Bubble, Bubble, Toil & Trouble
When you enter this region, you quickly realize there’s something hard at work underfoot. Steam rises out of gutters and along roadsides, and you can never be entirely sure where the next hiss and roar will come from. Volcanic and geothermal activity has always played a major role in the landscape here, so be sure to experience it for yourself. The visitor center has information on shuttle services to the main geothermal areas. These usually cost NZ$25 to NZ$45; in some cases, prices include admission to the chosen area.
Twenty minutes south of Rotorua, you’ll find Waimangu Volcanic Valley, 587 Waimangu Rd. (tel. 07/366-6137; www.waimangu.com). Created on June 10, 1886, by Mount Tarawera’s impressive blowout, Waimangu is the only hydrothermal system in the world wholly formed in historic times as a result of a volcanic eruption. Today, you can walk through the valley and look at the many features, the best of which fall during the first 45 minutes of the 1 1/2-hour walk. These include Frying Pan Lake, the world’s largest hot-water spring, and the impossibly turquoise Inferno Crater —a mysterious lake where the level rises and falls on a regular 38-day cycle. The valley is open daily from 8:30am to 5pm (last admission 3:30pm). The walk costs NZ$35 for adults, NZ$13 for children ages 6 to 16, and NZ$85 for a family. You can get a package that includes a boat cruise, a total of 3 hours. If you include the 2-hour hiking trail you’ll see more craters, but make sure you’re fit as the trail takes you up and over a mountain.
Personally, I’d do just the first 45 minutes of the above walk, skip the boat cruise altogether, and head 10 minutes farther south to Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland (tel. 07/366-6333; www.waiotapu.co.nz). Waiotapu is a much more intensive and colorful geothermal exhibition. It’s open daily from 8:30am to 5pm (last admission 3:45pm), and you’ll want to allow 1 to 1 1/2 hours. You can go it alone or with a guided tour, and once again, the bulk of the best attractions are within the shorter (30- to 40-min.) walk. The best features here are the reliable Lady Knox Geyser, which performs around 10:15am daily. It’s in a separate park nearby, but you get in on the same ticket price. If you want to see the geyser, I strongly advise you to get tickets no later than 9:45am in peak season. My favorite highlights are the spectacular Champagne Pool; New Zealand’s largest bubbling mud pool; and the vivid green Devil’s Bath. Admission is NZ$35 for adults, NZ$12 for children 5 to 15, and NZ$90 for families. Just prior to arriving at Waiotapu, look out for the signpost to the mud pool—it’s big and it’s free.
Forty-five minutes south of Rotorua, you’ll find the Orakei Korako Cave & Thermal Park, 494 Orakei Korako Rd. (tel. 07/378-3131; www.orakeikorako.co.nz), a pocket wonderland of geysers, hot springs, boiling mud, and the majestic Aladdin’s Cave on the shores of Lake Ohakuri. This little valley of incredible beauty is preserved by its isolation and inaccessibility—it can be reached only by boat (no extra charge). Boats don’t run on a timetable; you can cross at any time. You might want to save this for the journey south—Taupo is just 25 minutes away. Allow at least an hour for a good look around. As in any geothermal area, stay on the formed pathways to avoid danger. The resort is open daily from 8am to 4:30pm (4pm in winter). Admission is NZ$36 for adults, NZ$15 for children under 16, and NZ$92 for families. To get there, turn off on State Highway 5, just after Golden Springs at Mihi Bridge.
Hell’s Gate & Wai Ora Lakeside Spa (tel. 07/345-3151; www.hellsgate.co.nz) is 15km (9 1/3 miles) northeast of Rotorua on State Highway 30 to Whakatane. This Maori-owned reserve is steeped in culture, and its 8 hectares (20 acres) of thermal activity are different every day—and magnificent in the rain. Reputedly the fiercest of the thermal valleys, it features hot-water lakes, sulfur formations, Rotorua’s only mud volcano, and the largest boiling whirlpool in New Zealand. It also offers a range of spa experiences, including massage and semi-private outdoor mud baths. Don’t forget to ask about cheaper combo packages. The thermal walk is pretty but not as spectacular as Waiotapu’s, and while the soak in thermal mud is sensual, it’s a little uninspired and the mud is hard to wash out of your swimsuit. It’s open daily from 8:30am to 8:30pm (closed Dec 25). Admission is NZ$35 for adults, NZ$20 for children under 16, and NZ$80 for families—you pay extra for the spa experiences. It’s a fun experience to try but I think you get a better mud experience at the Mud Room at Spa at QE, Whakaue Street, Rotorua (tel. 07/348-0189; www.qehealth.co.nz), which is open Monday to Friday 8am to 10pm and weekends from 9am to 10pm. It costs NZ$55 to NZ$85 and you’ll sleep well after it. Or enjoy beautiful mineral spas and mud wraps at Wai Ora Day Spa, 77 Robinson Ave., Holdens Bay, Rotorua (tel. 07/343-5152; www.waioraresort.co.nz), which couples Maori healing and wellness practices with natural spa products.
If you want to get a glimpse of geothermal action in the city free of charge, head for Kuirau Park, off Pukuatua and Ranolf streets. This is the site of the huge eruption in 2000, and you can still see the dead trees and white ash in the cordoned-off area. There are steaming vents everywhere, and it is vital that you stay on formed pathways. Please heed this warning as people have perished after climbing the barrier fences and falling into the scalding pools. Stay out of the park at night.