Rotorua is alive. Steam bursts from vents in the footpaths and hangs above the hot spots of lake and land. Whiffs of hydrogen sulphide punctuate the air and a constant stream of tourists mill, creating an ever-present energy in the town.
Tourism operations have been abundant in the area since the 1800s when it first became a spa town; access to Te Otukapuarangi and Te Tarata, the Pink and White Terraces, were controlled by the Tuhourangi people until the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera destroyed the natural attraction.
It’s clear very quickly upon arrival in this Bay of Plenty town why so many choose to visit. Like the active thermal land on which Rotorua sits, there is a growing undercurrent in the bubbling energy of the permanent residents. It’s a place undergoing a reinvention. The creative community is beginning to forge a new city that resonates strongly with the arts, as well the countless natural attractions for which it has been known for so long.
New eateries, galleries and artists’ collectives can be found all over; the central city is brimming with a new breed of cultural outlet run by young creatives, and its outskirts are no exception. From sculptor Joe Kemp’s stunning outdoor Te Haa Gallery on the slopes of Lake Rotomahana to the Okere Falls Store’s organic and artisan products, there’s much to savour.
The night markets (every Thursday evening) are a great way to meet the makers and taste seasonal fare and gourmet offerings, and peruse the work of local artists and craftsmen.
There’s another new breed of luxury spa experiences too, such as the Black Swan, which takes the pampering of body and soul to a new level.
When the locals aren’t busy working, they’re out on the lakes, making the most of the stunning mountainous surrounds, cycling the world-class mountain bike trails or enjoying the thermal mineral spas along with the tourists who help drive the economy.
ROTORUA INSIDER’S GUIDE
EAT & DRINK
Bistro1284: Consistently award winning, this restaurant is not to be missed, thanks to its intimate feel and innovative food concoctions and fusions.
Mokoia: Serving Pacific Rim cuisine infused with indigenous herbs and spices, this Holden’s Bay eatery is one worth visiting.
Volcanic Hills Winery: While the grapes aren’t from the Bay of Plenty region, Volcanic Hills makes and bottles its wine in Rotorua and you’ll experience amazing views at its hillside tasting rooms.
Brew: Home to the full range of locally crafted Croucher beers, Brew also offers a selection of other Kiwi craft beers, along with delicious pub-style meals.
Peppers on the Point: Fine dining is at its best at this eatery run by award-winning chef Craig Martin.
Stratosfare: Renovated in 2014, this eatery atop the Skyline Gondola is now decorated with an extensive array of David Trubridge lamps as well as sweeping lake and mountain vistas.
GALLERIES AND SHOPS
Elim Gallery: Run by local sculptor and painter Joshua Robbins, Elim Gallery is filled with the work of the country’s most celebrated up-and-coming artists, as well as Robbins’ own work.
The Living Room Collective: A collaboration between a group of local makers, this boutique store is stocked with vintage, handcrafted and new fashion, art and design.
Te Haa Gallery: About a 40-minute drive from central Rotorua, the stunning open-air gallery owned by contemporary Maori sculptor Joe Kemp is a hidden gem.
Ahu Boutique: Run by local fashion designer Adrienne Whitewood (see page 122), this chic Eruera Street store offers the latest in her indigenous-inspired designs.
Okere Falls Store: Head to Lake Rotoiti to experience this locals’ haunt, popular for its organic and artisan products, beer garden and lakeside setting.
The Blue Baths: This bathhouse originally opened in 1933 and blends Spanish Mission and Art Deco architecture. After a refurbishment, its geothermally heated freshwater pools retain their heritage charm and operate alongside a museum.
Rotorua Night Markets: Every Thursday (5-9pm), Tutanekai Street comes to life with scores of sellers offering everything from ethnic cuisine to local produce, art and crafts.
Rotorua Museum: As well as its permanent and touring exhibitions, this building – once a world-famous spa – is a must; the mud bath basement and attic are open to the public and provide a unique insight into the Elizabethan design.
Treetops Lodge and Estate: Set in virgin native forest, Treetops offers secluded luxury accommodation; the lodge and restaurant provide a breathtaking retreat amid 2500 acres of wilderness.