The North Island's geothermal hotspot is renowned for its adventure activities and tourist attractions. But Rotorua also has plenty of fabulous things to do for free.
1. Garden rambles
Government Gardens covers 20 hectares alongside Lake Rotorua. Central to it is the splendid mock-Tudor building, constructed as a spa in 1908, but more recently home to the museum and art gallery. While the building is now closed to the public due to undue earthquake risk, it's still a magnificent sight. There are bowling greens, croquet courts and the 1930s Blue Baths. The gardens are an interesting combination of English formality and weird geothermal activity. The area around Sulphur Lake, which is opaque creamy green, has a sculpture trail with 17 artworks. The sculpture has an ANZAC theme and, because this is Te Arawa territory, most artworks have Māori associations.
The thermal activity gives this walk a curious visual beauty and the sculpture is emotionally moving.
2. Sulphur sanctuary
Sulphur Point Wildlife Sanctuary edges Lake Rotorua. The path passes steaming ditches, hot springs and silica flats. The lake water is warm and has a milky sulphurous patina. Sixty species of birds have been recorded here, thriving in the thermal warmth. Pūkeko hot-foot around steaming ponds, little black shags nest in trees, seagulls nest in thatches of grass on islands and hundreds of scaup populate a man-made floating island lush with grass. Black and white swans cruise, geese mow the lawns and paradise ducks shriek and honk. The birds live here for warmth, refuge and because it’s close to food in other parts of the lake.
The Māori village at Ōhinemutu, edging Lake Rotorua, is not a tourist village. The homes belong to Ngāti Whakaue, a sub-tribe of Te Arawa, and cluster around Te Papaiouru Marae. The meeting house is ornately carved and faces St Faith’s Church across a courtyard. The 1915 mock-Tudor church has an English exterior but the inside is magnificently Māori. The walls are made of intricately woven tukutuku panels and the pews, pulpit and altar are beautifully carved. The lake-edge Galilee Chapel was added in 1960. It has a large glass window etched with a Māori Christ, wearing a traditional cloak and apparently walking on water. It’s ethereal and sublime.
4. Ōkere Falls
Take a walk in Ōkere Scenic Reserve. The reserve, 15 minutes’ drive from Rotorua, follows the Kaituna River. The river is a famous white-water rafting destination and Ōkere Falls, with a drop of three metres, is New Zealand’s highest rafted waterfall. Watching is free.
The views of this bush-surrounded river, its waterfalls and trout pools, make the walk exceptional and, often, includes hapless rafters zooming down, shrieking with fear and delight.
5. Eat Street
Austerity shouldn't apply to beer. Eat Street, in central Rotorua, is a trendy pedestrian mall with 14 restaurants, cafés and bars all with al fresco tables. BREW, a craft beer bar, is a great place to chill out. You can marvel at what a lovely city Rotorua is, where you can have a varied day out and, except for the beer, it hasn’t cost anything.