Winter, when international tourist numbers (and temperatures!) are at their lowest, is the perfect time to get acquainted with our very own geothermal action and underground warm water. But with a whole host of tours and tariffs to choose from, it can be a minefield deciding where to head first. That’s why we’ve simplified everything for you with this affordable tiki-tour around some of the best (and least known) sites.
Rotorua with a difference
Rotorua is on the itinerary of every tourist, which is why entry fees can be pricey, and the experiences less authentic than you might expect. So skip the big names, save your main geothermal tour until you leave town and, instead, take advantage of Rotorua’s many free-to-see sites.
One of the best places to smell the sulphur without opening your wallet is Rotorua’s Kuirau Park. Complete with walkways, picnic tables and nearby loos, it’s a completely free-access park with pleasant walking trails through steaming mud-pools and bubbling ponds (including one you can soak your feet in!). Access this spacious park at the northern end of Rotorua via Lake Road or Ranolf Street, and allow around 1.5 hours for the experience.
When you’re finished walking Kuirau park, take an arty tour with a difference by heading to Rotorua’s Sulphur Lake Sculpture Trail in the City’s historic Government Gardens. The sculptures, which are the result of a Sculpture Symposium, can be found in a tranquil, steaming native garden setting. Some, like ‘The Returning Soldier’, look out on a sulphur lake where convalescing soldiers from the Great War once soaked their weary limbs.
Splash out at Orakei Korako Thermal Park
We chose this geothermal park from among many for its pristine setting, varied landscape, and peaceful boat ride across Lake Ohakuri. Situated an hour south of Rotorua, it is best accessed via scenic Waikite Valley where the little known Department of Conservation geothermal gem Te Kopia Scenic Reserve can be found. Pull in at the quiet lay bye (discreetly signposted so look out for it carefully) and take the trail through the low native bush to discover some truly exciting underground activity. We can almost guarantee you will have the place to yourself!
Orakei park half an hour on, is accessed by boat (tickets available at the park’s stunning visitor centre overlooking the lake). A short ride over the water takes you to a deeply mysterious setting of hot-water algae, silica terraces, fiercely active pools, and small geysers (soda fountains) – the sort that are not controlled by a timer!
When it’s time to return, just signal your boat which will collect you from your private jetty and carry you back to the visitor centre for a welcoming coffee. If you feel like a warm paddle before you leave, dip your toes in the water at the edge of the lake close to the car park.
Old world charm and budget-bliss
Tokaanu, a tiny village steeped in Maoridom, awaits you at the southern end of Lake Taupo. Steam rises from the bush-clad hills above this little-known haven of geothermal activity, and the public swimming pool (very affordable and thermally heated) is situated right beside a charming free-access geothermal bush walkway. A range of accommodations are available in Tokaanu but if you’re not averse to a little rumptiness, don’t go past Oasis Motel and Holiday Park where 24/7 access to the mineral pool baths and private hot pools is guaranteed. What’s more, the camp’s simple twin rooms and shared bathrooms are all geothermally heated and cosy-as!