. None of the 20-something year olds I was traveling with could afford a gondola ride by themselves, so 5 of us split the cost and piled into one together.
I knew from my few previous travels around the North Island that Rotorua is considered by many as the tourism epicenter of the region.
Although Taupo also has a lot to offer, not to mention it is absolutely beautiful, it’s the little brother to all that I found in Rotorua.
I’ve already written about quite a few of the activities and things to see in Rotorua, but the town deserves an all-encompassing post as well to give you an idea of how you can spend your time in a smelly, I mean special, part of New Zealand.
*All prices are in NZD unless stated otherwise.
1. Geothermal Wonders
It’s no surprise that discovering geothermal activity is high on the list of what to do in Rotorua. As I’ve mentioned before, you can smell the sulfur from a mile away.
I personally enjoyed the geothermal wonderland of Wai-O-Tapu, 20 minutes outside the city, as it had a variety of colorful minerals throughout the park, and plenty of attractions to be entertained by.
In addition, Wai-O-Tapu is one of the largest geothermal areas in New Zealand, so that in itself tells you there’s something special about the place. At $32.50 for an adult entry, there is plenty to see to while away a half day and take your time enjoying the sights… and the smells.
If Wai-O-Tapu is not your thing, or you’re looking for even more of Rotorua’s geothermal history to explore, there are a quite a few other attractions that would be great to check out.
Considered the most popular (and fierce) geothermal attraction in Rotorua – they call themselves the beast of all geothermal parks, to give you an idea.
Tikitere has a variety of options on how to spend your visit, from the thermal pampering with the popular mud pool and sulfur spa, to the 50 acres of hot springs, geysers and even a hot-water waterfall, there’s something for everyone.
I wrote $35 in the price, but that could easily go up if you wish to see everything in the park.
The geothermal walk by itself is $35, but if you want access to the spa, such as the mud pool, $75 is added on to the price of the walk, and can go up to $240, depending on which spa treatments you’re interested in.
Tikitere is open everyday from 8:30am-8:30pm and is about 17 minutes Northeast from Rotorua city on State Hwy 30.
As a living Maori village, Whakarewarewa is an attraction that combines both geothermal and Maori history. The focus is more on the Maori village to be sure, but if you stay for the traditional hangi meal, you’ll see how the local Maori have used the geothermal activity to their benefit while chomping on some geothermal cooked corn.
There are options for an overnight stay at the village as well if you want the full experience.
The one hour tour of the geothermal village is $35, the hangi dinner is an additional $31.
Whakarewarewa is open from 8:30am-5:00pm, 7 days a week, and is located right outside the city center – literally a 6 minute drive.
Meaning “black water” in Maori, Waimangu is the what remains from the Tarawere volcanic eruption in 1886, and even though that was over 100 years ago, it’s still considered the world’s youngest geothermal system today.
There are a multitude of colorful lakes and beautiful scenery on hand, and guided tours are available from $145.
Waimangu is open daily from 8:30am-5pm (do you sense a pattern?), and is located 20 minutes south of Rotorua on State Hwy 5.
Boasting the most active geysers in any geothermal park in New Zealand, Orakei Korako is good for those tourists who like a bit of action with their geothermal visits.
Also there is a cave in the park that is the only geothermal cave in New Zealand, how cool is that!
The Hidden Valley – hence the name – is harder to get to than the other attractions, it’s about an hour drive from the city (actually closer to Taupo than Rotorua), and you have to take a short ferry over for the only access to the park.
The ferry runs from 8am to 4pm, and is included in your admission price.
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If you don’t want to spend any money but still want to watch some cool geothermal things explode, bubble, or make smelly discharges take a look at visiting Ohinemutu, Sulphur Point & Flats, or Kuirau Park.
Since The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films have become popular in New Zealand, hobbit mania has taken over Rotorua, as well as the rest of the country.
The reason for this hobbit mania in Rotorua, specifically, is that a real-life Shire was created outside the small farm town of Matamata at the Alexander Farm by the name of Hobbiton.
Rotorua is the closest city to this man-made Shire, and therefore is a popular hub for transporting tourists an hour away to the outskirts of Matamata to indulge in all that is hobbit life.
Even not being a huge fanatic of the films, I enjoyed taking a day to see the set and pretend that I was perhaps a hobbit in another lifetime.
The official tour of Hobbiton costs $110 and includes a knowledgeable tour guide, transport from Rotorua and back, and a free beer – or ginger beer for those non-alcoholics – at The Green Dragon pub.
