Rotorua is a small town on a nice lake. Its popularity stems from its convenience to many North Island attractions. For us, this meant trips out of Rotorua to geothermal sites, traditional Maori villages, and the Hobbiton movie set.
Day 1 – Wednesday, March 4, 2015
The drive to Rotorua from Waitomo was lovely. Rotorua isn’t a city like I expected, but more of a small town. The streets are wide and are lined with parking. There aren’t many tall buildings and there seems to be a lot of green space in the walkable areas of Rotorua City Center. I suspect that Rotorua was built for tourists. The streets are full of jewelery shops and cafes.
We found our hostel, Downtown Backpackers, quickly. They showed us to our private room with a shared bath ($40 NZD/night). The hostel was surprisingly nice with a large common room, courtyard with a grill, and free kitchen. Our only complaint was the poor wifi. They also were able to direct us to free parking close by. We had almost two hours to kill, so we walked through part of town looking for a snack. We eventually ended up at the Lakefront, which was lovely despite the overcast day.
At 4:15pm we had to be at the Tamaki Maori Village office to be picked up for the dinner show we had booked. The Tamaki dinner show ($110 NZD/person) is New Zealand’s most awarded cultural attraction. Tamaki is a village of Maori people who try to keep alive their traditions and educate others. When we arrived to the village, we (and other 100 people) were greeted with a formal welcome that included Te Wero, the peace challenge. Maori warriors in traditional facepaint and costumes preformed dances until a peace offering was made and accepted. During this part of the show, everyone was asked to be serious and not to smile. As soon as it was completed we were welcomed to relax, smile and enjoy the rest of the evening. The Maori’s friendliness was infectious throughout the night and made it easy to have fun.
The next part of the evening was dedicated to learning about the Maori traditions. Stations were set up and we were directed between them to learn about the culture. The stations included discussing games, weaving, carving, training, and war dancing. The stations were always looking for volunteers and Jon and I both participated several times. First, I played some of the traditional games which I am proud to say that I won. Next Jon joined a few men in running through some training exercises, which was similar to running through tires. The highlight of Jon’s participation was at the next station where he was taught a war dance which ended in making intimidating faces by sticking out your tongue and grunting. Finally I tried ‘poi’ twirling which wasn’t nearly as easy as it looked.
From the stations we were led to cooking area where we watched them remove our dinner vegetables and meats from large earth ovens, or hangi, where they are cooked.
Before eating, we were taken to the meeting house where the tribe preformed some traditional dances, songs, and demonstrations. Finally it was time to eat our dinner. The buffet included lamb, chicken, fish, salad, potatoes, carrots, bread and desserts. (Although drinks were not included). At the end of the night the bus brought us back to our hotel.
Day 2 – Thursday, March 5, 2015
We had a rushed morning after our alarm didn’t go off. Still, we were up before 8:30 to get ready for the day. Our first activity was the Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, an area of thermal activity including geysers, hot springs, and mud pools. Wai-O-Tapu is about a 25 minute drive from Rotorua and our goal was to arrive there early because at 10:15am daily the Lady Knox Geyser erupts.
Arriving at Wai-O-Tapu, we were directed to the ticket counter in the visitor center ($32.50 NZD) and then told to get back into our car and drive to the geyser. A small amphitheater of benches was set up around the geyser cone. At 10:20am a ranger came out to talk about safety and a bit about the Lady Knox Geyser which was discovered by a prison nearby. The geyser erupted when a few prisoners were using soap to wash clothes in the geyser cone. To ‘activate’ the geyser, the ranger poured a bag of soap into the geyser. He said that the geyser would naturally erupt every 24-72 hours, but that using soap to disrupt the surface tension was how they ensured a daily eruption. To us this made the geyser seem like more of a tourist attraction than a natural phenomenon. While the eruption was a nice sight, but wasn’t quite Old Faithful.
After the eruption we stopped briefly for breakfast at the park’s deli, then we started into the thermal area. Wai-O-Tupa has 3km of walkways that take you past the features open to the public, not that dissimilar to the Upper Geyser Basin in Yellowstone. We walked the entire length, which takes you past 25 numbered areas. The most famous feature is The Champagne Pool, a large spring outlined in a bright orange crust. We also really enjoyed the Devil’s Bath, a pool of vibrate green water. The entire area smelled of sulfur. On the way out of the park, there is one driving stop at Mud Pool, a pool of popping and blopping mud.
We took a rest back at the hotel, and grabbed a quick bite to eat before our next activity. We had 5pm tickets for Hobbiton ($110 NZD with transportation or $75 without). We weren’t sure if Hobbiton was something we’d want to do since we typically stick to more natural attractions, but Hobbiton gets great reviews. It was a 45 minute drive and we made it just in time for our tour. Hobbiton was built on an active sheep farm, so tour buses are needed to access the set. Hobbiton is the actual movie set used for the exterior shots of hobbit holes for the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies. What surprised us the most is the extent of the set. Over 40 separate hobbit holes were built and configured like a town with real ponds and vegetable gardens. Exploring Hobbiton town was fun, and you could tell that a lot of time and effort went into making the holes. For us the only disappointment was that you can’t enter the holes. (None of the holes have an interior beyond a few feet, but tours are limited to only opening one door).
The highlight of Hobbiton is Bilbo’s house, Bag End, but the town also features Sam’s home, the cart path Gandalf rode down, and the party ground used for Bilbo’s birthday. Across the lake is the Green Dragon Tavern which the tour company expanded and actually serves drinks and food at, including one complimentary drink.
By the time we started to get hungry it was late, and like other areas of New Zealand, we found that restaurants in Rotorua shut their kitchens early. We ended up eating at the Pig and Whistle, a bar in a historic old police station. The bar had a band playing and the food we were served was huge and yummy.
Day 3 – Friday, March 6, 2015
We got on the road at 10am when we had to be checked out of our hostel in Rotorua. Our first stop was just into town for a quick breakfast for Jon (Alexis still had leftovers from the large meal the night before). For breakfast we went to Caper, an organic restaurant we had seen advertised, then we started the 5 hour drive to Wellington.