For an adventure into a land of gorgeous lakes, Mars-like volcanic landscapes and fascinating history, Rotorua, New Zealand should be top of the list. Rotorua has long been a popular place to travel to, as a hot spot of geothermal activity (geddit?), a place rich in Maori culture and heritage, and, in more recent years, an adventure hub. With steaming, bubbling mud pools that are utterly out of this world, it’s a playground for kids and grown ups alike.
There’s no shortage of things to do in Rotorua with the family, you’ll just have to get used to the smell. Don’t worry, it’s not actually rotten eggs, but the fact that you’re deep in geyser land. Take the kids for a wander around the shores of Lake Rotorua or one of its surrounding lakes, experience a living Maori village or indulge in an afternoon at a Polynesian spa. Explore Wai O Tapu thermal park, see the Redwood Forest, or crank it up a notch and go white water rafting down the Kaituna river and Tutea Falls.
First things first. How do you say Rotorua?
Rotorua is a Māori name, with ‘roto’ meaning two and ‘rua’ meaning lake, or second lake. It’s pronounced “Row-tuh-roo-ah”, and Lake Rotorua is actually the largest of the lakes in the area.
How do I get to Rotorua?
Rotorua’s location in the middle of the North Island makes it a piece of cake to get to. Get a bus from Auckland, Wellington, Taupo, or any major town. There is an airport as well, though it’s a regional one and flights can be expensive – you’d be better getting a flight from wherever you are in New Zealand to Auckland and then getting the bus. A road trip is way more fun, anyway, and you’ll take in way more of the epic New Zealand scenery along the way.
How far away is Rotorua from Auckland?
Driving from Auckland to Rotorua takes about 3 hours – the perfect length of time to dream up exactly how you want to spend the rest of the day. Fancy your feet up as you soak in the hot springs, mud pools, or in a Polynesian spa? Or maybe tuckering the kids out on one of the many adventure activities Rotorua has to offer sounds like a better way to spend the afternoon. The world is your volcanic oyster.
Why does it sometimes smell like rotten eggs?
Ah, Rotorua’s single downfall (or endearing quirk?). Almost every visitor leaps out of the bus, takes in their surroundings with a wide grin, before the pong hits and their face screws up in disgust. It’s okay, there’s no out of control sewerage situation in Rotorua; the rotten egg smell is thanks to all the sulphur spewing from the many, many thermal bubbling mud pools. Give it a few days and you might even come to like it.
Top 10 Family-Friendly Activities in Rotorua:
1. Waitomo Glowworm Caves
These aren’t technically in Rotorua, but they’re one of the most spectacular attractions to see in the North Island, if not New Zealand. It’s a trip like no other, gliding through a subterranean world lit up by constellations of glow worms. They’re remarkable little things, as you’ll soon come to see. The guided tours are popular, and for good reason – the guides really know their shit and can tell you all about the worms, limestone formations and stalactites and stalagmites, as well as the stories and legends of the caves.
To take the Waitomo adventure to the next level, sign the family up for black water rafting. Heard of white water rafting? Well, this is that, but in a cave, with a tube. As far as activities go, it’s got all the ingredients for guaranteed fun: 80-metres below ground, rafting in tubes through underground rapids, jumping off waterfalls and floating below a sky of glow worms. For an above ground white water rafting adventure, head for the Kaituna river, closer to Rotorua.
2. Government Gardens
This oasis of peace in the middle of a bubbling, geyser-filled lunar landscape is one of Rotorua’s hidden gems. The land for this colonial-style garden was originally a gift to the crown from Ngāti Whakaue, the local iwi, with the idea being for its thermal waters to become a health spa. Wander with the family and see ancient trees, like multi-trunked Japanese firs and Californian weeping redwood, before settling in for some frisbee or a picnic. It’s free to visit, too, and equally free guided tours depart from in front of the Museum at designated times every day of the week.
3. Redwoods Forest Treewalk
Suspended walkways and bridges weave through the magnificent, ancient canopy of the Redwood Forest, which makes for one of Rotorua’s best attractions and heaps of fun for the family. See the magic and majesty of 75 metre tall giants, from right up the top.
How long does the Redwoods Treewalk take?
The treetrop walk through the forest canopy takes about 40 minutes on average, but feel free to take your time and soak in the peaceful energy of these gentle giants.
