Rotorua: an epic journey

“Let’s go to Rotorua,” my husband announced one evening. He was standing at the sink with his arms up to the elbows in suds, washing the dinner dishes.

I blinked. A holiday? Really? He wants to go on holiday?

“Can I just confirm that you are actually suggesting that we go on holiday?” I cautiously enquired.


“Can we go next weekend then?” I blurted.

“Next weekend?” he asked without turning round. “Why next weekend?”

“Why not?” I countered.

“Well, I’m meeting up with friends for one thing,” he said, pulling an ugly 1970’s casserole dish out of the water and plonking it unceremoniously on the plastic dish drainer.

“Oh. Ok, the weekend after that then,” I proposed, feeling a trifle miffed that I didn’t have any friends to meet up with.

“It’s a long way to go for just a weekend,” he mused.

Rotorua is over half way up the North Island, an hour north of Lake Taupō (pronounced ‘toe-paw’) and closer to Auckland than it is to Wellington. It’s at least a 5 hour drive and that’s not taking bathroom or food breaks into account.

“Could you take a week off or something?” I asked, already knowing the answer would be no before the word ‘could’ left my mouth.



“But I could I take the Friday off.” He turned around, his arms dripping suds onto the floor. “Then we could leave early Friday and then have an extra afternoon to do stuff in Rotorua. Would that work?”

So that was the plan. The school was fine with us taking both children out for the day (they were grateful we asked – most parents apparently don’t even tell them!) so I set about booking up a motel.

Why Rototua? Because it’s the Las Vegas of New Zealand, baby! Rotorua has so many attractions ranging from geothermal reserves with dramatic multicoloured lakes of sulphurous, boiling water, bubbling mud pools and fascinating Maori culture to a whole range of ways to scare the living daylights out of yourself such the reverse bungee, high speed jet boating, zorbing, zip-lining and luging. Ideally, you’d want a week there but I was happy to get an extended weekend away, the first proper holiday we’d had in nearly 7 years.

So I started looking for somewhere for us to stay. The wish list was long:

  1. there must be at least 2 bedrooms which were either interconnecting or be part of an apartment (I WILL NOT share a room with my children);
  2. it must have a spa bath or thermal pool;
  3. it had to be near amenities and activates; and
  4. it had to be not so eye-wateringly expensive that you make a point of pocketing all the complimentary toiletries and seriously consider bagging the robes too just so you can get your money’s worth.

After a long online search, I came across the Regal Palms Resort which offered a two bedroom apartment with a kitchenette and two bathrooms, one of which had a spa bath. Perfect. The price on was well over budget but when I gingerly entered our dates and requirements into the resort’s own website, I found the same apartment for $200 less. Ignoring my children’s loud objections at having to share a room, I quickly booked it up.

We set out at 9am on Friday morning. After a quick coffee stop in Ōtaki , we set off down State Highway 1. And that’s pretty much where we stayed. State Highway 1 runs the length of the North Island from top to bottom and is the main arterial road between Auckland and Wellington. We would need to hang a right on to State Highway 5 when we reached Taupō but other than that, those were the only two roads we’d be travelling on until we reached Rotorua.

Our journey from Waikanae to Rotorua via SH1 and SH5

Unbelievably, most of State Highway 1 between Waikanae and Taupō is a single lane and it doesn’t bypass anywhere. It literally passes straight through the middle of smallest of towns and the speed limit regularly drops to 50km in built up areas. Can you imagine having to keep slowing down to 30mph on the M4? Oh wait…..

There are some parts of State Highway 1 that are dual carriageway and occasionally you come across slow lanes alongside passing lanes, particularly at the start of a hill. But some of these passing lanes are frighteningly short. Just when you think you’ve got enough time to pass the tanker/cement lorry/little old lady in a Honda, you see the yellow, triangular lane merging sign looming up on the side of the road which calmly announces that you and the tanker/cement lorry/little old lady in a Honda will be sharing the same piece of road in less than 200m. You floor the accelerator praying you’ve got enough time to pass and hoping that there’s not a traffic cop hiding round the corner as you watch your speedometer rise over the 100km limit. If you’ve timed it well, you can casually indicate back in and quickly drop your speed without looking like too much of a cretin. If you haven’t, you have the choice of slamming on the brakes, dropping back in behind the tanker/cement lorry/little old lady in a Honda and enraging the ute driver behind you who had also tried to overtake, or keep your foot rammed on the accelerator and hope there’s nothing coming the other way. New Zealand roads are pretty wide and relatively empty so you’ve got a good chance of making it but honestly, it’s not worth the adrenaline spike. Save that for Rotorua.

