Normally one tries to avoid getting themselves into hot water, but in Rotorua, it’s highly encouraged and people have been doing it here for centuries.
Chilly winter weather gives you the best excuse to take advantage of the abundance of geothermal hot pools and spas here, so pack your favourite swim gear and head to Rotorua for a toasty dose of relaxation and pampering.
Start at the beginning
Polynesian Spa (above) is the place to start – it’s where the geothermal bathing experience in New Zealand originated. As soon as you dip your toe in the water in one of the 28 hot pools along the edge of Lake Rotorua, you’ll see – and feel – why this place is world famous.
The spa’s geothermal hot mineral waters are sourced from two natural springs, giving you the option of relieving tired muscles, aches and pains in the slightly acidic Priest Spring waters, or nourishing your skin in the alkaline waters of the Rachel Spring. Of course, you can try both types, and add in a dip into the cold plunge pool for some rejuvenating hot-cold therapy.
Another very special place we love going to is Hell’s Gate (above), New Zealand’s only geothermal mud spa. Thanks to its beauty and the healing properties of the geothermal mud and waters, the Tikitere area where Hell’s Gate is located has been a destination for spa and nature seekers since 1871.
This Māori-owned valley is known as the fiercest of the geothermal areas, so plan plenty of time here as you’ll want to walk through the incredible geothermal park (with a guide or self-guided) before enjoying a soak in the unique mud bath followed by a hot soak in the mineral-rich waters of the hot pool.
No longer a secret
Compared to the historic Polynesian Spa and Hell’s Gate, Secret Spot Hot Tubs (pictured at top) is a newby but you wouldn’t know it by the popularity it’s experienced since opening in late 2019. It’s a favourite end-of-ride treat for mountain bikers, but it’s by no means exclusionary to non-riders – all are welcome.
If you have just a short time to spend relaxing, do it here by reviving your feet and lower legs in what might be the world’s first Shinny Dip. Shinny Dipping is free with the purchase of a beverage, and in winter Secret Spot has their famous mulled wine at the ready, as well as barista-made coffee, hot tea, and a selection of cold drinks both alcoholic and not.
If you’ve got more time to spend here, book yourself in for a beautiful soak in your own fresh-water cedar hot tub. Each of the dozen tubs is screened from the others with cleverly positioned native trees and shrubs on three sides, and Whakarewarewa Forest along the back, giving you the sense of being in the middle of nowhere. And yet, tub-side service is available at the press of a button.
When getting there is half the fun
Two more Rotorua lakes have hot springs along the water’s edge but these are a bit tricky to get to. Lucky for you, we know people with boats and floatplanes!
To arrive with a splash, book either Volcanic Air’s floatplane (above, on the left) tour or Katoa Lake Rotorua’s jetboat tour, both of which start on Lake Rotorua and deliver you to the secluded Manupirua Springs Hot Pools on Lake Rotoiti. These pools, located right on the edge of the lake and surrounded by native bush, are only accessible by boat or floatplane, making them and the bay a very special place to visit.
There are a few other methods on the water to get to these hot pools, but one quite special option is aboard Tiua, a luxurious 53-foot sailing catamaran (above, right) operated by Pure Cruise. Tiua is moored on Lake Rotoiti near VR Rotorua Lake Resort, ready for exclusive private charters that allow you to discover this stunning lake and its rich cultural history and birdlife. Pure Cruise also operates a direct water taxi service, taking just 20 minutes to get you to your hot pool fix.
Lake Tarawera is the other lake with a geothermal beachfront. Te Rātā Bay is home to Hot Water Beach, and is accessible only on foot or by water. Totally Tarawera offers a water taxi service directly to and from the beach, as well as a variety of eco tours that include going ashore for a geothermal soak. If you choose to get there under your own steam, the 15km Tarawera Trail takes fit trampers five to six hours one way. You can camp overnight and walk back out when you’re ready, or pre-book pick up via Totally Tarawera or another one of Volcanic Air’s floatplane tours.
If you love a good ole country drive, just head south of the city on State Highway 5. You’ll quickly find yourself surrounded by forest blocks, then sprawling green farmland alternating. About 25km from the city, you’ll see the historic Waiotapu Tavern, turn right here onto Waikite Valley Road to get to Waikite Valley Thermal Pools (above). These pools are another local fave as they’re more off the beaten path and set in a gorgeous, relaxing rural location. Here, several hot pools await, including one for younger kids who enjoy a good splash. Take a few minutes first to unwind by wandering down Te Manaroa Spring Walkway and Eco-Trail onsite to the largest single source of boiling water in New Zealand.
With all these options, you might need a week to take advantage of them all. Or savour the experiences over several trips. Which one would you start with?