Rotorua is often jokingly called Rotovegas, because, like Los Vegas USA, Rotorua is a show town.

The click of the piupiu
The click of the piupiu

Many of the country’s stars, like the great, now departed, Sir Howard Morrison, got their start playing the summer concerts down at the Soundshell on the lake front, in the old Tama dance hall at Ohinemsutu or the city’s many tourist hotels.

Some of the country’s greatest Kapa Haka, or Maori Concert Parties, call Rotorua home.

A Maori concert is a not-to-be-missed Rotorua experience. You’ll quake at the force and energy of the haka, or posture dance, marvel at the skill and beauty of the twirling pois, at the dexterity of the waiata-a-ringa or action songs and at the magical harmonies of a mass of golden voices. Then there’s the rhythmic click of the swinging piupiu, or flax skirts.

You can catch some the of best Kapa Haka performances nightly at any one of the hotels around the city and at lunch time at Te Puia Village.

The lake, the centre of Rotorua

Lake Rotorua! As a child returning from holidays it was my first glimpse of home. Later, leaving for supposedly greener pastures, it was my last. Still, now hen I think of Rotorua, I see the lake, with Mokoia at its centre, silver and smooth on a clear fine day, dark and crimped with waves under a cloudy sky.

Lake Rotorua and Mokoia Island
Lake Rotorua and Mokoia Island

It gave the town its name which means second lake. It also gave it,  its reason for being. The first Te Arawa settlers built their villages on the lake shores. The British colonists founded the town, which has now grown to a city and which spreads in an ever widening circle around its edge.

The lake and Mokoia Island form the backdrop to some of the most important moments in Rotorua’s history

They form the setting for the romantic tale of Hinemoa and Tutanekai, one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s greatest love stories. On the eastern shores of the lake lived the beautiful Hinemoa, the daughter of a paramount chief. Many young hopefuls sought her hand in marriage but none was deemed worthy by her family. Across the water on Mokoia Island lived Tutanekai, the youngest, but cleverest, bravest and best looking, of a large family of brothers. The two crossed paths at a hui or tribal gathering, where Tutanekai and the other young warriors of the district had come to display their skills in weaponry. All the chiefs of Te Arawa and their families had come to watch. When Tutanekai spotted the beautiful Hinemoa in the crowd it was love at first sight. When Hinemoa saw Tutanekai’s handsome face and skill with the taiaha, she too was smitten. When Hinemoa’s parents intercepted the longing looks between the two, they were horrified. The lowly-born Tutanekai was no match for their daughter.  They kept her under close guard in the whare and for good measure, secured all the family canoes high up on the shore-line.   The love-lorn Tutanekai returned to Mokoia where he spent hours at the lake’s edge playing mournful tunes on his flute. On the other shore, Hinemoa heard the faint strains of Tuatnekai’s love songs and knew that he was thinking of her. One night, unable to bear the separation any longer, she tied two empty gourds around her waist to keep her afloat and swam across the lake.

When she arrived at the island, chilled to the bone and exhausted, she headed to the warm pool Waikimihia to recover.  Before long, Tutanekai’s slave arrived to fetch water for his master. Disguising her voice as a man’s, Hinemoa called ‘Mo wai te wai?’ (For whom is the water?).  When the slave answered ‘Mo Tutanekai’ (For Tutanekai), Hinemoa seized the calabash he was carrying and dashed it on the rocks. When the slave returned to Tutanekai without the water, Tutanekai went to confront the villain who had smashed his calabash. When he saw Hinemoa, he was overcome with joy. The two lovers were together at last and Hinemoa’s family had no choice but to accept Tutanekai as her husband. From the union of Hinemoa and Tutanekai comes one of the great Te Arawa dynasties.

Mokoia was also the scene of one Te Arawa’s darkest moments.

