Back in the day, no one thought very much of Rotorua.
The real action was nearby at the little township of Ōhinemutu, from where you could hire a waka and a guide to take you to the Pink and White Terraces. Rotorua was known as ‘Rotten Egg Town.'
When the Duke of Edinburgh visited in 1870 to ‘take the waters,’ however, and the Government realised just how deeply people believed in the healing powers of thermal springs and hot mud, Rotorua – which had hot water and boiling bogs to burn – suddenly began to look like a tourist bonanza waiting to happen. The Government appointed an official balneologist and set about developing Rotten Egg Town as a health spa.
Although the Bathhouse that was the focal point of that original health spa was converted to become the Rotorua Museum (and is now closed for earthquake strengthening work), there are still many spa facilities in and around Rotorua. One of the most popular is located in the Hell’s Gate geothermal reserve.
Before you take the plunge, you can have a poke around the park. Like many parts of the landscape around Rotorua, fumaroles and mini-geysers pock the ground everywhere, after all, this is a town where even the stormwater drains in the street pour forth steam. There’s a lively mud pool called the Devil’s Cauldron, which cheerfully belches. There’s a mini-volcano that spurts globules of mud into the air. The park’s main geyser is the reliable Lady Knox, which jets superheated water 30m into the air.
There’s a thermally-fed waterfall, the highest in the southern hemisphere and alongside this, there’s the spa, where you can immerse yourself in hot, mineral-rich mud, soak in sulphurous pools and afterwards enjoy an invigorating session of mirimiri, or a traditional massage.
In the same general area, there’s the fascinating Waimangu Volcanic Valley, where you can see the Frying Pan Lake, the largest hot spring in the world, at a high simmer. There’s also what looks for all the world like a large swimming pool, turquoise blue, 30 metres across and surrounded by fluted limestone walls. The name gives the game away. If anyone asked you whether you fancied a dip in Inferno Crater, what do you suppose your answer would be? Safer to stick to Hell’s Gate, just as the therapeutic mud of Hell’s Gate sticks to you.