It's raining and warm breaths of steam rise from the hot pools and escape into the surrounding native bush.
Nicola and I have escaped too. We are soaking in the Waikite Valley Thermal Pools while in the carpark above us our toddler Spike and six-month-old Lewis are with their grandparents.
Twenty minutes relaxing away from the wee cherubs is bliss. We soak away any worries in the naturally heated mineral water as droplets of rain break the glassy surface and the sound of a trickling stream somewhere in the mist casts its spell in this Kiwi paradise.
Any guilt we may feel at leaving the kids behind soon evaporates in the 32- to 40-degree pools.
Twenty-four hours earlier it was a different story. The drive from Auckland to Rotorua saw the kids tag-team screaming in between bouts of sleep.
So when we finally arrive at the Regent of Rotorua we were a little frazzled. But our host Darryn Whitehead puts us at ease, stepping away from an 80th birthday party in the hotel restaurant to welcome us and take us on a quick tour of our studio apartment.
The studio block is the latest addition to the Regent and complements the existing hotel units. Inside, white leather sofas, ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the pool and flat-screen TVs in the lounge and bedrooms proves the "boutique" tag is well justified.
Early on, we decide that if we manage to keep two-year-old Spike and his felt-tips from the white couch we'd be doing well.
As the boys and I watch the action in the pool from the window, Nicola heads to Polynesian Spa – a 10-minute walk across the city from our hotel.
It was voted by Conde Nast Traveller magazine as one of the top 10 thermal spas in world, and people have been bathing at the site for more than 125 years.
When Nicola returns some hours later she is chuffed. After soaking in Lake Spa area of the complex – where she tries all four spa pools on offer, two overlooking the lake – she is then pampered and fussed over with various mud therapies and massages. All right for some.
The next day, after breakfast at the hotel's restaurant/cafe, we drive 20 minutes south to Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.
We meet my parents at nearby Lady Knox Geyser. It erupts, thanks to a little help from a friendly chap who pours what looks like dishwashing liquid into the cone, and voila, instant natural wonder. Spike is impressed.
In fact, the whole area gets this toddler's tick of approval – boiling mud pools that belch fistfuls of gloop up in the air before slapping back into the grey; steam that hangs around like fog; landscapes that wouldn't look out of place on the moon and – best of all – that rotten egg smell. Toddler Nirvana and baby Lewis seems impressed too. Wai-o-Tapu's Champagne Pool is grandest of them all. At 65m in diameter and 62m deep, it's the biggest volcanic pool in the district. But at 74 degrees it's not the sort of hot spot you'd want to go skinny-dipping in.
Oh, and don't smoke. According to the tourist guide, "The surrounding manuka scrub vegetation is extremely flammable, as are some of the minerals." We have been warned.
The 45-minute walk makes us ravenous (all those rotten eggs, perhaps?) and the on-site cafe beckons.
After devouring pies and sandwiches we make our way to Waikite Valley, where me and the missus ditch the kids with my parents.
The next day there's a chill in the air as we drive out to Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park. The park has a pride of lions who have been in the park for more than 30 years.
But they are rather keen on trying to keep warm in the shadow of the valley so, after a quick visit, we head off to explore the less exotic residents at Paradise.
While the lions keep themselves to themselves, the same can't be said for the park's kea. The cheeky parrots aren't shy and take a liking to anything hanging from our pram.
All sorts of birds call the park home – including the appropriately named paradise ducks – as well as woolly-headed llama, cuddly alpaca, a sleepy opossum, regal tahr, fat eels, thriving trout and presumptuous wild pigs who cock their heads, open-mouthed, as we approach in the hope we will give them food.
The Ngongotaha Stream runs through the park, a lifeblood for the trout fishery and source of Te Waireka Spring (sweet water), where early Maori would bring their wounded warriors to help heal them.
Later that evening, back at the Regent, we take a family dip in the mineral pool attached to the complex, much to the delight of the boys. I should get one for our house.
Before the return trip to Auckland, and with visions of a journey interrupted by screaming, we thought flying down a hill would be a good idea. Skyline Skyrides operates three luge tracks on the slopes of Mt Ngongotaha. After the gondola to the top we decide to take turns at hurtling down the slopes with young Spike onboard.
Our tandem rides are a success, no tears, no crashes, and by the time we depart both boys are weary. The luge has done the trick and so has Roto-Vegas.
GETTING THERE BY CAR:
Located in the central North Island, Rotorua is a leisurely three-hour drive from Auckland (234km) and a five- to six-hour drive from Wellington (457km). By air: Rotorua has daily air service links with Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch and Queenstown. the airport is a 15-minute drive from the city. By bus: regular scheduled services operate from Auckland, Wellington and other North Island centres.
AT A GLANCE:
- The Regent, Rotorua, is a boutique central-city hotel just up the road from "eat street". Rates start at $149 a night for studio rooms. Each suite has body and haircare products, airconditioning, high-speed internet, wi-fi, iPod docking stations, refrigerator, microwave, flatscreen lcd tvs with sky tv, walk-in showers and soaker baths.
- Wai-o-tapu thermal wonderland is 20 minutes drive south and is open from 8.30am to 5pm.
- Also worth a visit are: Waikite Valley thermal pools , Polynesian Spa, Paradise Valley Springs Wildlife Park and Skyline Skyrides.
Todd Murray and family were hosted by Regent of Rotorua.
- Sunday News