Hearing that their arch enemy, the Ngapuhi chief Hongi Hika, was on his way down the coast with a large war party, the people of Te Arawa retreated to Mokoia. As there was no navigable waterway from the coast and therefore no way that Hongi could bring his canoes to Rotorua, they believed that they were safe on the island. But they didn’t count on Hongi’s cunning. He had his people drag the canoes overland through the dense up steep hills and down gullies until he reached the shores of lake Rotorua. On Mokoia, the Te Arawa could only watch in terror as the lake churned with the thousand paddles that brought their inevitable death closer and closer.

Today, fittingly, Mokoia is home to a Taiaha school where young men learn the traditional arts of weaponry. Tourists can take a launch across the lake to enjoy bush walks, see some native birds and soak in Waikimihia.

The lake has always been a great place for boats; canoes gave way to dinghies and yachts and speed boats and more recently peddle boats and kayaks have joined the flotilla. It used once to be great place for swimming to but for many years now it has been infested with a thick, slimy and virulent weed, which makes it unpleasant if not impossible for swinmming. The search for a way of ridding the lake of weed has continued for years now.

Rotorua’s Polynesian Spa

The Polynesian Spa, in Rotorua’s Government Gardens, has soothed the weary bones of tourists and locals alike for almost a century and a half.

Looking across the lake from a private pool at the Polynesian Spa
Looking across the lake from a private pool at the Polynesian Spa

The miraculous power of the thermal spring water that feeds the Polynesian Spa were first discovered 1878 by Catholic priest, Father Mahoney. A few months of daily dips so visibly alleviated his crippling arthritis that other suffering clergy and parishioners followed suit. Soon the word was out and visitors from all over the world began to make the pilgrimage to the healing pools.

In 1882 the Pavilion Bath House was built. It served until 1931 when it was replaced by the Ward Baths. In 1972, Polynesian Pools Ltd took over the lease of the old, and somewhat run down  baths and over the last 50 years has developed them into the luxurious, state-of-the art spa that exists today.

Counted among the top 10 world spas, the Polynesian Spa offers a wide range of fabulous therapies. It also offers thermal bathing in 26 different kinds of pools, including deluxe, adult-only, private and family pools as well as a large freshwater chlorinated pool for those who simply want to splash about.

The Government Gardens, Rotorua’s answer to the spas of Europe

The Rotorua Government Gardens are unique among world parks.

The Blue Baths
The Blue Baths

In the Rotorua Government Gardens, you can belt a ball around a golf course fringed with bubbling mud pools, play a game of croquet or bowls, stroll among beds of roses, perch on the edge of lily pond, browse in a museum or soak in a spa.

You’ll find the Rotorua Government Gardens on the edge of the lake, just a stone’s throw from the CBD and on the doorstep of some of the city’s best hotels. They’re a mecca for tourists and a favourite spot for locals.

Originally known as Papaekumana, the Rotorua Government Gardens’ site has always been of great significance to the Tangata Whenua, or local people. Many important battles were fought here and many great chiefs and warriors came to bathe in the hot currents at the edge of the lake or in the healing pools hidden in the scrub. The place is rich with legends and stories.

Towards the end of the 1800s, the Tangata Whenua gifted 50 acres of Papaekumana to the crown “for the benefit of the people of the world”.  The land was cleared and formal gardens were laid out  with the Japanese firs and the Californian Redwood that remain today.

Before long, the Government saw the opportunity to develop the gardens as the South Pacific’s answer to the spas of Europe. In 1908, the magnificent Tudor bath house welcomed the first tourists seeking to “take the waters”.

In 1901, the ornate arch made of local totara wood and representing a stylized crown, was installed at the entrance to the gardens.  It was built in honour of the visit of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George V and Queen Mary), but has always been known as the Prince’s gate.

In the early 1930s the Blue Baths were opened. The ornate Mediterranean style building was inspired by the swimming pools of Hollywood and the people who came to bathe there were seeking pleasure and fun rather than cures. The Blue Baths enjoy the singular fame of being the first public swimming pool to allow mixed bathing – men and women, that is.

