Rotorua is one of my favourite spots to visit on New Zealand’s beautiful north island! There are tons of activities to suit every type of traveller, but we all know the cost of adventure adds up quickly. Luckily, Rotorua has options from luxury to free and everywhere in between. You just have to get past the smell…the natural beauty comes at a sulphur-y price.
First, you’ll need a car. All the best parts of New Zealand are off the beaten track! This is especially true of Rotorua.
I highly recommend picking up a car from Apex Rentals because they’re cheap, offer unlimited kms, insurance, and an additional driver for no extra charge. The price of a basic cheap car is about $40 for one day, and to fill a tank of petrol costs about $60+. Petrol is painfully expensive…I know.
*Pro Budget Tip: If your schedule is flexible, check out TransferCar. Its a company that basically connects you to rental offices that need their cars returned, so they let you drive it for free. The catch is that you have a set amount of days to get from point A to B, and you have to pay for your own petrol.
eg. Auckland Airport to Christchurch Airport in 4 days.
Not exactly leisurely…but free! and insurance is usually included.
If you don’t want to pick up a car from a major city, you can catch a bus for $30ish with InterCity and rent once you’ve arrived in Rotorua. There are two central rental offices:
*Pro Budget Tip: Bus prices vary drastically based on when you book. Like, I mean drastically. But if you’re on the ball and book far enough in advance, you can find $1 tickets! Check for dates 6+ months in advance on InterCity.
Okay, you’ve made it to Rotorua. Let’s get to the good stuff!
See Some Freaky Geothermal Shit
Wai O Tapu
$65 entry, 25 mins from Rotorua
Rotorua’s most famous geothermal park. You can choose from 3 trail options and meander through what should surely be on the world’s list of natural wonders. Everything is totally mind blowing! Tickets are definitely on the expensive side, but if you can afford it – worth it. I honestly think it may be one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been.
$39 entry, 1 hr from Rotorua
Here you can see a smaller, less jaw dropping, yet still rad park full of steaming, bubbling, and smelly miracles of the earth. Admission price includes the ferry ride across the lake to gain access to the cave & park.
$Free! 0 mins from Rotorua
If you’re on a really tight budget, you can still check out some weird geothermal stuff for FREE! Not only that, but it’s surely an easy walk from wherever you’re staying in the city. Here you can see some bubbling mud, steamy sulphur ponds, and even dip your feet in a hot spring. It’s not as mind blowing as the other stuff, but if you’re scrounging for meals this may be your best option. And, if the smell doesn’t effect your appetite, you can bring your own food and use the communal BBQs to enjoy a picnic!
Visit The Redwoods – Whakarewarewa Forest
Redwoods Treewalk (Hanging Bridges)
$29, 5 min drive / 45 min walk from Rotorua
Defo a little pricey to walk on some bridges, right? Well yes… but it’s worth it. The walkways are suspended between these epic, old, majestic af redwoods and there’s more than half a kilometer to explore. I highly suggest you avoid Sunday afternoons if you don’t care for children, and if you’re looking for something a lil’ romantic you can visit at night when everything is illuminated by hanging lanterns.
$Free! 5 min drive / 45 min walk from Rotorua
There is a whole network of trails that vary in difficulty and length. I opted for the 2ish hour Pohaturoa track, and while it was lovely, the first hour was the best part, so if you’re not a big hiker it’s still totally worth going for a short stroll. A moderate level of fitness is advised but I’m unfit af and I enjoyed myself.
$20-95, 10 min walk from most accommodation in Rotorua
Easily walkable from anywhere in the city, and the most luxurious option in town, the Polynesian Spa offers a variety of access packages. The most popular is the $55 Deluxe Adult Pool, where you can soak in 5 mineral baths of various temperatures in a lovely outdoor setting overlooking the lake. If you’re brave (or crazy) you can even hop in the cold plunge!
*For a fully pampered experience, there are private pools, massages, facials, and other spa packages available as well.
Waikite Thermal Pools
$18-27, 30 min drive from Rotorua
If you’re heading towards Lake Taupo this is definitely worth stopping in for. $23pp gets you a private spa with up to 4 people, and includes access to the communal pools after your time is up. One strange thing is the $3 “Spectator” fee for people who just wanna like… sit there and watch other people swim? I’m sure it’s for parents and grandparents and stuff but I think it was a terrible word choice. Can’t stress the value of the private spa enough.
