Comparisons between Rotorua and Queenstown are inevitable. But while Queenstown is considered an international adventure playground, Rotorua has had more of a ‘joe public’ tourist reputation, catering as much for locals as for jet-setters.

But the Rotorua of today, a scant two and a half hours by road from Auckland, is more than just thermal pools, gondola rides and the home of the Zorb.

Indeed, outside of skiing, it offers as much as its South Island resort equivalent. More, in fact, when you consider its volcanic and cultural offerings. 

The local council is halfway through its $40 million lakefront boardwalk and terracing development, which is a vote of confidence in the city. It’s bringing in outside development money, including for the most recently opened hotel, the Pullman Rotorua, which sits in a privileged position in the middle of town. It’s a brash, glass introduction to five-star luxury.

Walking into the foyer, you can understand why it took four years to transform the former Inland Revenue Department building into a 130-bedroom ultra-premium hotel, where no expense has been spared. 

Dining at the in-house Barrel & Co Bar and Grill, a European-style brasserie, is a joy, and the melt-in-the-mouth scotch steak and jus is highly recommended.

Word has clearly got round about the food – the place is doing a healthy trade despite being little more than a block away from the city’s iconic Eat St and its plethora of dining destinations.

Pullman Rotorua


Take a flight 

There’s no doubt that tourism firms, and notably adventure tourism companies, have been hard hit by closed borders.

Steven Newland, general manager of Volcanic Air, which offers floatplane and helicopter flights to the local volcanoes, geothermal areas and lakes, says bookings are down but the firm is looking forward to the lakefront development being completed and visitors returning in large numbers.

One of Volcanic’s most popular flights is its helicopter trip to the summit of Mt Tarawera, southeast of the city.

The flight takes off from the Rotorua lakefront and pilot Sam Jones, a human Wikipedia on all aspects of the Tarawera eruption, handily positions the chopper for best viewpoints of the steaming cliffs, the Waimangu volcanic valley, the Blue and Green lakes and the geysers of Whakarewarewa thermal reserve. 

Landing at the volcano’s summit gives us an appreciation of the force of the June 1886 eruption, which opened up a rift system of vents extending from the mountain across Lake Rotomahana and through the Waimangu valley – a distance of more than15km.

On top of Mt Tarawera


The Secret Spot

It was chilly at the top of the volcano, so what was clearly needed on our return to Rotorua was a dip in a hot tub. The Secret Spot, just south of the city in the Waipa Valley, is just the ticket. The brainchild of brothers Keith and Eric Kolver, it offers a soak in a cedar hot tub, craft beer in hand, in the middle of the Whakarewarewa Forest. 

The site belongs to Red Stag Timber, which developed the building and opened it last year. The Secret Spot represents a reimagining of the hot creeks and natural pools the brothers used to find after their white-water rafting and canoeing adventures. The business uses natural spring water that is sustainably heated using biofuel and continually filtered through the tubs. 

The 45-minute soak is recommended, and thoughtfully there’s a handy buzzer for the delivery of refreshment. It’s popular with those who brave the next-door mountain-bike park, who stop in for a Good George beer or a bite, and to dip their tired feet in mini tubs, aptly called ‘shinny dips’. 

It’s a great idea, the perfect blend of secluded relaxation without all the hard yards of finding an actual natural pool. Keith Kolver says he and his brother are now looking at expanding into other regions, including the South Island.

A 'shinny' dip at The Secret Spot


A signature experience

Less than a half-hour drive away is an entirely different experience. Solitaire Lodge sits next to Lake Tarawera and offers breathtaking views of the lake, the deepest and clearest of the region’s 13, and the omnipresent Mt Tarawera. 

The lodge, owned by Wayne Tomlinson of Hotel DeBrett fame for the past 13 years, offers nine lavish suites and all-inclusive accommodation and dining. We stayed in the huge Solitaire Suite, which at 80sq m has a separate bedroom. But the undisputed hero of the suite is the view of the lake and mountain through the floor-to-ceiling panoramic windows.

Tomlinson has a cohort of repeat guests, some of who spend weeks at a time de-stressing. Solitaire is offering New Zealanders a range of two-night signature experience stays, including its ‘discover Tarawera’ package – accommodation in an executive suite, a thermal springs excursion with breakfast, the Tarawera Falls hiking trail and all meals – for $4500.

The Solitaire Suite at Solitaire Lodge


Or, locals can opt for the ‘perfect catch’ package, at the same price, which includes the same features but swaps out the thermal excursion for three and a half hours of fishing with local fishing legend John Hamill on his luxury catamaran. 

Hamill is also a consummate host on the boat, providing snacks and refreshments, and his knowledge of the area dates back some 40 years. 

After dutifully jumping onto our hooks, the rainbow trout were cooked with some herbs and fresh mānuka in a hot spring at Te Rata Bay’s hot-water beach, near the southern arm of the lake.

While the thermal-cooking technique is a bit gimmicky, the fish was beautifully done in a few minutes and it was darned tasty. 

And you don’t get that in Queenstown.