Wai Ariki is the new luxury spa on the shores of Lake Rotorua. Developed by the Pukeroa Oruawhata Trust of local iwi Ngāti Whakaue, Wai Ariki is one of just a few indigenous-owned spa operations in the world.
A world-class complex, Wai Ariki combines the healing properties of Rotorua’s geothermal waters with Ngāti Whakaue culture and manaakitanga (hospitality).
Our spa day begins as we’re ushered into an ambient, dark-stone-tiled changing room and presented with ubiquitous white robes, folded like origami. Then, we start our restorative journey – an immersive, beautifully-curated, multi-sensory experience that takes us through elements of hot, cold, wet, dry… and mud.
The first phase is a shock to the system. We’re told to remove our robes and walk, one at a time, through Te Iringa – the cleansing waterfall designed to bless our bodies and our journey through Wai Ariki. As I walk through, five showers automatically start up – a warm spray, a cold fragrant mist that makes me shriek, a powerful two-pronged jet that feels like a massage and a final cold rinse. I emerge, surprised and invigorated, to move on to the next space – fire and ice.
Te Ahi Tupua means ‘the eternal flame.’ At Wai Ariki, this is an area dedicated to opposite ends of the temperature spectrum. Three different types of sauna line one wall, all set at different heats and with varying levels of humidity. One has walls stuffed with aromatic hay; our favourite is designed for halotherapy, with a wall of glowing salt blocks. To offset the heat we’re encouraged to enter the Kaumanga Mātao – the fridgarium – and literally rub ourselves with crushed ice. The ensuing drench from a hanging bucket of ice-cold water takes my breath away.
Next we head to the pools. Set under the soaring arches of the wharenui-inspired building, the five geothermal pools overlook the Rotorua lakefront.
We try them all – shifting between warm alkaline waters and the massaging jets of the hydrotherapy pool. We dip into the cold plunge pool then feel our skin tingle in the hot geothermal water afterwards. My favourite is the herb pool, with a mesmerising garden of native kawakawa and koromiko plants hanging from the ceiling.
Then, Hayley, our spa attendant escorts us through to get dirty. Papatūānuku is the Wai Ariki mud experience. The dollop of silky mud in a small metal bowl looks like chocolate mousse. “Don’t eat it though!” Hayley advises. Instead, we smear it onto our skin, caking our arms, legs, faces and reclining on the warm tiled loungers to let it dry. Once we’re covered in a fine crust we transition to the final phase of the journey a dark, steamy room with heated benches where we sit, reflect and then shower ourselves clean.
But wait, there’s more. Feeling simultaneously relaxed and invigorated we transition to the adjacent sanctuary space for even more indulgence. We slip into the warm waters of another three geothermal pools including Tirotiro Whetū, the Sky Pool. Here, shallow water surrounds a tiled central island designed for manuhiri (visitors) to lie and gaze at the stars. Or clouds, in our case.
We take a break from all the relaxation to share a grazing platter in the tranquil lounge, cocooned in our robes and snuggled under soft knitted blankets before the final phase of the Tānga Mākoa relaxation and tranquility experience – our spa treatments.
My massage begins with the softly-spoken therapist placing a piece of warm pounamu on my sternum and reciting a short karakia to invoke spiritual guidance. An hour passes in what feels like mere minutes and I’m greeted by a second facial therapist who slicks my skin with layers of fragrant balms, creams, serums and spritzes made from native botanicals. At some point I drift off and then startle awake, surprised to find myself still in the dim room filled with gentle te reo melodies.
We eventually emerge from the soothing sanctum, almost catatonic with relaxation – muscles loose, skin smoothed and our mauri (vital energy) well and truly replenished.
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