Soaking in mists and Maori legends

Last updated 00:00 13/08/2007
UNIQUELY SPECTACULAR: Pink Terrace Bay in the Waimangu Volcanic Valley is just one of the attractions on offer in Rotorua.
RELAXING SOAK: The Royal Lakeside Novotel Spa is a good place to wind down after a day of sightseeing.

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South Islander Shahra Walsh makes it, at last, to Rotorua, and finds a plethora of attractions for which a couple of days is insufficient.

A s a first-time visitor to Rotorua, I was excited in getting the opportunity to see more of New Zealand's Maori heritage, something I have not involved myself with, despite having Maori roots.

Rotorua was originally home of the Te Arawa iwi. Thirty-five per cent of Rotorua's population (68,000) are Maori, and many Maori legends originate from the shores of Lake Rotorua.

Perhaps the most famous is the tale of Hinemoa, who is said to have swum over 3km from the shores of Lake Rotorua to Mokoia Island to be with Tutanekai, a young man whom she was forbidden to marry.

Their story is considered the most romantic of all Maori love stories and is remembered in the well-known song, Pokarekare ana.

But Rotorua's existence became known to the wider world as a geothermal wonderland and tourist destination under British colonisation in the 19th century.

A visit nowadays to the Buried Village of Te Wairoa reveals the devastating effects of the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera.

Now on display as an archaeological site, the Te Wairoa village was a small township populated as a staging post for the celebrated Pink and White Terraces, also destroyed by the eruption.

Guided tours are available, some hosted by descendants of guides to the Terraces before 1886.

The original Bath House building, which opened in 1908 and drew visitors from around the world to undergo therapeutic treatments for chronic illnesses, is housed in the Rotorua Art & History Museum (Te Whare Taonga O Te Arawa) in the Government Gardens.

The museum contains many cultural exhibits and Maori artefacts as well as a detailed history of the volatile volcanic activity significant in shaping the region's landscape.

A popular walking and hiking trail through Waimangu Volcanic Valley provides a further opportunity to learn more about Mount Tarawera's 1886 explosion, while taking in some stunning scenery.

The views of Lake Rotomahana and the various crater lakes, hot and cool pools and terraces are well worth the visit, and the tracks cater for people of all fitness levels.

About 10km from the city centre, the Agrodome provides a fun family day out.

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Among the attractions are a live sheep show and tour of the working organic farm, surprisingly entertaining even for Kiwi patrons familiar with this country's strong agricultural background.

The Agrodome is also home to some of Rotorua's most acclaimed action adventure features, including the Zorb, the Helipro, the Bungy, the Agrojet, Freefall Xtreme, and the Night Sky Experience.

The Agrodome is a family- run, award-winning enterprise.

To explore more of the city and the nearby lake areas, sightseers are invited to board the Rotorua Duck Tours for land and water.

Departing from the central bus station, the Ducks are modified World War 2 amphibious vehicles.

Highlights include Lake Okareka and the Blue Lake as well as Whangapipiro boiling spring.

The light-hearted commentary from the tour guide is refreshingly unrehearsed but informative.

For a closer look at Lake Rotorua – the largest of the lakes – culinary cruises are available aboard the Lakeland Queen, a stern-wheel-driven paddle steamer designed in the style of a Mississippi River cruiser.

It has two decks and offers passengers an international menu, while smoothly exploring the lake and views of Mokoia Island.

Accommodation in Rotorua is widely available, and the Royal Novotel Lakeside Hotel boasts a handy central location within walking distance to the main city centre and Lake Rotorua.

Like most businesses in Rotorua, the hotel takes advantage of the plentiful geothermal energy available, using the resource for heating and to provide geothermal spas on site.

The Novotel offers 4.5-star accommodation and full facilities, including exceptional restaurant and bar services, and plays host to the daily Matariki Hangi and Cultural Show.

For those wishing simply to take time out, the Polynesian Spa is ideal for enjoying a peaceful soak while looking out towards Lake Rotorua.

Voted as one of the top 10 medical and thermal spas in the world, it has adults-only relaxation pools, a family area with a chlorinated pool as well as the recently opened private rock pools.

The Polynesian Spa offers a wide range of luxurious therapies, including hydrotherapy massages and body wraps, using manuka honey and kiwifruit, two of the North Island's major exports.

With daily direct flights from Christchurch, Rotorua is a remarkable holiday destination for Pakeha and Maori alike.

Plan to take your time and stay a while because there is much more to see and do than can be comfortably squeezed into a weekend.

- The Press

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