In the same way riders travelling to Cairns, Australia, build their holidays around off-bike tourism as much as on-bike adventures, Rotorua, New Zealand has enough to keep you, and your family and friends, happily busy for as long as you’re in town.
Whether you come for the riding, or have convinced your family to join you for a holiday that's conveniently located near some of the best trails in this world, there’s plenty to hype you up, calm you down, and blow your mind in this quickly expanding town.
Besides, no matter how much you love riding, at some point you have to come off the trails to sleep, eat and recharge your batteries. Here are a few suggestions for travellers on a modest budget.
1. Follow your nose (to volcanoes it goes!)
Rotorua is a hot spot of geothermal activity. Where ever you go bubbling mud, steaming water and wafts of sulphur air are never far away. This stuff is normal for locals, but as a tourist it will blow your mind in a similar way to the volcanic activity that causes it.
Waiotapu Thermal Wonderland is a 25-minute drive from town and one of the many places you can see the geothermal steamy bubbly-ness up close. This is the place to go to see countless colourful combinations of bubbling, boiling earth and take in the otherworldliness of the Rotorua landscape all in one spot.
For $NZ 32.50 an adult ($11 for children or $80 for two adults and three kids) you can walk around an unobtrusive, smartly signposted route which will keep you busy for a good couple of hours. On a rainy day, marvel at the extra mist that comes from the dense humid air. On a sunny one, the colours of the water and the earth are so bright you’ll think your eyes are playing tricks on you.
For a teaser, or if you’re driving past in a rush, you can pull off the road just before Waiotapu to see ponds of bubbling, burping mud. The sounds and patterns formed in this large, hot pond brings up vivid memories of the Bog of Eternal Stench from the Jim Henson movie, The Labyrinth (a movie I rented so much in the 90s that I wore out the video tape). Back in town, check out the walk around or through Sulphur Point or wander around Kuiaru Park, right in town. These three options are free.
2. Have a soak
After a long and energetic day, seek out a hot pool, or stream, and soak in naturally heated water. Kerosene Creek, is free to sit in and located at the bottom of Rainbow Mountain, about 30km from town. The access track to the top of Rainbow Mountain is shared between mountain bikers and walkers, and includes viewing platforms that show you how the mountain got its name. A fraction closer to Rotorua, turn down Waikite Road for the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools
For a more luxurious experience, check out the Polynesian Spa in town, a place with a history dating back to 1878. Here you can choose from multiple mineral pools filled with temperature controlled water from the Priest and Rachel Springs. The alkaline pools are good for your skin, while the more acidic water is good for muscles and joints.
The family pools are good value for kids at NZ$ 22 for adults, $9 for children or $45 for a family of four plus $5 for each extra child. This area includes a chlorinated pool and a slide. The adult area (NZ$27 per person) is great for those who want to relax without the excited frothing of the younger generation.
The Lake Spa is the primo experience, with each hot pool surrounded by a more natural looking landscape. At NZ$ 45 per person, the higher cost limits the crowds and includes locker hire, shampoo, a towel and unlimited time choosing between multiple pools.
I happily lost two hours at the Lake Spa, looking out at birds on Lake Rotorua while a cool, light drizzle sprinkled overhead. By the time I reached the showers my body felt so relaxed I could hardly lift my arms to use the value-adding shampoo.
Aim to arrive before 4pm to escape the crowds, or come at the end of the day and watch the sky change colour as you relax. The Polynesian Spa is open daily from 8am-11pm and offers luxury add-ons such as mud treatments and massages.
3. Support the local dairy industry
If you want to make a kiwi smile, tell them how much you love their dairy products. With a coffee culture to rival the Australian one, there are plenty of cafes to choose from around town. Take a photo of the sticker filled front door to Zippys and every mountain biker who has visited this town will know exactly where you are.
NZ dairy is so creamy and delicious it would be a shame not to enjoy as much of it as you can while you’re here. Drop into the supermarket and see how many flavours of ice cream you can get though in one visit.
