You’ll smell Rotorua long before you see it, a peculiar sulphuric aroma that may provoke a loud “Euww! Who farted?” from the back seat. But then you draw closer, and start to see the steam hissing out of fissures in the landscape, the scattered lakes and waterfalls, the volcano peak of Mount Tarawera in the hazy distance, and—who cares about the smell?
Geothermals are what make Rotorua special, so head first for Te Puia, Hemo Road , an ancient site set in a rocky landscape full of mud pools and the prolific Pohutu Geyser, which shoots hot water up 16 to 20m (52–66 ft.), 10 to 25 times a day. At its heart is a replica of a Maori village—the population of Rotorua is about one-third Maori (New Zealand’s aboriginal peoples), and exhibits of Maori culture are one of the bigger tourism draws here. The other must-do in town is in Ngongotaha, a suburb halfway up Lake Rotorua’s western shore: Skyline Skyrides, Fairy Springs Road hauls you on a gondola up Mount Ngongotaha, then offers all sorts of thrilling ways to descend, from a chairlift to a bone-rattling luge track.
There are more geothermal sites south of town, a whole valley of steamy activity: I’d choose Wai-o-Tapu, a half-hour drive south on Hwy. 5, where you can see the Lady Knox Geyser (she erupts daily at 10:15am) and all sorts of intriguing pools, from the beautiful Champagne Pool to the arsenictinted Devil’s Bath to New Zealand’s largest bubbling mud pool.
The small village of Te Wairoa, or Bur-ied Village, on Tarawera Road, is Rotorua’s version of Pompeii, an excavated townscape dug out of the lava that destroyed it when Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886. Lots of artifacts discovered in the excavations are displayed at the museum on-site, but what’ll really bring this place alive for the kids is going from one excavated dwelling to another on a meandering pathway along a stream.
Since the 19th century, tourists have been coming to “take the waters” in the geothermal spas and springs. The elegantly restored Art Deco Blue Baths, in Government Gardens, now includes the Rotorua Museum , where a multimedia cinema recreates the experience of a volcanic eruption. The Polynesian Spa, Hinemoa Street , has lots of luxury soaking experiences, including a Family Spa section, where kids can frolic in the warm freshwater pool while adults relax in two adjacent hot mineral pools.