They suggest that you book a private spa in advance (though I didn’t and managed to get in anyway) and if you’re trying to impress your date, I recommend booking for sunset.
$Free! 25 min drive from Rotorua
A little hard to find without a map, but just off the main Thermal Explorer Highway, is this little gem. Take a short walk from the parking lot along a well-maintained trail (you could do it barefoot, like a kiwi) to reach the steaming, naturally heated sulphur creek. It just so happens to be a perfect temperature – I don’t know how nature does it. I highly suggest getting in below the waterfall for a quick shoulder massage.
*Pro Budget Tip: Assuming you’re staying in Rotorua over night, I highly recommend the Spa Lodge. Dorm bed prices hover around $20 per night depending on the season, and the cheapest private room is about $65. Rooms are basic af, but the real gem here is the geothermal spa pool out back, which is filled with natural mineral-rich water, and totally free for guests to use. Whaaat, 2 for 1 spa and bed? Who needs the Polynesia Spa?
Hell’s Gate – Tikitere
$75, 15 min drive from Rotorua
You’ve gotta try everything once, right? Why not cover yourself (or someone else) in some mud! It’s supposed to have awesome skin benefits, and let’s be honest, it’s fun to get a little dirty sometimes. Unfortunately, this activity isn’t cheap – a mud bath will run you a whopping $75pp. There’s also a sulphur spa option for $20, orrrrr if you want to splurge and do it all, you can pay $90 to get access to the mad baths, sulphur pools, and the geothermal reserve walk. I have not done this because I am the poor, but if you’re keen on a mud bath and were going to spend $65 at Wai-O-Tapu anyway, I think this is a better bang for your buck.
Bubbling Mud Pools
$Free! All over NZ
If you’re a mud enthusiast but can’t afford to cover yourself with it for $75, you can get the next best thing and stare at a hotter version of it from a safe distance. Bubbling mud pools are all over New Zealand, specifically in this area of the North Island. You’ll see signs for them along the Thermal Explorer Highway, and they can also be found in Kaikoura, Wai-O-Tapu, or any of the previously mentioned Geothermal Parks. A lot of these pools have been bubbling since the Jurassic period or something. K I made that up, but it seems legit. Just don’t touch them!
Tolkien Fans Rejoice
$85, 1 hr drive from Rotorua / 2 hrs from Auckland
The famous home of Bilbo, Frodo, and all their tiny little mates. The filming location of The Shire is the star of Matamata – a town between Auckland and Rotorua, and even if you’re not a LotR fan, it’s worth visiting. The set can only be accessed by tour and as such it seems they can basically charge whatever they want. It’s an extortionate $85 for an hour tour, but at least it includes a beer at the end (or cider, or ginger beer if that’s more your thing). I know I just said it was worth it and then said it was extortionate and I know that’s confusing but somehow it’s both. Defo too expensive, but a really good tour.
Hobbitting on a Budget
$Free – $15, 1 hr drive from Rotorua / 2 hrs from Auckland
If you’re keen to do some hobbity stuff but not like, $85 keen, I suggest visiting the tourist info office in the centre of town, which is built to look like a hobbit house, and is full of souvenirs. After window shopping or picking up a hobbit keychain, have a home cooked meal at the Dew Drop Inn, which is also feels hobbit homey and cozy. You’ll probably be passing through Matamata on your way to Rotorua anyway, and it’s an easy pit stop whether you’re into hobbits or nah.
Dare to Adventure
$400+, 1 hr drive from Rotorua
About as extreme as it gets… Lake Taupo is known for being one of the best places to sky dive – it’s THE spot on the North Island and with good reason. That view! Another huge bonus is that the drive from Rotorua to Taupo is beautiful and almost everything I’ve listed above is nestled along it. You can do some other cool stuff on your way to jump out of a plane.
White Water Rafting
$70-$140, 10 min drive from Rotorua
New Zealand is the home of extreme sports – you have to try something while you’re here. I went white water rafting down Okere Falls without really having any expectations for what that would entail and I was NOT disappointed. It was a blast. It’s a wee bit expensive for a 3ish hour activity, but check GrabOne, Groupon, and BookMe regularly for deals! I lucked out and got it 50% off ($70).
$45 – $120, 10 min drive from Rotorua
I want to meet the person who came up with this. Like why? “Roll down a hill in a giant balloon.” I don’t know what else to say. Give it a go.