Culture Trip's Guide to Rotorua, New Zealand

Whitewater rafters paddle over rapids along Kaituna River on summer afternoon
Whitewater rafters paddle over rapids along Kaituna River on summer afternoon | © WorldFoto / Alamy Stock Photo
Chloe Byrne

Rotorua sits on the North Island of New Zealand – a hotbed of geothermal activity where plumes of steam fountain from geysers and bubbles burst on the surface of thick mud pools. It is the place to learn about Maori culture on an immersive tour, get lost in an enchanting ancient rainforest or stroll around the banks of a sprawling lake before crashing in a rustic hotel with nature on its doorstep.

Where to stay

1. The Backyard Inn

Budget Hotel, Hostel, Camping

Courtesy of The Backyard Inn / Expedia

A collection of mint-coloured chalets and timber-walled lodge rooms, the Backyard Inn sits a short stroll from the steaming mud pools of Kuirau Park. Staying here is ideal if you’re a backpacker looking to save the pennies for eye-opening Maori tours; this budget-friendly inn comes with a geothermal kidney-shaped pool, communal lounge and kitchen, along with a cafe serving continental breakfast. For sleeping options, you can choose from shared bunk-filled dorms or snug four-bedroom bungalows with private balconies.

2. Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort

Resort, Spa Hotel

Courtesy of Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort / Expedia

Wai Ora, which translates as “healing waters”, overlooks the rippling expanse of Lake Rotorua, and it certainly lives up to its name. Choose from a restorative experience in the spa, such as a Maori-inspired massage treatment, or soak in the solar-heated pool while listening to the rush of the nearby spring-fed trout stream. The colder lagoon-style pool, fringed by craggy rocks and bushy plants, comes complete with loungers so you can sunbathe while reading the latest thriller. If you have romance in mind, treat yourself to the Lakeview Superior Suite and order a candlelit dinner on your private balcony.

3. Treetops Lodge and Estate

Eco Hotel

Courtesy of Treetops Lodge / Expedia

Hidden among native bushland and tangled primeval forest, Treetops Lodge & Estate feels as if you’ve stumbled into Jurassic Park. No dinosaurs here, though – just roaming deer and streams filled with trout. Behind the wood-carved doors you’ll find a pool table with mounted stag heads on the wall; bedrooms come with stone fireplaces, Nespresso machines and French doors that open onto the surrounding wilderness. Wake up to the melody of bellbirds and sip on coffee in bed, before lacing up your walking boots and setting off through trees laced with dewy mist to the otherworldly Bridal Veil Falls.

What to do

4. Take a guided horse-trekking tour

Natural Feature

Explore the rolling hills, tangled bushland and mirror-like lakes of Rotorua on horseback. The countryside is home to many stables offering horse-trekking tours; most take you deep into the idyllic foothills of Mt Ngongotaha. Once you’ve met your horse, pulled on a riding hat and saddled up, follow a guide along winding trails to see Instagram-worthy sights such as Lake Rotorua. There are tours for all abilities – whether you fancy a thundering gallop across pristine farmland or a gentle plod up sloping fields.

5. Immerse yourself in Whirinaki Forest

Natural Feature, Park

© National Geographic Image Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

The ancient Whirinaki Forest is one of the last prehistoric rainforests in the world, with 1,000-year-old trees towering above the root-twisted floors. Wander through beams of dappled sunlight that pierce through the thick canopy, kick up dirt mountain biking down one of the many serpentine tracks and rocket through the treetops on a breath-stealing zipline. Wildlife lovers will want to bring binoculars to glimpse the rare birdlife – watch and listen out for the call of brown kiwi, yellow-crowned kākāriki and blue ducks known as whio.

6. Go whitewater rafting down the Kaituna River

Natural Feature

© Ben Lewis / Alamy Stock Photo

Get your adrenaline racing on the frothing falls of the Kaituna River. One for the thrillseekers, whitewater rafting is like a rollercoaster ride – balancing breath-stealing drops down waterfalls with quieter paddles through calm waters. Feel the gritty spray of gushing chutes as you navigate the Class 5 rapids of the Kaituna River, and hold on tight when you reach the 6.5m (21ft) drop of Tutea Falls, the highest commercially rafted waterfall in the world. Every adventure will be preceded by safety briefs and training sessions so you’ll feel confident before embarking on these fierce waters.

Where to eat

7. Picnic Cafe

Cafe, Authentic

Whether you’re after a hearty breakfast, midday munch or quick coffee pit stop, Picnic Cafe has you covered. Head inside to find white-wire light fixtures, lime-green walls and handmade tapestries, and tuck into stomach-rumbling stacks of sausages, eggs and bacon. On balmy days, pull up a seat on the shaded patio and gulp down thick milkshakes topped with foamy whips of cream, while breathing in the fragrance of vibrant flower beds.

8. Atticus Finch

Restaurant, Contemporary, Vegetarian, Vegan, Gluten-free

The aromas of spice-rubbed lamb, salt-crust pork belly and miso-buttered prawns waft from the kitchen of Atticus Finch, slap bang in the middle of Rotorua’s “Eat Streat”. The speakeasy-meets-bistro, themed around To Kill a Mockingbird, welcomes you in with an open front and retractable awning that extends onto the pavement outside. Thanks to the town’s geothermal underfloor heating you can have toasty feet while dining year-round. Wash down your shared plates with To Kill a Mockingbird-inspired cocktails like the Miss Maudie – a concoction of rum, honey-spiced juice, ginger and coconut cream.

9. Pig and Whistle

Pub, Pub Grub, Contemporary, European

Starting life as a police station in 1940, the Pig & Whistle cuts a bold image on Rotorua’s main street, with plaster-cast Maori motifs and a royal coat of arms cut in stone above the entrance. Now, the historic red-brick building houses a popular pub where live bands perform each weekend and locals dig into traditional grub such as lamb burgers, seafood chowder and pork spare ribs. Sports fans can catch the game on the big screen TV while downing citrusy pale ales from Moa Brewing Company; a percentage of every sale goes towards supporting local trusts and clubs.

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