The Rotorua Government Gardens remain a piece of Victorian England parkland, albeit on the fringe of a uniquely Aotearoa landscape. The gardens themselves have changed little and the grand old Tudor Bath House and Blue Baths buildings have been beautifully maintained and restored despite a number of different lives . The  Bath House, after a turn as a restaurant/nightclub, is now home to Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa (the Rotorua Museum) The Blue Baths, closed to bathers for many years, during which it operated as a  restaurant,  functions centre and nightclub, now houses a cabaret and swimming pool. People still come to “take the waters” in the Rotorua Government Gardens, but they take them now in re-vamped state-of-the-art pools at the Polynesian Spa.

Read about  the Polynesian Spa in the next post.


Te Whare Taonga o Rotorua

To truly understand and appreciate Rotorua, you need to know at least a little of the forces that have shaped it. The best place to find out about them is the Whare Taonga o Te Arawa, or the Rotorua Museum.

Te Whare Taonga o Rotorua
Te Whare Taonga o Rotorua

Located in the old Tudor bath house in the Government Gardens, Te Whare Taonga o Rotorua is a treasure trove of information on the region’s volatile volcanic landscape, vibrant Maori culture and fascinating history, as well as the people who have made it their home.

When you enter Nga Pumanawa o Te Arawa (the beating hearts of Te Arawa) on the ground floor, you’re in the world of the Te Arawa Iwi (the local tribe). Interactive multi-media displays trace their journey across the vast Pacific and through the centuries to modern day Rotorua. You’ll see how the environment shaped their way of life and hear the myths and legends that explained and ordered their world, including the poignant tale of Rotorua’s own star-crossed lovers, Hinemoa and Tutanekai. You’ll meet their chiefs, their respected elders and even some of their arch enemies. You’ll learn how European settlement and tourism changed their lives forever. A special exhibition and a film tell the bold, brave, lucky and, all too often, tragic stories of the Te Arawa B Company of the Maori Battalion. Displays of exquisite taonga; art, carving, jewellery and clothing show the skill and craftsmanship of generations.

The Museum’s cinema experience, also on the ground floor, gives both the scientific and the mythological explanations for this amazing volcanic region. It shows the stunning Pink and White Terraces and then subjects the viewer to a somewhat unsettling sensurround portrayal of the eruption of Mount Tarawera.

Down in the bowels of the building, you can explore the baths and treatment rooms of the “Great South Seas Spa” which operated here in the late 18th and for half of the 19th century. You’ll also and hear all about the bizarre therapies it offered! For those with an interest in engineering and architecture, the labyrinth of pipes and the vaulted ceilings are a must see.

Climb the sweeping staircase to second floor and you’ll find an exhibition dedicated to the time when the bath house was Tudor Towers, a cabaret restaurant. All the great names of local entertainment did a stint there. There are storyboards and photo displays and some great memorabilia.

Climb further on up through the attic and from a viewing platform high on the roof you can take in the view of the lake and the city and inspect the Tudor exterior of the Great South Seas Spa.

Coming into Rotorua

No matter how you approach Rotorua, in the centre Aotearoa New Zealand’s North Island, you’re assured of some spectacular country.

Lake Rotorua
Lake Rotorua

Come from the North and you’ll cross the steep, rugged Mamaku Ranges, winding up and down through the bush until suddenly, the road straightens and there, just below, is Lake Rotorua, with Mokoia Island at its centre and the city spread around its shores.

Come from the east and you’ll follow a string of smaller lakes – Rotoma, Rotoehu and Rotoiti. You’ll pass by scorched, steaming, sulphur encrusted Tikitere thermal park, then through a small stretch of farmland until suddenly, there just ahead,  is the island, the lake and Rotorua.

Come from the south and you’ll travel through plantations of pines, then through dry, pumice land where steam curls upwards from breaks in the low scrub and where the scent of sulphur hangs in the air. Finally you crest a hill, round a bend and there before you is Rotorua.

Fly in and you’ll look down on farms laid out like crinkled green quilts, dark stands of pine, dense blue-green bush, bleached, steaming volcanic  country and spread across it is a vast pattern lakes of totally impossible colours.