We stopped for lunch at the Army Museum. Apparently this has been the pitstop of choice for New Zealand families making the journey between Wellington and Taupō or Rotorua for decades. I was a little skeptical at first but actually The Mess Tent is a great little café.

As was to be expected, it was military themed with rustic chipboard frontings, olive green walls, and camouflage netting wrapped around the structural columns. They had even used old storage cases as tables. The food was delicious and reasonably priced and the stunning view of Mount Ruapehu (of which I completely forgot to take a photo!) made it a perfect place take a break.

Cleverley repurposed army storage case
Army-style menu
Delicious sweet treats: ANZAC biscuits, Afghans, coconut ice and rum & raisin balls.
A parachuting display!

We didn’t have time to explore the museum itself but there were a few military things on display in the car park outside.

An armoured personal carrier (aka The M113)
A centurion tank
A BOFORS 40mm anti-aircraft gun

Once back in the car, we got back on to State Highway 1 and started driving down The Desert Road. This remote section of road runs for 63km through Rangipo’s alpine desert and would be mind-numbingly boring to drive along if you didn’t have the breathtaking views of Tongariro National Park’s volcanoes and mountains to look at. For all you Lord of The Rings fans out there, a lot of the orc army scenes in Peter Jackson’s movie were shot in the Rangipo Desert.

Orc country at the start of the Desert Road
Mount Ruapehu (pronounced roo-a-pay-hoo)

The photo above is Mount Ngauruhoe (pronounced nah-eu-ru-ho-eh). It’s New Zealand’s youngest and most historically active volcano although the last eruption was in 1975. It was used as the Mount Doom filming location in Lord of The Rings and while you can climb it, the peak is sacred to the local iwi (Maori tribe) so they have respectfully requested that visitors don’t climb to the summit. While it’s not actually illegal, it would be hugely disrespectful to disregard the local iwi’s connection to the land and the mountain.

Even without scaling to the peak, the hike is not for the faint hearted. It’s apparently a very intense climb with the ground mostly comprising ash and loose rock, and an even more intimidating descent; kudos to Frodo and Sam. Given that I can’t even make it up Hemi Matenga without turning purple, I don’t think I’ll be returning to climb it any time soon……..or be invited on a quest to destroy the one ring to rule them all.

Eventually we reached the magnificent lake Taupō and followed the road around the eastern part of the perimeter which took longer than I had anticipated; the entire perimeter of Lake Taupo is roughly 183km. We then took State Highway 5 and arrived at the Regal Palms Resort in Rotorua an hour or so later.

After collecting our door cards from reception we wondered back over to the apartment building and took the lift to the first floor. The apartment itself was just as described although the location in the complex wasn’t brilliant; it was stuck in a corner next to the lift and didn’t get much natural light. But given that we weren’t intending to spend much time in there during the daytime, the light issue wasn’t a problem.

The apartment complex at The Regal Palms Resort
Lounge and dining area with kitchenette; check the size of the TV!
Main bedroom
The insanely big spa bath in the main bathroom

After completing the traveller’s ritual of testing out all the beds, opening all the drawers and rifling through the complimentary drinks and toiletries, we set of for our first adventure in Rotorua: Skyline.


3 responses to “Rotorua: an epic journey”

  1. Your first hols in NZ! Can’t wait to hear more about it. PS I’m wondering if that ugly 1970s casserole dish was one of mine!


  2. Great read. I’m pleased you tell the reader how to say the names of places!
    Look forward to the next episode.


  3. Jenny Elliott Avatar
    Jenny Elliott

    Love it! Seems like you’re settling right in Rebecca.


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