4. Get crafty
While it’s known for its wine, New Zealanders also love their beer. Head to Eat Street at the lake end of town and grab a seat at Brew or CBK (Craft Beer & Kitchen), if you can find a free one. Both, conveniently, also serve food.
Abracadabra on Amohia Street has a few local brews on tap and lots of seating in an outdoor beer garden. The menu has something for everyone too.
5. Refuel for the next adventure
Over the last ten years, the number of restaurants and cafes in Rotorua has steadily grown. Go for a wander through town and see what spikes your fancy. For a quick heads up on interesting places you might not otherwise hear about, the Rotorua Hospitality Awards from 2014 and 2015 are a good place to start.
The Huevos rancheros at Abracadabra (eggs and cheese on top of delicious black beans) gets my vote for the most protein packed vegetarian dish you can find. South American restaurant, Sabroso on Haupapa Street is another great pick for the vegos, and offers excellent selection for omnivores too. You’ll have to book in advance for this one as it’s pretty popular and seating is limited.
5. Peak out / calm down
New Zealand wouldn’t be New Zealand without adrenaline-filled tourist activities everywhere you go. Rotorua offers plenty, from sky swings, to luging, to rolling down hills in gigantic, water-filled balls, most of which you’ll find out about from wandering through town.
My pick is rafting down the Kaituna River. This includes a seven metre drop down a waterfall, the highest offered by a commercial rafting trip. This option is a great one with friends and is offered by more than one company so keep looking if your chosen day is sold out.
Someone will be certain to GoPro it, but l recommend purchasing images afterwards and soaking up the whitewash while you’re floating down the river instead of stressing about whether your helmet-cam is on or off.
If adrenaline isn't for you, seek out other options such as the Te Puia Moari cultural centre, Whakarewarewa Thermal Village tours, Rotorua Duck Tours, fishing trips, or get up close to the animals at the Agrodome.
7. Explore the environment on foot
Rotorua and the surrounding region offers much to experience on foot. Close to town, two options stand out for the landscape and vegetation you see on the way.
The Rotorua Redwoods, which are famous for mountain biking, also have a number of walking tracks. Enter via the visitors' centre on Long Mile Road. It’s amazing what you see when you slow down and take your time, compared to the experiences had on a bike where your eyes are glued to the trail and you’re always in a rush to get to the next fun descent.
On the other side of the forest you’ll find Lake Tikitapu, or Blue Lake. There’s a walking track right the way around which you can experience as a loop or just head out part way and turn back when your ready. The lake is also nice for a cold, crisp swim. Great recovery for tired legs after a big day!
8. Have dinner at the Night Markets
Located on Tutanekai Street, the Night Markets pop up on Thursday evenings from 5-9pm. Buy some fresh bread, stock up on fruit and veg, and pick from a number of take away meals for around $NZ 10 or so.
Take your time as you meander through to get a sense of what Rotorua is like for people who live here. This is a strong, friendly community, and you’re bound to bump into someone who you’ve also seen out on the trails.
9. Take a day trip out of town
If you’ve hired a car, take a day trip to a nearby town. Every place offers its own unique attractions and adds to your sense of Kiwi art, life, landscape and culture.
Taupo is about 80km from Rotorua. In addition to a selection of mountain bike trails that will keep some people busy, you can add to this with a swim in the massive fresh water lake, browse the shops, or stand and marvel at the beautiful Huka Falls.
An hour or two’s drive east or west of Rotorua will bring you to the respective coastlines. Check out some of the worlds best surf or just take in the unique NZ coastal landscape. A great change of pace and outlook from the dense forest of Rotorua.
10. Choose your own adventure
This list is by no means exhaustive, and it doesn't take much imagination to fill each day in and around Rotorua with adventures, experiences and relaxation.
The natural landscape is rich in experiences, which are added to by the friendly, outdoor-loving kiwi culture. Where ever you go, take the time to chat with, and listen to, the people you meet along the way. It’s hard to beat a local tip off to somewhere you should seek out next.