I come to a halt at the edge of the pool, lowering one foot into the steaming thermal water. Seconds later all limbs have followed suit and, with a shiver, I’m relaxing into the pool’s blissful embrace. This exact moment: this is my idea of heaven.
My sister Olivia and I are in Rotorua, conducting some important research on hot pools in the area. How many can we fit into one weekend? Which is the best. And how long can we stay in before our skin begins to wrinkle permanently? We have removed our silver jewellery, we are armed with our togs, and we are determined to find the answers if it kills us.
Hot pool number one is an old favourite of ours – the glamorous Polynesian Spa.
We hurry quickly past the family zone and head to the tranquil outdoor area, where several large rock pools nudge the edge of Lake Rotorua. When we leave an hour later our fingertips are soggy, our bones warmed-through and our skin impervious to the chilly twilight air.
Back at our hotel, the owner suggests we try their signature cocktail: a bright-green apple martini, made with I’d-rather-not-know-how-much vodka. Apparently the hot water has made us more flexible, because it doesn’t take much to twist our arms.
The next pool is located inside the formidably-named Hell’s Gate – a geothermal reserve a short drive from the city centre. This time we’re shown to a private tub, at the bottom of which is thick, silky mud. Like kids in a sandpit, we scoop it from the water and slather it on our skin to become giggling mud monsters.
After a traditional Maori massage, called a mirimiri, we flop outside to take a walk around the thermal park. It is easy to see why the Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, gave Hell’s Gate its name when he visited a century ago.
With steaming fumaroles, blubbering mud pools and boiling water holes, the whole place is hotter than Hades. As we weave our way around the track, I’m reminded of a childhood game – ‘The Ground is Lava’ – which involved leaping between pieces of furniture until someone inevitably got injured.
We survive unscathed and head to Wai-o-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland, where we wander open-mouthed through acres of alien-like terrain. Everywhere, there are festive displays of mineral deposits – milky green pools and splotches of neon yellow sulphur – but the pièce de résistance is the champagne pool. It’s a vast crater of fizzing turquoise water with a cartoon orange crust, 60 metres deep and hot enough to poach eggs.
“Take a dip?” Olivia jokes, but for once I’m not tempted.
Our hot pool hunting is not over yet, however. We have heard people speak in hushed tones of some secret pools, tucked into a hillside on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. The fact that they are only accessible by boat poses a slight problem, but for the purposes of our research we find a way.
We get to Manupirua pools by way of a luxury catamaran, as you do, reclining happily in beanbags with mugs of fresh coffee and biscuits. Matt, the captain, steers us past holiday homes, jetties and secret bays, navigating the skinny stretch of water until we arrive at the lake’s southern shore. There we find a small jetty and four simple pools wedged into a bush-clad hill, all empty, as if waiting just for us.
The horror of putting on a wet bikini is short-lived, and before long we’re back in hot water, bathing in steamy dappled light beneath an arching ponga fern.
This is it, we decide, looking out at the glittering lake framed by sloping redwood hills. We’ve found the best hot pool in Rotorua, and we’re not getting out until our fingers look like prunes.
Where to stay
Places to visit
Reported by Alice Galletly for our AA Directions Winter 2019 issue