For Lord of the Rings fans, it doesn’t get much better than Hobbiton. The movie set, which you can take a guided tour of, is actually built into the hills of a working sheep farm. From the movie set tour, it just gets better and more extravagant; take the Evening Banquet Tour, or come for the Mid Winter Feast. For true die-hard fans, don’t miss International Hobbit Day, or for a fun combination of craft beer and Lord of the Rings, hit the Hobbiton Beer fest.
Is Hobbiton free?
Nope, fandom comes at a price, unfortunately. You’ve got to book a guided tour and the tickets are around $80, or $40 for a youth.
5. Rotorua Museum
Rotorua Museum is one of the best rainy day family activities. Learn about the rich Maori culture of the area, discover the history of its extraterrestrial thermal landscape, and take their tours to see the Government Gardens. For information on opening hours, events and exhibitions, head to the Destination Rotorua website.
6. Waimangu Volcanic Valley
Take a walk through the thermal wonderland of Waimangu Volcanic Valley, one of the youngest geothermal parks in the world. The untouched geothermal valley was created 130 years ago when the nearby Mount Tarawera erupted. It’s an adventure that lets you see how the world began, in all its bubbling glory, and if you take a guided tour, they’ll immerse you in stories of the dramatic eruption.
Rotorua’s surreal volcanic landscape makes it a completely unique travel experience, and while you’re here, you may as well explore all the geothermal delights on offer. The world famous Wai O Tapu geothermal park, for example, is unbeatable. With a geyser that spits up to 12 metres in the air, mud springs and a massive geothermal park, the volcanic activity of Wai O Tapu is fun for the whole family to explore.
Te Puia is another of the top attractions in Rotorua. It’s home to New Zealand’s largest active geyser, Pōhutu Geyser, as well as the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute. Te Puia is a sprawling wonderland, offering geothermal walks, an insight into Maori craft and culture and a zone just for kids. Visit their Kiwi Conservation Centre, or explore the geysers by night with their star lit guided evening tours.
7. Whakarewarewa Maori Village
New Zealand’s Living Maori Village, Whakarewarewa is a center point of the Maori cultural heritage that Rotorua is known for. It’s home to the Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao people, who have been sharing their unique culture and way of life with visitors from all around the world for over two hundred years. Many guides can trace their ancestry back to the original Te Arawa people who first occupied the Rotorua valley.
The Whakarewarewa village is owned and operated by local residents, and visitors can experience day to day life and culture as well as powerful Maori performances. There’s even a campground at Hot Water Beach, on the shores of Lake Tarawera, where you can dig for your own hot pools.
Of course, it wouldn’t be Rotorua without an abundance of geothermal features, and this village is a great place to learn about the marriage of these with Maori folklore. It’s thought that when the Goddesses of fire, Te Hoata and Te Pupu, travelled from Hawaiki in the form of fire, they created New Zealand’s volcanoes, mud pools, geysers and hot springs to relieve their brother’s chills. Today, their path through Te Whakarewarewa Valley remains alive and visible.
Hear myths and stories galore on one of the guided tours of the village. If you travel to experience the local culture as well as the natural wonders, this is the best place to come – and bring the kids.
8. Sulphur Bay Wildlife
Steaming and weird, this volcanic playground is one of the lesser explored things to do in Rotorua. Explore these man-made wetlands atop of a floating boardwalk, along the south-eastern corner of Lake Rotorua, where unique plant life and threatened birds have adapted in order to survive in the harsh environment.
Within walking distance of Rotorua city centre, visit mighty steam vents, boiling hot pools and the Purenga Stream. Have some fun picking out the bird species with kids, like the nationally threatened New Zealand dabchick, banded dotterel, and black-billed gull.
Is smelling Sulphur bad for you?
It can make people feel queasy, but there’s nothing actually wrong with it at all. If fact, like we said, you might eventually come to like the iconic Rotorua smell.
9. Kaharoa Conservation Area
This one’s about 30km north of Rotorua, and is renowned for the endangered and beloved kōkako bird. You can walk the Kōkako Track (for free) through native bush to the gorgeous Onaia Stream.
10. Tarawera Trail
This solid hike is fun for the kids, an amazing way to experience Lake Tarawera, and is another of the free activities in Rotorua. Walk along the lake front and through native bush before reaching the Hot Water Beach campsite, where you can stay the night or get zipped back by water taxi.
As a wondrous and completely unique destination, Rotorua should be the first place in New Zealand to bring the kids. The lakes are free to explore, the hot springs ever inviting, a spa always at the ready and the geysers constantly bubbling.
This article is included in Twinkl’s Keeping Children Healthy campaign, and is part of their article Some great tips to keep your children healthy in 2021.