Rotorua, in the Central North Island, is my favorite hot spot in New Zealand. I am not alone. Visitors are attracted by the hordes to Rotorua for its towering geysers, bubbling mud and kaleidoscopic silica terraces. Even as you step into town there is a lingering aroma of sulfur in the air. "Soir de Rotorua" as it is affectionately referred to by those in the know, is the natural gas emitted by the mineral hot springs. Rotorua has been voted the Most Beautiful City in New Zealand in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003. It's striking gardens, cobbled streets, the fascinating intermingling of Maori and English Tudor architecture gives Rotorua quite a unique ambience.

Rotorua residents seemed to have come to terms with the mixed blessings of having thermal activity in their backyards. Many have bores and private swimming pools. Industry uses the steam for timber kilns, to render fat, to steam-clean vehicles, to heat glasshouses and other applications. Nevertheless, it has its downsides as well. The thermal activity frequently makes road maintenance costly, can cause structural damage and golfers may encounter less customary hazards, such as pools of boiling mud, on the links.

Beyond Rotorua's urban center is a backdrop of volcanic mountains and huge crater lakes. Perhaps the best known of these thermal areas is Whakarewarewa, which is on the edge of the central business district. It is closest to Rotorua City. The path to the Whakarewarewa Maori village leads across a small bridge. This is where the subtribe that survived the Tarawera eruption now lives. This is also a good destination to sample a midday thermal hangi meal.

A carved Maori meeting house or pa comes into view just as you enter Whakarewarewa. By the pa is the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute where carvers may be seen at work. Wood, bone and jade carvings are made here and sold as souvenirs. You can also see flax weaving demonstrations, and the making of weaponry and musical instruments by native craftsman.

The centerpiece of the reserve is Geyser Flat, a silica terrace of about two acres long that makes you wonder if you have stepped off the face of the earth and on to a distant planet.
The terrace is pierced by seven active geysers, most notable is Pohutu. Pohutu is New Zealand's largest geyser and sprays up to 100 feet in the air and can go on for hours at a time.

Rotorua is dotted with bubbling mud pools all around the city, featuring both public and private thermal swimming pools. Visitors should know that some local hotels provide access to these pools where one can enjoy the hot springs in private luxury.

My favorite hot spot was the Polynesian Pools at the end of Hinemoa Street, adjourning the famous Government Gardens, which are open daily. There are three springs in this facility including the Old Priest Bath, believed to be beneficial for wide variety of health problems. Rachel Spring contains an alkaline fulgurated water, which is a skin emollient and acts to sooth sunburn, convalescence and spastic ailments. Lastly, Radium Spring has stimulating properties for cases of neurasthenia and rheumatic ailments, but, most visitors go for a good hot soak. Additionally, I discovered that once I experienced the balmy medicinal springs, the "Soir de Rotorua" invokes a therapeutic feeling. There is no doubt that after a short spell in the city one's consciousness of the smell almost disappears.

Some facts about Rotorua:
"¢ Located in the central North Island, Rotorua is a leisurely 3-hour drive from the main international gateway city of Auckland.
"¢ Rotorua airport receives daily domestic flights from Auckland (40 minutes), Christchurch (1 ¼ hours) and Queenstown (2 ½ hours).
"¢ Hamilton International Airport (75 minutes driving time) receives international flights from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, the Gold Coast and Fiji.
"¢ From Rotorua you can drive to surf beaches (1 hour), a national park (1 ½ hours), ski fields (2 ½ hours) and one of New Zealand's major wine regions (2 ½ hours).

Population: 68,000
Area: 2,700 km2

Other Attractions:
Rotorua Museum is housed in what was formerly the Government Gardens.
An interactive audio-visual presentation at the museum takes you on an educational journey. The movie includes the arrival of the Maori people, a visit to the Pink & White Terraces (the eighth wonder of the world), and the early days of the Rotorua Spa. I was also affected by the presentation about the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera. This cataclysmic explosion showed the huge significance the event had for both Rotorua and New Zealand history. Educational services, café and souvenir facilities are also housed within this beautifully restored building.

Written and photographed by Chandra Nageswaran

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