Nestled in the bubbling, beating heart of the Central North Island, Rotorua represents one of the few unique places in the world where geothermal phenomena are intense
Rotorua is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a geothermal field extending from White Island off the Bay of Plenty Coast, to Mt Ruapehu far to the south. The volcanic crater lakes, spouting geysers, bubbling mud pools, hissing fumaroles and colourful sinter terraces that feature throughout this area have drawn visitors to Rotorua since the 1800s, and remain just as enticing and intriguing today.
Geothermal history a gift
This geothermal bounty of nature has long been regarded as a gift from the gods. The earliest Ma-ori legends speak of a priest from Hawaiki, considered the ancestral home of Ma-ori, who guided the Te Arawa waka (canoe) to New Zealand. As he travelled up the coast from Maketu to the magnificent mountains of the Tongariro National Park, he became deathly cold and prayed to his sisters in Hawaiki to send fire demons to warm him. The demons travelled under the earth’s crust from Hawaiki to reach the priest atop Mt Tongariro and warm him, leaving a steaming, bubbling trail of thermal activity in their wake. And so it is that geothermal activity came to the region and Te Arawa people became its guardians.
Tourism and the eighth wonder of the world
Beginning in the 14th Century, Rotorua’s rich cultural history is one of the earliest in the country, ignited by its geothermal marvels and the life force it offered to those who lived here.
Thanks to this, Rotorua became the birthplace of New Zealand tourism, with the famed Pink and White Terraces considered the eighth wonder of the world. Intrepid 19th century visitors travelled from all over the world to experience the terraces, as well as the local Ma-ori culture and hospitality.
The glistening terraces formed near Mt Tarawera on the shores of Lake Rotomahana’s silica-rich waters, warmed by the magma below. Visitors travelled for months by sea and days by horseback to reach Rotorua. They would then be escorted by local guides, New Zealand’s very first hosts, across Lake Tarawera by waka (canoe) and on to the fabled terraces. Then they would soak in the thermal hot springs, before enjoying a cultural evening of entertainment from the local people.
However, in 1886 Mt Tarawera had a devastating eruption, destroying the terraces and engulfing two
nearby villages, nearly destroying a third, killing around 150 people. Afterwards, many of the survivors were offered land at Te Whakarewarewa Valley. As those displaced settled into their new home, Te Whakarewarewa Valley became the new home of
guiding and hospitality.
That tradition of guiding and sharing Rotorua’s cultural heritage continues today in the valley at Te Puia.
History alive today
Te Puia takes its origin from the heritage of Te Whakarewarewa Valley, where guides escorted visitors from the late 1800s to experience its gushing waters and steaming vents, powerful energies and natural beauty.
Te Puia spans 70 hectares within the historic Te Whakarewarewa Valley, on the outskirts of Rotorua, and is home to the world-famous Pohutu Geyser which explodes up to 30m high into the air, bubbling mud pools, hot springs and silica formations. With many of Te Puia’s guides and staff today directly descended from the original settlers in Te Whakarewarewa Valley, the
history of the
valley lives on through the stories that have been shared with visitors for generations.
Te Puia builds on the valley’s foundations of openness and manaakitanga (hospitality), offering today’s visitors new ways to experience and interact with Ma-ori culture and the natural geothermal environment. One tasty way of sampling a piece of history and culture is inviting guests to taste food traditionally cooked in the ground using hot rocks and steam, as well as food cooked in natural hot water cooking pools.
Te Whakarewarewa Valley is also home to the New Zealand Ma-ori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI), the national schools of wood carving, weaving, pounamu (greenstone), stone and bone carving. NZMACI was established under an act of parliament in 1963 to perpetuate these traditional art forms.
Te Puia|NZMACI are custodians of New Zealand’s treasured Ma-ori heritage, through preserving and sharing their people’s history and knowledge. In the Ma-ori world, connections between people are integral to their culture. Whakapapa (shared origins) define that world, and these relationships are maintained and honoured throughout the generations. Visitors to Rotorua can become a part of that heritage by experiencing Te Whakarewarewa Valley, its people and their stories.
Spa of the South Pacific
As with Rotorua’s guiding legacy, Rotorua’s spa heritage also survived the destruction of the Pink and White Terraces.
Thermal baths have been used in Europe for centuries for the treatment of a wide variety of illnesses. Spas became fashionable during the 18th and early 19th centuries as relaxing meeting places for royalty and leading society
figures, as well as places to “take the cure”. The rich, ill and famous consulted balneologists who treated diseases with baths and water cures.
Rotorua became known as a bathing destination before the eruption of Mt Tarawera, when people came not only to see the Pink and White Terraces, but to bathe on the edge of Lake Rotorua in an area known as Te Kauanga, were a variety of thermal pools were nestled amongst pumice, sulphur and manuka.
In 1878 Father Mahoney, a Catholic Priest from Tauranga disabled with arthritis, was carried to Rotorua to bathe in the small waiariki (spring) known by the local people as Te Pupunitanga. After soaking in its acidic waters he was able to walk back to Tauranga ‘cured’, and the pool became known as the “Priest’s Bath”.
A number of bath houses were established in Rotorua in the years following to tempt wealthy northern hemisphere patrons to travel far from home, both at the site of the Priest’s Bath and surrounding areas that were also rich in geothermal activity. Bath houses were also built as treatment sites for sanatorium patients and later as treatment facilities for soldiers. Rotorua’s most famous building, the Rotorua Museum – known at the turn of last century as the Great South Seas Spa – also used to be such a site where people could “take to the waters”.
Bath structures gradually became more imposing as the years went on, including the Duchess Baths built on the site of the Priest Spa in 1901 to celebrate a visit by the
Ultimate geothermal wellness
Today, the Polynesian Spa inhabits the site of the Duchess Baths, taking great care to acknowledge the over 130 years of rich bathing history of the area. Part of the bath house that was last built in the 1930s is incorporated into Polynesian Spa’s building today and the site is part of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.
As well as the Priest’s Bath, renowned for its effect on tired muscles, aches and pains due to the acidity levels of the water, a second spring also feeds into Polynesian Spa. The Rachael Spring provides bathers with alkaline water renowned for its skin-soothing properties due to its sodium silicate content. An old local belief is that those who swim in the Rachel Spring water will receive ageless beauty. Polynesian Spa is the only spa destination that incorporates both types of water for ultimate bathing wellness.
Polynesian Spa’s historic site has evolved over time, and as well as
offering hot mineral bathing to visitors with its 26 pools, it also has a vast array of spa therapy treatments that harness Rotorua’s unique geothermal properties such as volcanic mud wraps. Other natural spa treatments are based on the likes of honey and pure essential oils.
Taking great care to acknowledge its roots as being one of the oldest international spas in New Zealand, Polynesian Spa focuses on whole body wellness and has consistently been ranked in the top 10 spa destinations in the world by readers of the UK Conde Nast Traveller Magazine.
Experience past, present and future
With a history of tourism and hospitality as deep as many of its volcanic crevasses, Rotorua’s incredibly unique landscape has much to offer both local and international visitors, with a vast array of options and price ranges to suit every budget.
Rotorua and the surrounding region has six geothermal parks and five spa destinations, as well as many other public access geothermal features and mineral pools that are worthy of exploring.
Come and take a peek into the cultural past, experience the heavenly present of soaking in mineral pools, and taste a little of the future as these geothermal phenomena live on to be experienced for many more generations to come.