Spas and speedboats in Rotorua
It's that time of year when long holiday weekends are few and far-between and the weather isn't exactly playing ball.
Throw in moving to a new city and we really needed a break.
My wife and I didn't have the time for a holiday in the islands or Australia - you really need more than a weekend for that - so when the opportunity to spend some time at a luxury spa retreat in Rotorua came up, we jumped at it.
The idea was a winter weekend break with a touch of luxury and outdoor thrills - just what the doctor ordered.
I hadn't been to Rotorua for years, so was keen to re-acquaint myself with the city of boiling mud and hot springs.
What we found was a place that had put a new twist on old favourites, and a world-leading spa.
On arrival at the Polynesian Spa it was easy to see why it has a world-class status. Getting a spa treatment on top of just relaxing in the waters reinforced this.
The spa offers a multitude of packages, from a plain old soak to full-on mud wraps, spa and massage therapies.
You can relax in the family spa, the seven different mineral spas of the adult pools and priest spa, or the standard and deluxe private pools.
We began our weekend at the Lake spa – a special area overlooking the lake, with four pools at increasing temperatures: 36 – 42 degrees.
This is included in the treatment packages but is worth doing on its own - you can relax in the pools or lie back on one of the heated recliner seats.
The bathing pools are open from 8am until 11pm each night (and the spa therapies between 10am and 7pm) which is quite useful if you've got an otherwise full day.
The package we chose was the Rotorua mud body wrap - an hour-long session of pampering involving locally-sourced thermal mud.
You can do the packages either by yourself or with a partner, as in our case.
Wearing the bathrobes supplied, two staff ushered us into the spa treatment room, which was set up with two massage tables, side by side.
The spa treatment itself was excellent. Exfoliation – which turned out to be like a very relaxing massage, followed by a mud "polish" and the mud wrap itself – described as "a purifying mud polish followed by a full-body wrap using our Rotorua thermal mud mask".
Frankly, they could have called it anything they wanted, it was so relaxing: warm mud, followed by being wrapped in towels to keep in the warmth. We blissfully zoned out.
After what seemed like a long period of just lying there, enjoying the warmth, we were ushered to a set of showers in a joint cubicle to wash off the mud, before returning to the massage tables.
The final phase of the treatment was the application of moisturiser.
We were then ushered into a private lounge looking out over the spas to the lake, where guests can relax with a variety of teas, magazines, or just enjoy the view.
In this lounge we met a couple from Tauranga. It was their fourth time here - they drive to Rotorua every so often for a relaxing weekend, trying a different massage each time.
At up to $165 per person getting a spa treatment isn't cheap, but it was excellent - and there's always the option of spending time soaking in one or two of the many pools at the spa, which is great by itself.
SPA TREATMENTS: The spa offers two main "signature" services – our mud wrap, and a Rotorua thermal mud polish and Aix spa massage combo. You can also get seven different therapies and wraps – from a stress therapy package to an aromatherapy massage; three body scrubs and three facials.
Most are an hour long, but there are 45-minute packages as well as a 30 minute back treatment. Prices range from $85 to $165 per person.
MORE INFORMATION: polynesianspa.co.nz
After spending the day getting a luxurious pampering, it was time for a bit of the outdoors.
We spent our second morning racing down the Waikato River in a jet boat and doing The Squeeze, an adventure trip run by New Zealand Riverjet which was also featured on The Bachelor.
The company operates a variety of jet boat adventures from their base halfway between Rotorua and Taupo, and The Squeeze is one of their most popular offerings. We'd worked out it involved a jet boat - but that was about all we knew when we turned up.
At their base, we were given wetsuits, rash vests, and crocs, and led down to the boat by our driver, Adam.
The trip would involve jet boating down the Waikato river to the Orakei Korako geothermal area, where we would drop off other passengers who were doing the thermal safari trip (a walk through the area, full of mud pools and hot springs), and then carry on to The Squeeze itself.
We would then return to base at high speed, with the boat doing Shotover-like close passes to the banks and jet-boat spins.
The boat was large, comfortable and silly-grin-inducingly powerful.
It was handled deftly by Adam, who slowed down in parts to tell us about the river and its history, Maori tribes and chiefs who inhabited parts of it - and the ensuing battles - as well as folklore.
With the Thermal Safari passengers dropped off, the rest of us powered on to a small bay which contained a stream feeding into the river.
At this point, Adam anchored the boat and ordered us to jump over the side.
Now it was a sunny day, but still winter, so it was pretty surprising to find the water was warm when we jumped in. It was, of course, heated by a thermal spring.
As we walked up the stream, through the native bush, it narrowed - and the banks rose. At its narrowest point it was literally a squeeze to get through - hence the name of the trip.
Once through The Squeeze we'd find something great, Adam said.
As the Waikato river is controlled by hydro dams, the water level can vary considerably - so the depth of the water through The Squeeze can be either knee-high, or head-high. When we did it, it was head-high.