Although I had some misgivings about the tour, which you can read about here, overall I thought it was money well spent, and a unique experience that I’m glad I had in New Zealand.
Another Rotorua attraction I’ve already discussed at length, zorbing is one of those wacky, very Kiwi things to try out and laugh your way to the bottom.
It’s one of the weirder feelings I’ve had, zig zagging down a hill, while being inside a revolving sphere with one of my best friends and a bit of water, but it sure was fun.
There are two zorbing companies in Rotorua: ZORB and OGO. I chose OGO, the reasons for which I discussed here,and it was worth every penny.
Although you can find zorbing in a few other places around the world, New Zealand is the birthplace of the zorb, and where it all started, so you may as well get your kicks while you’re in Rotorua and go roll down a big hill.
Zorbing with OGO starts at $45 to $60 per person for one ride depending on which track you choose, but it goes down in price if you decide to do it with a friend or two.
4. Polynesian Spa
I’ve never had a professional spa treatment before – unless you count that one time I bought a $5 massage on the beach in Bali – so the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua is the closest I’ve come to feeling pampered.
I didn’t do any of the specific spa treatments they had on offer, but used the more affordable adult only pools (yay no kids!) at $27 per person for entry as long as you like – add on an additional $5 if you want to rent a locker. There were multiple pools to choose from of varying hot temperatures (36C -42C), and a Priest Spa some believe to have healing properties.
The best part is that the outdoor adult pools are overlooking the beautiful lake, and when we were there for sunset, it was ridiculously good looking.
Combine that with the social atmosphere of the relaxing pools, and you have a good time all around, and a perfect way to end your night after a day of seeing the best of Rotorua.
To be sure there are a quite a few thermal spas around Rotorua, but the Polynesian Spa has a good few things going for it: convenience, price, and variety of spa-going options, it’s worth seeing it for yourself.
5. The Agrodome
Oddly enough, with all of the options and activities to do in Rotorua, going to the Agrodome and watching the farm show was one of my fondest memories from the place.
As cheesy of a show as it may be, seeing every type of sheep in New Zealand (there are a quite a few!), sheep dogs performing bad ass stunts – such as running across the backs of lined up sheep, and having a live demonstration of sheep shearing, it was time well spent learning about the agricultural side that New Zealand is so famous for.
And the fact that I was able to hold baby lambs after the show, well that just made everything better. Seriously, the best way to start my morning, having a lamb try to lick my nose, while another one chews on my shirt.
In addition to the farm show and the nursery, the Agrodome offers a Shearing Museum, a farm tour, and it’s also where the other ZORB company is located, so there’s plenty to see and do.
The farm show rings up at $32.50, the farm tour at $45, and if you’d like to do both it comes at the combo price of $62. The Shearing Museum is free and just gives a small glimpse into the world of sheep, farming, and of course shearing. It’s an interesting homage to pop your head into.
We only did the farm show as we had a full day ahead of us in Rotorua, but if I had more time, the Agrodome would’ve been a good place to spend a bit more of my day.
The farm show lasts for an hour and repeats 3 times a day at 9:30am, 11:00am, and 2:30pm.
6. Hike in a Redwood Forest
I was planning on hiking in the Redwood Forest, also known as the Whakarewarewa Forest, on the day I left Rotorua for Wellington as it looked to be on the way; however, it was a bit further than we thought and with the long drive ahead of us for New Year’s Eve, we never made it.
I heard about the Redwood Forest outside of Rotorua a couple of months before the trip, you can imagine how my ears perked up when I learned that New Zealand has Redwood trees.
Not only is it the state tree of California, but it’s my personal favorite tree ever since I went hiking in the redwood forests of my home state at a young age – add that to the fact that I haven’t seen one in two years and I was sold.
Sadly, I never made it there but it’s still on this list because I’ve heard so many good reviews about the place.
The forest, made up of a variety of lush species of plants, rounds out at 5600 hectares. The Redwoods were imported from the California coast way back when to produce the magnificent trees they’ve grown into in present day.
While I was under the impression the Redwoods were located 20 minutes south of Rotorua, due to a foolish lack of research, they’re actually only 5 minutes southeast from the city.
It’s said that from entering the forest you immediately feel a special attachment to the place, with my own experiences of walking through redwood forests, that doesn’t surprise me in the least.
