We have only three days in New Zealand, time for just one place. We choose Rotorua on the North Island because, well, for no other reason than there’s a timeshare resort there. We resign ourselves to visiting the “island that’s not so pretty” and going to an area that people say “stinks,” and promise ourselves another trip, another time, to Milford Sound. When we get to Rotorua, though, we find it’s beautiful.
Our plane is delayed, and we arrive as the airport is shutting down. We rush to get to the car rental desk before it closes at 8:30. It’s easy to rush in the tiny Rotorua airport––auto rents and baggage claim are just inside the door. Rain is coming down hard when we drive the ten minutes from the small airport to our resort. By the time we pick up the keys from an alcove holding “late arrival” envelopes, find our unit, and lug our suitcases, we are wet and hungry. On the counter, we spy a nice-looking menu of the on-site restaurant, open until 9:00 PM. I look at my watch: 9:10.
We head to town and look for a grocery or restaurant. A McDonald’s is all lit up a little past the airport. We definitely don’t want McDonald’s, we’re unanimous on that. No open stores or quickie marts, but we do see a Burger King––that could work in an emergency, but we want a real restaurant. Finally, on a major corner. We park in back and at the front door, one lone girl sits there, smoking a cigarette. “We’re closed.” She tells us to go down the cross-street where a lot of things are open.
We drive over that way and see nothing open, keeping our windows up: the rain has stopped but a strong rotten egg odor hangs in the streets. Just before we give up, we see a lighted sign saying “Bistro and Cafe.” Parking nearby, we hear laughter and voices – a welcome sound in this town that looks to be sound asleep for the night. “This might be good.” But when at the door, we turn quickly around, almost as one. “Or not.” It looks to be a biker bar, filled with pool tables, tattoos, cleavage, and big guys hoisting big drinks. On the sidewalk, a rough-looking dude putting on his jacket smiles to himself when he hears us. He saunters in as we drive off.
Burger King it is, then, and we see people inside––a good sign. But the door is locked, employees are mopping––it closed at 10:00. We’re there at 10:03. We head to another McDonalds close by, where the sign says “Open 24 hours.” At least the air doesn’t smell of sulphur inside, but that may be the only good thing. The restaurant (using the term loosely) is staffed by young people and filled with teens, the counter loaded with trays holding dozens of coke shakes, the tables sticky and cluttered. I force down a cheeseburger, the worst sandwich I’ve ever had. We eat and leave, still hungry and only slightly less grumpy. (Shoulda stayed in and stuck to the granola bars in our bags.)
The next morning, we see that the resort’s units open onto a series of canals––no wonder we had difficulty deciphering the map last night in the rainy dark. At least we didn’t drive into the water, which would have been easy to do.
All is quiet, the air smells fresh––a peaceful contrast to our search for food the evening before. I open the sliding door to our patio and black geese swim up, looking for handouts.
Too early for the resort restaurant that opens at 9 AM, we are told by the desk that there is a good cafe a couple miles farther up the road, in Okere Falls. Like everything else, it would have been closed the evening before, but we’re happy to find it now.
The sign at the door says “Kia Ora,” Welcome. Inside, though, the sign on the beer case gives a different message. Everyone is friendly and nice––maybe they think we’re Canadian. The air is fresh here too––in fact, the only offensive sulphur odor seems to be in Rotorua itself. The cafe features all natural, organic, and tasty options.
Cute little gift shop, too. Freezers contain some nice options to take back and cook at the unit, if you are so inclined and have the time. We will eat here again, tomorrow.
In Australia, some Kiwis mentioned a Maori show called Tamaki, but the resort recommends that we see the Mitai show because it’s more authentic, and not as commercialized. Good advice. This excellent show is put on by one big clan, with explanations about their customs and a frank admission that they used to be cannibals. The energetic shows are fun––they do a thing with their eyes.
The food is good––the best part of the meal is a traditional Maori bread. The guide tells us later that it is made from a root that they harvest from a tree that (if I remember correctly) is poisonous, but the internet tells me that it is a sourdough bread made with a potato starter. I might have mis-understood the poisonous part, but one thing I am sure of: the bread is delicious.
After dinner we enjoy a night-time walk past dozens of glow-worms hanging in the bushes, to the huge spring where the village gets all its water, collected one bottle at a time for our dinner table. Better than store-bought.
The next morning we wake up to a heavy rain that ends after breakfast, just in time for a busy day sightseeing. We trek through a forest of California redwoods mixed with native tree ferns, a peaceful area with well-marked pathways,
then drive on past clear-cut logged areas to beautiful Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake). There we see almost no people––just one person fishing from the shore and a young Japanese couple enjoying a picnic lunch in front of their little camping van.
Heading back to the resort, we detour to Hell’s Gate Sulphur Springs. One can easily see why George Bernard Shaw gave the other-wordly landscape that name.
The sulphur pits are bubbling hot and would be lethal if one fell in. One must stay on the walkways.
Then we change and luxuriate in a not-quite-hot-enough hot tub, shower with a scented soap, and go home rested and happy. We were told not to wear any jewelry in the water or for 24 hours after, and as soon as I go to bed, I understand why. The strong sulphur smell emanating from my skin keeps me awake.
As we head for Fiji, we all agree: this tiny corner of New Zealand is beautiful. If you only have a few days, you could do a lot worse than a visit to Rotorua.
Just remember, though: they roll up the sidewalks real early.
Date of travel: May 2018
Resort: Ramada Resort Rotorua Marama