On day four of our NZ road trip, we left Auckland early, grabbed takeaway coffees and headed south east on highway 1 before turning off at highway 2 towards Matamata or ‘Hobbiton’ – the site where the Hobbit’s village was filmed in The Lord of the Rings.
In keeping with NZ’s steep tourist prices, an overlong 2.5 hour tour at well over $100 for a family of four quickly kyboshed the desire to visit this movie set. We instead shopped, grabbed coffee and hit the road again for Rotorua.
The countryside on the way from Auckland to Rotorua is green and beautiful – not very mountainous but extremely pretty in some places, with odd little bulbous hills here and there. Lots of animal stock, too – and the cows and sheep seem to enjoy a huddle – hanging in large groups rather than scattered across fields like they are in Australia. Really cute.
It was so exciting to come into Rotorua and see the columns of white steam drifting skyward from points all over the city – particularly at the amazing Kuirau public park where we meandered through the many hot spring and boiling mud areas with great puffs of steam rising into the sky.
There were even little streams of hot champagne bubbles rising in some pools and a pile of marshmallow-like rocks with steam pouffing from the crevices.
This park is the site of the recent death of an eight-year-old boy who scaled a fence and fell into one of the boiling pools, so you can imagine we had every eye on the kids. Having said that, there’s no reason to worry – the park is perfectly safe, with danger zones more than adequately fenced and sign-posted.
Afterwards, we headed to the fantastic Skyline Gondola and Luge north of town – $97 for a family ticket to take the gondola to the mountain top, and then 8 luge rides (with chairlift returns). The luges are small wheeled vehicles with a simple handle bar push/pull go/brake system. Riders wear helmets but little other protection on a relatively steep concrete track with the potential to go very fast.
There are three channels – ‘scenic’, ‘intermediate’ and ‘advanced’ and riders can go as fast as they like, with room for overtaking. There are some merging channels and the entire system is quite safe, though there is potential for mild to moderate stacking.
Ella tumbled from her luge at one point and scraped her knee quite badly. Although she was ok, had another luge come soaring around the corner, she could have been injured, so encourage the kids to pace themselves.
Younger children can ride with a parent. Kids under 6 or 7 years may struggle to control the push/pull handle bar system, as operating the luge means holding the handle bars in a constant state of flux. This can test even adult arm muscles.
Ella and dad took off for one more luge ride together and Riley and I sat in the café nibbling hot chips, admiring the stunning view over the countryside. Alas, it started to rain, gradually got heavier… and heavier… and didn’t stop for two days.
Interesting thing to note is that apartments from Rotorua south don’t offer cooling, just heating. Although New Zealand doesn’t consistently achieve sweltering weather, it’s awfully stifling to be encased in a sealed room with no fresh air, even if it needs to be simulated fresh air. If you have trouble sleeping in stuffy rooms, you might want to consider a hotel instead, or ask if air conditioning is available upon booking.
We happened to be staying at Quest at the same time as a team of scientists who were testing Rotorua’s nearby Lake Rotomahana for remnants of the famed Pink and White Terraces, the eighth wonder of the world which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1886. They were using the swimming pool to test some of the underwater equipment, which was super cool to see, and it was all over the news a few days later, so we felt almost famous!
An early night as the rain came thundering down.
Once again, this kind of touristic joy is expensive. At around NZ$120 for a family of four, this includes the opportunity to wander the grounds and see a cultural show (around 45 mins duration).
We bought plastic rain ponchos (at a pricey $4 a pop) and went straight to the meeting house for the cultural performance. Visitors remove their shoes, take a seat and become quickly mesmerised by the most glorious musical experience – one of my very favourite NZ experiences and well worth the cost.
Children are invited to sit up close on the carpet, and all become easily awestruck by the show, even the really little kids. Men and women in traditional Maori dress sing magnificent songs, throw sticks, swing poi balls on ropes and share some cool dance moves.
The men then do a haka, which was just magnificent to witness in person – a lifelong dream. Even better was when women and girls from the audience (Ella took part) were invited on stage to learn how to twirl poi and the men to perform the haka.
But the major event for me was the romantic song Pokarekare Ana – the most famous love song in New Zealand – that brought me to a sobbing heap (much to the amusement of 80+ Asian tourists). Absolutely stunning.
If flying to New Zealand meant only experiencing this single concert… well, that would have been enough for me.
Afterwards, it was back into the hammering rain, a quick pitstop at the café and through the little village with traditional huts and a hangi pit for cooking food.
We also visited the fascinating weaving and wood carving schools, where students worked on some pretty amazing pieces of art.
After Te Puia, we went back to the hotel to change our sodden shoes and pants. Husband and the kids then went to the world famous Polynesian Spa for a swim and a dip in the mineral waters (around NZ$32 for three) while I went to the Rotorua Museum of Art and History (around NZ$12 for an adult). It was good. Not great but good. One entire wing was closed off for development and the exhibitions were tiny and really only of interest to adults.
It’s possible to tour beneath the building and see original bathing rooms as the museum is sited on an old bath house, one of the first (19th Century) tourist attractions in NZ when wealthy people from all over the world would come to recuperate in the waters. Again, interesting but not sure it’s worth several room displays.
Honestly, the gift shop was probably the most enjoyable thing about this museum, where they sold a wonderful range of books, jewellery and mud face masks and bath salts. There were also some wonderful reproductions of European sculpture scattered throughout the rooms.