Whakatane to Rotorua Road Trip

inferno rotorua

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!"