Get into hot water in Taupō and Rotorua on a winter road trip. Photo by Secret Spot Hot Tubs.

Road trip: exploring the hot pools of Taupō and Rotorua

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Steam swirls through coloured lights, dancing through the chilly air to the music of burbling water. In the twilight, people bob submerged to their necks. We step into the warmth to join them, savouring the moment of relief as heat hits cold skin.

We’d planned an entire road trip around that anticipation of easing into hot springs.

Leaving Auckland mid-afternoon, we’d made a beeline for our first pools – Wairākei Terraces just north of Taupō. It was a Sunday, early winter, and the pools were busy. But as only adults come here, it was a peaceful busy-ness; it wasn’t hard to find spots to relax in private and feel the blissful heat spread through our bodies.

Over the next few days, we indulged in as many hot springs as we could manage, all in the geothermal hotspot of the central North Island.

Also indulgent was our transport. The borrowed Mercedes-AMG GLC 43 SUV was perfect for this trip – the sprint from Auckland to Taupō, then, from there, meandering from hot pool to hot pool. A very safe, decent-sized SUV, its hybrid qualities provided a boost of power on winding, hilly roads and kept an economical pace for the open stretches. We quickly became attached. 

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The borrowed Mercedes AGM-GLC was perfect for a road trip. Photo by Kath Webster

And felt a bit flash, too, parking at De Bretts the following morning. De Bretts is an iconic family pool complex on the Napier-Taupō road. We were keen to see if much had changed since our childhood visits decades ago. We remembered there being more pools; and when did the waterslides arrive? It felt tired, but current renovations were a promising sign.

Leaving Taupō we headed east, crossing the flat and somewhat alien stretch dominated by massive farms and geothermal chimneys. That’s the thing about hot springs; they’re a symptom of seismic energy and that’s a constant of this region. Steam, geysers, sulphuric smells and multi-coloured landscapes have long attracted tourists. Once, it was specifically to see the famous Pink and White Terraces but that changed in 1886, when Mount Tarawera erupted.

A visit to Waimangu Volcanic Valley tells the story of that hugely dramatic event in its otherworldly, gassy landscape. This is the world’s youngest geothermal valley, also featuring the world’s largest hot spring, along with multiple craters, geysers, unusual plant life, brightly coloured deposits and algae.

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Lake Rotomahana lies at the bottom of Waimangu Volcanic Valley. Photo by Kath Webster.

At the bottom of the valley is Lake Rotomahana. The day of our visit was utterly still, with puffy clouds reflected in the lake and Mount Tarawera towering benignly, serenely.

A cruise took us closer to steaming cliffs, shooting geysers and fumaroles and we heard about how the eruption changed the very nature of where we were.

It was time for another swim; we headed to nearby Waikite Valley Hot Pools, set in a pocket of velvety-green farmland shrouded in clouds of steam billowing steadily and enthusiastically. We tried landscaped pools of varying temperatures. Several swimmers were camped next door; what a great idea, we thought. You could melt into relaxation then roll in a sleepy daze to your campervan.   

However, continuing our theme of indulgence, we’d booked a room at the Regent of Rotorua. A stylish, modern space awaited us in the hotel’s new wing. And even though the Regent is conveniently set in the heart of Rotorua, it was quiet and private.

Not that we spent much time there: we’d arranged to spend the evening at Te Puia for Te Po, a full-combo tour of the national Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, Whakarewarewa geothermal valley, the kiwi enclosure, a spectacularly good buffet and a cultural performance. As we waited under the pearly dusk sky for the predictable expulsion of the Pōhutu geyser we realised just how extraordinary this place is. Everyone around us were clearly thrilled by what they were seeing, smelling, tasting and experiencing.

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Exploring the geothermal activity at Te Puia, Rotorua. Photo by Kath Webster.

It had been a few hours since we’d been in hot water so the next morning we drove to Secret Spot Hot Tubs on the edge of Whakarewarewa Forest. Here, individual wooden tubs, filled with fresh water the perfect temperature for relaxation rather than enervation, are set in private gardens hidden down bushy tracks.

Because it was morning, we declined the offer of local beer, wine or something delicious from the menu and instead opted for coffees – delivered to our tub. We climbed, with much shrieking, into freezing cold plunge baths for a re-set before running back to our delicious warm retreat. What a glorious start to the day!

Keen for a better view of Lake Rotorua, we borrowed electric motorbikes. Designed in New Zealand, UBCO bikes are powered by electric motors on both wheels so they’re zippy. We scooted up a forestry track behind the Adventure Playground, a park just out of Rotorua that also offers horse treks, 4x4 adventures and claybird shooting. A local guide, Ihaea, led us up the hill and shared knowledge of the area which we felt honoured to be privy to.

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UBCO electric motorbikes are a great way to explore. Photo by Kath Webster.

Back in the Mercedes we followed signs along a farm track and came to a gate overlooking a pretty valley. We parked here, gathered our things, and set off on foot along a narrow sheep track. River sounds came from beyond a hedge of high trees ringing with birdsong. At the base of a softly rounded hill we spotted our home for the night. The PurePod was a glass box, all windows, sliding doors and a glass roof. On the wide deck was a barbecue; indoors was a cosy set-up of kitchenette, small table, a luxurious bed and a bathroom – all clad in glass. Despite the openness, it felt very private in that secluded valley. Having ordered a hamper, we fired up the barbecue as the sun set.

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The PurePod was a glassy haven for the night. Photo by Kath Webster.

Despite our reluctance to leave this blissful setting we had somewhere even more indulgent to be that evening.

Wai Ariki is the fabulous new spa in Rotorua. From the moment we stepped into the architecturally fascinating building, we were mesmerised. After an introduction to what lay ahead, including a gentle blessing, we stepped through a line of rain-like showers to an assortment of saunas, interspersed with vigorous ice-rubs and freezing knee-high water to wade through. Into warm then hot then warm then cool pools, we dipped and soaked, before lazing luxuriantly on underwater beds frothing with water jets. From there, we wandered to the mud room where we smothered our now thoroughly pliant skin with silky mud. Once caked and dried and rested, we stepped into steam room to soften the mud before washing it off. 

After spending two hours in this warm bliss, we left feeling restored – as promised – and like we’d been dunked in goodness.

By the time we’d walked by torchlight back to our PurePod, gentle rain was falling. It meant no stars through the glass roof, but it was cosy and comforting to be warm and dry yet connected to the weather, the perfect end to our restorative journey.

 

Story by Kath Webster for the Winter 2024 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Kath Webster is the Editor of AA Directions magazine. 


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