This turned out to be pretty good actually - you could, if you wanted to, float along parts of the still-shallow stream (more accurately described as a warm bath) - made easy by the buoyancy of the wetsuits.
This also meant making our way along The Squeeze was easy too - with the one proviso that the wetsuits made your legs quite buoyant also, and if you leant too far forward they would shoot up behind you... usually into the face of the unfortunate person behind you!
Sure enough, after going through the Squeeze there was something special - a pair of thundering warm waterfalls. Each of us took several turns sitting beneath them.
There's no words to accurately describe sitting and having your back and head massaged by a torrent of warm water. It was fantastic.
Through The Squeeze and back, with the Thermal Safari passengers picked up again, it was time for the high-speed run back to base.
This is really what the boat is designed for and it didn't disappoint, with Adam threaded us around islands and came ever-so-close to banks of reeds, trees overhanging the river and obstacles jutting out of the current.
It's also seemingly able to twist on a dime, doing four "Hamilton jet spins" - the watery equivalent of a car doing a donut - which are addictively fun.
EXPERIENCES: New Zealand Riverjet offer a number of rides including The Squeeze, at $145 per person, the Riverjet Thermal Safari at $159, and the Riverjet Scenic Safari at $125.
MORE INFORMATION: riverjet.co.nz
WIKITORIA MAORI HEALING
Our final stop of the weekend was Wikitoria Maori Healing.
Situated in a picturesque setting on the shore of Lake Rotorua (they have now moved across to Okere Falls) the healing centre is run by Wikitoria Oman.
Oman specialises in Romiromi and Mirimiri, which are a combination relaxing massage, deep tissue massage, body alignment, and pressure on key body points, or haemata, to release blocked energy.
These are part of the practice of traditional Maori healing which has been around for a very long time - in fact based on universal principles dating back 4000 years, Oman says.
You can go for a session for an existing issue or simply to be re-invigorated.
My session began with a questionnaire and discussion about what I thought the time should focus on.
Oman explained what she was going to do in the massage, and again during it, explained what was being done and why.
Mirimiri was the relaxing massage and talk that led into Romiromi.
Romiromi - body alignment, deep tissue massage and stimulation of pressure points or haemata, was at times a challenge as I had more than a few muscle knots - so there were a few things to work on.
By the time the session had ended, however, I was so relaxed I almost went to sleep.
MASSAGE THERAPY TREATMENTS: There are eight massage therapy treatments available, ranging from Romiromi half-hour body alignment at $50 to Mirimiri/Romiromi Massage and Kawakawa Leaf Detox at $175.
MORE INFORMATION: wikitoriamaorihealing.co.nz
WHERE TO STAY
Distinction Rotorua - a four-star hotel is on Fenton St near the Whakarewarewa geothermal area on the city's south side.
Our room – a suite – was excellent, and frankly huge.
It had a large lounge complete with a big flatscreen TV, a bedroom off to the side with another large TV, a bathroom with a marble-encased large tub and toilet, and an ensuite with a basin and large mirror.
The hotel complex features a heated pool, jacuzzi and sauna, as well as four underground grotto spas (well worth checking out) and a gym.
Should you want to eat at the hotel, there are three on-site restaurants including a sushi bar, and a breakfast room that serves a buffet of Asian cuisine as well as European-style breakfasts.
While the hotel suited us well, it is a couple of kilometres from the Polynesian Spa and the Eat Streat restaurant district (a taxi fare of about $12).
If you're keen on walking to places around town there are a number of closer hotels/motels to choose from.
ROOMS: Suites like the one we stayed in are $220/night for the room or $250/night for room and breakfast for two. The hotel also offers superior, deluxe and deluxe king rooms.
MORE INFORMATION: distinctionhotelsrotorua.co.nz
WHERE TO EAT
"Eat Streat" – presumably a play on words – is a $2 million development in the heart of Rotorua which has turned a street in the central city into a food district - a covered pedestrian mall linking restaurants, cafes and bars.
It works really well and is definitely worth a visit. We went there three times – for coffee when we first arrived in Rotorua, dinner that night and then lunch the next day.
Going for dinner, we decided not to book and just turned up and chose a restaurant.
The place we settled on, Nuvolari, an Italian restaurant at the start of the "streat", was tasty and easy, coming in at slightly over $100 for two, including a bottle of wine and an entree.
The next day's lunch was at Cafe Ephesus – two decent mezes – was $27.
Other cuisine types you can find here are Indian, Middle Eastern, Thai, gastro-pub, a steak house, southern US and global-contemporary.
MORE INFORMATION: rotoruanz.com
Rotorua's about two and a half hours away from Auckland by car. While you can take the eastern access - State Highway 2, 27, 24 and 5, it's worth considering taking the Waikato Expressway and State Highway 1 to Tirau and 5 onwards.
Air New Zealand offer flights to Rotorua from $79 each way from Auckland, $99 from Wellington, and $89 from Christchurch (based on Grabaseat's low fare finder) - although other special fares may be available from time to time.
Zar Lilley travelled to Rotorua courtesy of Destination Rotorua.