Set amidst jewel-like crater lakes, Rotorua offers stunning, contrasting scenery in an active volcanic wonderland of spouting geysers, bubbling mud pools, fumaroles and natural thermal springs and spas. Further south, New Zealand’s largest lake, Lake Taupo, is fed by sparkling ice-melt from the mountains of the Tongariro National Park. It too was formed by volcanic activity - an eruption so large it was recorded by Chinese and Roman writers. The region’s extraordinary landscape and unique range of cultural experiences make it a ‘must-see’ on any NZ itinerary. We spend three days travelling from Whakatane to Napier via Rotorua and Taupo. We explore several thermal parks, soak in hot pools, enjoy a traditional Maori hangi, dine on trout, take a balloon ride over the Huka Falls, and travel the historic Taupo-Napier highway to the Art Deco city of Napier and the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers.
White Island splutters on the horizon as we bid Whakatane farewell and drive inland on SH30 past Mt Edgecumbe’s tall cinder cone to Lake Rotoma. It’s our first glimpse of the lakes for which Rotorua is renowned.
We stop at Hell’s Gate in Tikitere, home to Rotorua’s most violent thermal activity, which Bob’s keen to see after the excitement of our White Island sojourn. We walk on platforms over a fiery landscape that features not only a mud volcano but also the largest hot water falls in the Southern Hemisphere. Adjacent at the popular Wai Ora Spa we watch women cake themselves with detoxifying mud then soak in warm thermal pools. Bob’s tempted but it’s a bit early in the day for me.
We drive into Rotorua where we visit more thermal activity at Whakarewarewa and watch spellbound as the famous Pohutu geyser erupts in a spray of boiling water. Whakarewarewa is also home to the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute where we see trainee carvers, weavers and greenstone sculptors using traditional techniques to craft a wide range of wares. On Lake Rotorua’s waterfront we lunch in the company of graceful black swans, then stroll through the Edwardian elegance of the Government Gardens past the world-famous Bath House building, which houses a museum, before turning back to the car.
Rotorua is a whirlwind of activity but the real beauty of the region lies in its natural surroundings and it’s easy to find a quiet place away from the crowds.
I take Bob for a drive to Lake Tarawera, stopping briefly at the Blue and Green Lakes to admire their respective colours before continuing on to our destination, which basks under Mt Tarawera’s sultry gaze.
So tranquil are the surroundings, it’s hard to imagine that this sleeping giant was responsible for one of the worst natural disasters in NZ’s history. On the night of June 10th 1886 Mt Tarawera erupted, killing 151 people in the surrounding area and destroying one of Rotorua’s popular attractions, the Pink and White Terraces.
At the Buried Village, you can relive the terror of the eruption and tour the excavated remains of Te Wairoa, a village buried in rocks, ash and boiling hot mud.
Back in Rotorua we check into our accommodation and our kind host books us in for a traditional hangi at the Tamaki Maori Village. There are more than two hours before our pickup by coach, so we cross the road to the Polynesian Spa.
It caters for everyone with family pools, adult only pools, and private pools as well as the stunningly peaceful lake spa retreat. While Bob relaxes in the soft alkaline waters of a shallow rock pool overlooking the lake, I book myself in for an Aix massage followed by a refreshing lavender and honey body polish. Feeling like a new person I rejoin Bob and we spend a blissfully quiet time watching the sun sinking over Mokoia Island, the setting for one of the greatest Maori love stories ever told.
Rotorua is rich with Maori folklore and legend and there’s no better way to gain a greater insight than to visit the Tamaki Maori village at Te Tawa Ngahere Pa. Here we experience Maori culture first hand with a traditional powhiri (welcome ceremony) before taking a journey back through time, experiencing the pre-European lifestyle and customs of the Maori through tribal songs, dances and activities. After an uplifting kapa haka (song and dance) performance, we all share in a traditional hangi meal, cooked on hot stones underground. It’s delicious and Bob, who had earlier expressed some reservations about “earthy food”, pronounces it divine and spends the evening debating the merits of earth ovens with Maori elders.
"Divine," I pronounce as we eat, seated on the shore, sharing a bottle of wine and watching the sunset, "I had no idea you were such a good cook!"
We welcome a slower start to the day, but I hurry Bob along somewhat as I have a special treat in store.
At 10 am we pull into the car park at Wai-O-Tapu, purchase tickets and join a small group seated at the Lady Knox geyser. “It only erupts once a day,” I say. We sit down to wait and after five minutes Bob’s beginning to fidget. After ten he strums his fingers on his knees. Finally he says: “We could be waiting all day.”
At 10.15 sharp a park ranger walks to the geyser and begins to tell her story. The Lady Knox was accidentally discovered in 1896 when prisoners washing their laundry were interrupted by a towering spray of water out of the ground. Now, every day at 10.15, the geyser is coaxed into action with Sunlight soap, much to the amazement of onlookers - including Bob, who waggles his finger at me as the hot soapy water spouts high.
After that, we take a walk through the park’s panoramic hot and cold pools, fumaroles and boiling mud, which display an amazing array of colours. For a time we sit beside the bubbling champagne pool with its impressive ochre-tinged edge.
