Though the well-known geysers and geo-thermal pools are a uniquely Rotorua spectacle to enjoy here in Aotearoa New Zealand, this sulphurous central North Island city has much, much more to explore.
Seen by many as the nation’s cultural capital, Rotorua’s many traditional Māori experiences educate and delight visitors, while rich natural landscapes, arts, activities, and adventures abound. This land-locked, lake-filled wonder has plenty to offer school groups of all ages, abilities, and sizes.
Travel-wise, it’s a winner; being accessible by car or coach in a few hours from anywhere in the North Island. Direct flights are available from Christchurch for South Island visitors, as are flights from Auckland and Wellington. It’s an easy city to navigate by road and it’s 18 lakes offer plenty of opportunity to get out on the water.
Rotorua is beset by spectacular geothermal parks in and around the city, every one of them provides a unique, surreal – if sour-scented – experience. Bubbling mud pools, spouting geysers, steaming vents, boiling lakes and colourful sinter terraces provide great opportunities for learning across geography, geology, and the sciences. These natural phenomena also provide fantastic photography opportunities.
Arguably the best place in Aotearoa New Zealand to experience the traditional customs, practices and beliefs of Māori, Rotorua is home to several authentic, mesmerising cultural tours and performances. Showcasing historic lifestyles and traditions, mythology and art, tours and experiences allow visitors to learn how to dance with poi or perform a haka, enjoy a traditional pōhiri and experience mouth-watering hāngī. While paddling a beautifully carved waka along the shores of Lake Rotorua, visitors can learn about the local Māori of Ohinemutu Village and beyond.
If you’re up for giving your students an adrenaline-fuelled experience, activities such as zorbing, luge racing and zip-lining can make challenging yet memorable team-building activities for students, and staff.
One of Rotorua’s most famous must-do adventure activities is whitewater rafting on the Kaituna River, home to the world’s highest commercially raftable waterfall.
The Redwoods Forest of Rotorua provides opportunities for students to overcome fears: heights and the dark. Since its opening in 2016, visitors have flocked to the Redwoods Nightlights – a 700-metre long, forest canopy walking experience that provides a unique birds’ eye view from six to 20 metres above the ground, furnished with spectacular lanterns.
For sports-centred trips, particularly mountain biking, Rotorua is a world-famous destination. Whakarewarewa Forest is a maze of 200 kilometres of purpose-built mountain biking trails to suit everyone from beginner kids through to extreme downhill competitors. Some of the area’s other top spots for mountain biking trails are Rainbow Mountain, Skyline Rotorua Gravity Park, Moerangi Track, Western Okataina Walkway, the Timber Trail and Whirinaki Forest.
Rotorua is only one of four places in the world to feature on the elite Crankworx World Tour calendar. It is a pinnacle event to watch for aspiring mountain bikers and is next due to be held between November 1-7 this year.
As well as its three lakes, Rotorua is home to three major rivers, which all provide opportunities for fun on the water. Paddleboarding, kayaking and other self-propelled watersports are popular with tour groups, while jet boating provides high-octane thrills on lake and river. Jet boat tours can transport tours to pristine Mokoia Island or to a natural hot waterfall and hidden geothermal valley called The Squeeze.
Staying in Rotorua can be as much fun as the adventure activities on offer, with back to nature camping options aplenty to extend learning experiences. Accommodation options vary from basic tents to bunks in dormitories, to open air shelters and the more well-catered cabins. Age and accessibility requirements, dictate different needs, so schools must strike the balance between comfort and activity level, while allowing students of all abilities to feel supported, which is not always an easy ask! Don’t underestimate the knowledgebase of accommodation providers – they are used to school groups and may have packages and tips of their own to share so touch base early.
Upcoming exhibitions in Rotorua include the Iwi Living Exhibition: Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao, which comprises a range of collaborative events to experience stories from Tūhourangi Ngāti Wāhiao. Heled at Rotorua Library Te Aka Mauri, the event is free for all ages and runs from May 24 to June 6.
Rotorua Energy Events Centre and Rotorua International Stadium play host to events throughout the year, from sports to music performances and expos. Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa, The Sir Howard Morrison Performing Arts Centre and Rotorua Civic Theatre are all set to reopen this year, following lengthy closures for seismic upgrading work. All will be freshly strengthened and revitalised ready to welcome visitors for 2021-22.
The 3D Trick Art Gallery (below) provides an enlightening educational experience, providing more than just art to observe; there is art you can jump into and be a part of. This experience is nestled within the world-renowned Rotorua Heritage Farm complex, with its Heritage Farm Tours and café.
A WWII amphibious duck vehicle tour is a unique, quirky offering and the aMAZEme attraction can provide tour groups with puzzling escape challenges through its 1.4km maze. Kuirau Park is just a few minutes’ walk from the city centre and its paths lead you to mud and hot pools. These particular pools are too hot to bathe in, however visitors can soak their feet in the free, more comfortably warm, foot bath.
Further afield, just 25 minutes’ drive along State Highway 5, visitors can visit Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Where, at the base of Mount Tarawera, Lake Rotomahana sits – the final resting place of the Pink and White Terraces. Often considered the ‘8th Wonder of the World’, the Pink and White Terraces are a long-lost natural treasure that served as a popular tourism destination in the 1800s, until they were buried in the 1886 eruption of Mt Tarawera. Boat cruises operate across the fabled lake to allow visitors to experience geothermal wonders only accessible by boat. The free Waimangu app includes information and features on a self-guided walk and unveils the Pink and White Terraces and other features, via augmented reality.
There is little risk of hearing the words, ‘I’m bored’, around Rotorua.