From the 96% approval rating on TripAdvisor, you can tell it’s liked by locals and tourists alike, and is easily described as the best hike in Rotorua. If you’re more into the outdoorsy activities to explore a new place, this would be without a doubt a good hike to find yourself on.
It will have to be added to the list for the next time I get back to the middle of the North Island, I do love my fair share of beautiful hikes.
7. Visit Croucher Brewery
Another one on the list that I didn’t actually get to myself, but hear me out, if you’re into craft beer and you have more time than I did, go visit Croucher Brewery.
It’s the only craft brewery that I’ve heard of from Rotorua, although there may be others out there I have yet to find, and they definitely make a decent brew.
Their Croucher Pilsner is highly ranked in New Zealand, and I once even had a customer tell me he could smell the sulfur coming up from his glass – an over exaggeration, but you get the point, you can’t get more Rotorua than that.
The good news is I did visit Croucher’s own pub called Brew in the downtown area of Rotorua, which I didn’t actually realize at the time of my visit, I just thought they had a good taste in beer.
This place was awesome; not only was the covered outside seating perfect for people watching, but their pizzas were mouth watering, the beer tangibly good, and there was live music there as well.
Long story short, if you enjoy beer plan a visit either to Brew or Croucher Brewery itself, it’s just another unique aspect of Rotorua to explore.
The honorable mentions are those attractions I researched, but decided to not include on my trip, either due to time constraints, too steep a price, or not being sure if they would be a tourist trap or not.
These activities are still a big part of Rotorua tourism, so it would be faux pas to not at least mention that they are an option.
Traditional Maori Village Visit
I went back and forth on visiting a traditional Maori village, I wanted to see a traditional performance and try a proper hangi for myself, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that all of the ones I found were huge tourist traps and not an authentic look into Maori culture.
And obviously, not growing up in a Maori household, I’ll never be completely immersed in the culture, but I also was unsure at prices ranging upwards of $100, if it would be worth it to spend my money on such a seemingly very touristy thing.
In retrospect, I would still really like to see a traditional performance – is it embarrassing to admit that Whale Rider is one of my favorite movies? – but I don’t know if Rotorua would’ve been the right place for it.
Gondola & Luging
The Skyline gondola and luge in Rotorua are supposedly some of the best attractions, and the only reason why I didn’t do them is because I was already planning on doing the same exact thing in Queenstown, which I had heard was much more scenic.
However, if you have the time, going up on the gondola and seeing the views out across Rotorua, and luging down a mountain at a relatively inexpensive price, it’s worth it.
To be fair, that recommendation is speaking from my experience doing the gondola in Queenstown, but it was one of the most beautiful views I’ve seen in New Zealand, and luging simply just makes you feel ridiculous in a good way. I couldn’t stop giggling on my 3 times down the mountain.
I didn’t hear about Rainbow Springs until I actually arrived in Rotorua, but with all of the wildlife encounters I’m spoiled with in Wellington (i.e the Wellington Zoo and Zealandia), I decided to skip it.
It’s $40 for an adult entry, and the main draws of the 22 acre park are the nocturnal kiwis on show (the birds not the humans), The Big Splash waterslide, and a live bird show, as well as an array of other native wildlife roaming around.
Agroventures is right across from the Agrodome, and we did seriously contemplate going here, but for the prices of the individual rides we deemed it not worth it.
For those adrenaline junkies, Agroventures has everything you could ask for in one complex. There’s the bungy, the swoop (sky swing), Agrojet (jet boating), Freefall Xtreme (pretend skydiving), and the Shweeb (racing suspended monorail).
Again, the fact that we were going to Queenstown later in the trip made our decision against going here as well. I had already been skydiving in Taupo, Kelsey was planning on doing the bungy in Queenstown, and we were both already planning on doing the famous Shotover Jet in Queenstown.
I was tempted to just go do the Shweeb because the name was so cool, but for $49 for a single short ride, I decided against it. It’s the best value if you’re looking to do a bungy or sky swing, but for the other rides I would take your money elsewhere.
With that said, it did look like a fun way to spend the day though if money is not an issue for you.
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As you can see, Rotorua has more attractions than you can fit in for just a few days in the city, but at least there are plenty of reasons to come back to such an interesting place that’s not heard of often outside of New Zealand.
Queenstown may have the tourism locked down in the South Island, but Rotorua is making a name for itself in the North.
Have you ever been to Rotorua? Would you be interested in seeing the geothermal capital of New Zealand?