Finding romance in Rotorua

ROB KIDD
Last updated 05:00 10/08/2014
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SOLITARY SPENDOUR: Solitaire Lodge sits on an outcrop of Lake Tarawera, with views of Mt Tarawera.

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TIME OUT: Relaxing at the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua.

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"A romantic weekend in Rotorua? Ha, where are you having your wedding? Gore?"

Very funny.

"Hey, where are you honeymooning? Tokoroa?"

Hilarious.

Maybe it's just the sort of friends I have but they did not seem to think of the sulphur city as a place where love could flourish.

And I must admit, I too was not convinced.

Rotorua is best known as an adrenalin-fuelled, Maori-themed tourist haven; somewhere for international travellers to tick off their list.

"Vegas."

It's less popular among Kiwis, many of whom don't see past the ubiquitous motels and fast-food outlets, and of course, that smell.

The drive down from Auckland did little to create an atmosphere of amorous serenity.

A nose-to-tail on the southern motorway damned up the river of rubber-neckers heading away for a long weekend as Otis Redding and my fiancee took turns in keeping me calm.

When Otis sang about being "born by the river", I don't think he was talking about the Waikato River, but it did the trick.

The traffic eventually cleared, as did the weather, and before we could brace ourselves for a waft of eau de sulphur, Rotorua was upon us.

It took just minutes to drive through the almost traffic-free centre, pass the huge redwoods and wind round the lakes to our secluded getaway, but it wasn't until we arrived that we became fully aware of our glorious surroundings.

Nestled on an outcrop on Lake Tarawera sits Solitaire Lodge, with full views of Mt Tarawera, the once-mighty volcano that still inspires awe.

"A lot of places call themselves lodges nowadays but we are one of the original lodges," owner Wayne Tomlinson said.

Solitaire is the second-oldest luxury lodge in New Zealand, opened in 1980.

It was originally set up as a fishing retreat with the focus mainly on overseas visitors - often American fishing enthusiasts.

Now the lodge attracted clientele from all over the world.

Tomlinson was proud of his exclusive slice of heaven, and as we looked around we realised he was not exaggerating its charms.

It's hard to adequately emphasise the peace and beauty of the place, surrounded by native bush and chittering fantails on almost every tree branch.

A jaunt past the lodge's helipad down to the clear lake had us wishing we had time to use the various water craft and private fishing boat to catch one of the lake's famed rainbow trout.

As the lodge caters largely to international guests we worried the five-star accommodation might come with not so down to earth staff.

But this is Rotorua and one thing people there can do is make you feel at home.

Alright, Tomlinson is from Wellington originally (taking over Solitaire six years ago) but his fantastic general manager Graham Wilcox is a Rotorua boy and has worked in more exclusive hotels and lodges than he can count on his fingers and toes.

They, and their staff, embody what makes Rotorua great.

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They care about people, they care about the quality of their product and their enthusiasm for that is infectious.

Unfortunately, we didn't have long to explore the area - we were back to town to be covered in mud and wrapped in a cocoon of hot towels.

As a modern, open-minded man, the thought of a couple's massage at the Polynesian Spa while decked out in disposable underwear made me a little uncomfortable.

Apparently making small talk with the therapist is not the done thing either but she did not have to "shushhhhh" me once the exfoliation began.

It was like 1000 magic fairies itching me all over, and it got better.

The head massage nearly put me to sleep.

If lying on a table next to your woman, while covered in mud and stifling your snores is sexy, I pretty much nailed it.

After emerging light headed and grinning like idiots at our extreme state of relaxation it was definitely time for a feed.

Rotorua's lively Eat Street, a newly-created pedestrian mall of bars and eateries, was already packed with locals and tourists by 6pm.

It was hard to find a table for a quick drink at the very-popular Brew Bar but we squeezed in and then it was off the nearby Regent Room restaurant for dinner where opulance is not in short supply.

Smart white and black decor takes a backseat to the restaurant's extravagant chandeliers and wall-mounted diamante-studded rhino heads.

Dessert was the highlight, and my fiancee got a serious case of food envy as I dug into a chocolate extravaganza with indecent haste.

Conservative Kiwi fare it is not.

Day two of our trip was ushered in with a false sense of calm, a cooked breakfast, fruit platter and fresh croissants at the lodge before we ventured to scare ourselves witless.

The prospect of flying through ancient towering trees attached to a thin wire did not settle our full stomachs.

However Rotorua Canopy Tours, a ziplining experience that thrills tourists with a three-hour tour through a section of forest on the Mamaku plateau, was actually not that terrifying.

The bubbly tour guides distracted our group of city-weary Aucklanders from our impending doom by getting us to recite our desired superpower and mythological animal of choice.

Highly questionable answers included "x-ray vision" and "some kind of bird".

Somehow we were persuaded to discard our fear and throw ourselves off six tiny wooden platforms that sat so high in the trees we couldn't see the ground.

It was strangely rewarding, and the follow-up conservation messages about just how much daily work went into ridding the forest of bird-killing pests made us realise we were pretty damned lucky to be able to enjoy it.

The adrenalin rush left us starving, and after filling up at Picnic Cafe we rushed back to the lodge to cram in as much quiet time as possible.

This was made easy with our luxurious room's private outdoor bath and a glass of good wine.

If you were going to pop the question, that would be the time and place to do it.

Thankfully my fiancee had succumbed to a slapdash beach proposal a few weeks earlier so I was off the hook.

Dinner at Solitaire Lodge truly is something special.

After being plied with pre-drinks and canapes we ploughed our way through a five-course dinner, with standout dishes of crab ravioli, pineapple and mint sorbet, and deep-sea hapuka.

If only life was like that.

It's hard to imagine the novelty wearing off.

Beyond the gimmicky cultural tours and plastic souvenir tiki, and even deeper than the geothermal life running under Rotorua, there's an indomitable soul to the place.

It will forever be in competition with hotspots like Queenstown and the big cities for the overseas tourist dollar but one day Kiwis might realise just because it doesn't have an ocean beach to lie on or a mountain to ski down there are plenty of reasons to visit Rotorua.

And since my mates gave such great advice, we're shelving wedding plans for Rarotonga and checking whether Tokoroa has any motels with a pool.

The writer travelled courtesy of Tourism Rotorua.

FACT FILE

Solitaire Lodge. 16 Ronald Rd, Lake Tarawera. Phone 07 362 8208.

Polynesian Spa. Hinemoa St, Rotorua. Phone 07 348 1328.

Regent Room. 1191 Pukaki St, Rotorua. Phone 07 348 4079.

Rotorua Canopy Tours. 173 Old Taupo Rd, Utuhina. Phone 07 343 1001.

- Sunday Star Times

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