Then we continue to Taupo and stop at the Prawn Farm in Wairakei Tourist Park, a geothermal- heated prawn farm where kiwi ingenuity is at its finest! Fresh water tropical prawns flourish here in recycled geothermal water from Wairakei Power Station. We take a short tour, then dine on freshly harvested prawns at its restaurant overlooking the Waikato River. NZ’s longest river, it begins its 425 kilometre journey to the sea from Lake Taupo where it pushes through a long narrow gorge before plunging over the Huka Falls. There are a number of good walks in the area but instead we opt for an exhilarating jetboat ride up to the base of the falls.
After collecting our car we visit the Taupo information centre which provides an exhaustive list of things to do: cruising on the lake to Maori rock carvings; taking a spin in a jet boat; parachuting; paraponting; playing golf; kayaking; sailing; windsurfing; fly fishing; bungy jumping; hiking and so the list goes on.
With so much on offer it almost seems sinful to relax, but relax we do, after first checking into our beachfront accommodation. Bob drags two deck chairs down onto Lake Taupo’s crisp pumice sands and here, against a stunning backdrop of snowy capped mountains in the Tongariro National Park, we watch everyone else’s energetic antics. Late in the day dinner comes courtesy of our hosts Tim and Jan, who on the spur of the moment decide to “throw the line in” from their runabout. Spotting us on the lakeshore they ask if we’d like to come along for the ride. Bob’s on board in a jiffy, getting soaked in the process such is his haste. I climb onboard too: rainbow and brown trout thrive in these parts and you’d be mad not to try your hand angling if given half a chance.
The boys throw the lines in and before long Bob’s rod bends tautly and the reel spins – it’s a strike! A beautiful rainbow trout leaps out of the water, bucking furiously. It puts on a good show, writhing two or three times before it tires and Bob gleefully pulls it aboard in the net.
“She’s a beauty,” says Tim, “A good seven pounds at least.” It’s a good fish alright, thick through the middle with a glossy coat. Bob’s delighted and after a quick grin at the camera, he carefully extracts the hook and slings his line back into the lake. “If I could catch trout like this at home I’d be a happy man,” he says.
Back on terra firma Tim carries the catch to a filleting table on the lake edge and we watch as he skilfully guts the fish. Its flesh is pink with an almost orange hue. Tim says this is unique to Lake Taupo as the fish feed on koura (native crayfish) which gives their flesh an apricot tone and an extra yummy almost salmon-like flavour.
While the trout smokes we enjoy a glass of wine or two (courtesy of Bob’s West Auckland wine-spending spree) and exchange fishy tales, then enjoy a meal of delectable smoked trout with fresh salad greens.
After a leisurely breakfast and a stroll along the lakeshore we set off bound for Napier on SH5, following a route forged in 1874 when a two-day Taupo-Napier Highway coach service began.
These days it takes around two hours. We make a stop at Waipunga Falls where there’s a parking area and viewing point. Bob takes a photo and then we continue to Tarawera which provided a resting point overnight for passengers taking the Taupo-Napier coach service. Comfort for the travellers included a soak in the hot sodium springs on the banks of the Waipunga River.
Before long we hit the orchards and vineyards of the Esk Valley where citrus fruit, avocados and grapes are grown, indicating that we’ve arrived in Hawke’s Bay. When we enter Napier itself, Bob is struck by the wealth of art deco and Spanish Mission style buildings. I relay the story of the 1931 earthquake and the subsequent rebuilding of the town in the modern architecture of the time.
We join an informative one-hour walking tour of the inner city’s buildings with Doreen Smith, a knowledgeable volunteer guide for the Art Deco Trust. Bob’s already pretty good at spotting the zigzags, sunbursts and fountain shapes that characterise the design of the period, but soon I’m like a professional too. Seeing how keen Bob is, Doreen recommends we return for one of the Art Deco Weekends held in February and July. It’s a time when folk polish their vintage cars, dress in their best art deco gear and take part in ‘bubbly’ breakfasts, café crawls, celebrity tea parties, and glitzy costume and coiffure competitions. Doreen’s already got a gorgeous frilly black skirt and black feather band lined up for the next event!
After a lunch of freshly made bagels at De Luca’s Café, we finish the day with a tractor and trailer ride out to the gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers. This is a nostalgic trip for me and although Bob’s not so keen “to take a bumpy beach ride” he soon gets into the spirit of things as our tractor and trailer set off in a convoy with two others along the beach.
Access to this unique gannet colony is available at low tide and we pass massive white sandstone cliffs en route. Our driver points out fragmented fault and tilt lines along the way which tell the story of the region’s many earthquakes.
We stop near the cape and walk uphill to where gannets – in their thousands – nest on a rocky plateau. An hour and a half is given to spend time viewing the birds before we board our trailer and journey back along the beach. On the return I share my vivid memories of this trip as a child with Bob as we bounce back towards Napier. The National Aquarium was another highlight that I remember clearly and I wonder out loud if we should visit tomorrow. “Perhaps,” says Bob distractedly as his tummy gives a distinctly loud growl, “but more importantly can you remember where you ate dinner?”