Things to do in Rotorua, New Zealand

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Discover the Best Activities in Rotorua, New Zealand

As you slip into the heart of the Bay of Plenty, don’t be alarmed by the smell of the fur in the air and the threads of steam rising from the pavement. The name of the town (roto, meaning lake, and rua, meaning tow) refers to the Maori discovery of the second of 15 lakes in the region. Today, the city is a hotbed of well-structured tourist highlights: geothermal activity and Maori offerings.

Top Things to Do in Rotorua, New Zealand

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Get to Know Rotorua, New Zealand

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Get Oriented

Rotorua lies at the southwestern end of lake Rotorua, but many geothermal and recreational attractions are spread along SH5 and SH30, which wrap around parts of the lake. Downtown is a rectangular grid, defined by Fenton, Arawa, Ranolf, and Amohau Streets. The crossroads of Tutanekai and Hinemoa Streets serve as a city center with stores, cafes, and banks. Rotorua is easily walkable.

See & Do

What to do in Rotorua

Rotorua is known for its thermal activity, caused by an active fault line running from White Island to Mt. Ruapehu in Tongariro National Park. Colliding tectonic plates created the spectacular mountains, the bizarre landscape, and the innumerable steaming pools, craters, and vents of the geothermal parks.

Top Attractions in Rotorua

While this quaint town might not be the largest city in New Zealand, it boasts plenty of exciting sites to visit. Here are a few of the best. Click the links to explore and book tours or local guides.

Eat & Drink

An alternative to the usual fare is the enlightening Maori hangi. Although the meals exceed the normal backpacker allowance, they shouldn’t be missed.

Traditional Fare

In the tradition of the earliest inhabitants’ dinner of roast moa and kumara (sweet potato), New Zealanders still maintain a largely meat-and-potatoes diet. While vegetarian and vegan options are becoming trendy, traditional New Zealand food tends to be meaty.  The national dish is hot meat pie loaded with lamb or beef and gravy in flaky pastry. Seafood is always an abundant alternative; fresh fish, prawns, crayfish, shellfish, and more overrun coastal towns. Fruit-flavored ice cream with chunks of fruits is consumed in vast quantities, though hokey pokey (vanilla ice cream loaded with bits of toffee) is a national favorite. Not only does New Zealand proudly produce the most ice cream per capita in the world, it also rivals the US for most ice cream consumed per capita.

Local favorites

In small towns, the tendency toward the basic can be seen in the Main St. triumvirate of fish ‘n chip dives, cafes, and ever-present Chinese restaurants – all serving fried, greasy goodies. Ethnic restaurants, such as Thai, Malaysian, and Indian are no longer few and far between. Middle Eastern kebab joints, usually a good deal, have been proliferating. Keep in mind that ordering an entree will often get you an appetizer or starter in New Zealand; main courses are listed as mains.


While Kiwis serve excellent beer, with various national lagers and draughts (e.g., Steinlager, Speights, and Tui), it’s the wine that takes the cake. The wines of the Marlborough of Hawke’s Bay regions are world famous, particularly the Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir varieties. New Zealand white wines challenge the French hold on the market, and red wines are improving. For non-alcoholic refreshment, try Lemon and Paeroa (L&P), a popular carbonated lemon drink that is “world-famous in New Zealand.” For a more refined thirst-quencher, you can enjoy a British-style Devonshire tea.

The late afternoon meal traditionally consists of tea, scone with Devonshire cream or jam, crumpets, and other delectables. A lighter Kiwi treat, often served for dessert, is the pavlova, a tribute to egg whites and kiwifruit. New Zealand offers a range of exotic fruits and veggies, including feijoas, nashi, persimmons, and of course kiwifruit. In 2000, the golden kiwifruit, a yellow, sweeter version of the traditional kiwi, was engineered for worldwide consumption.

Arts & Culture


Spending a night with the Mitais is one of the least touristy ways to experience Maori culture in Rotorua. Groups are smaller than those of other tours, and the affable Mitai family uses interaction rather than just entertainment as means for teaching Maori history, culture, and language. The evening ends with a walk through the family’s sacred grounds.

Maori Arts & Culture

New Zealand society is largely bicultural, comprised primarily of British, Pakeha, and Maori New Zealanders. The world maori was originally used to distinguish “ordinary people” from strange European explorers. In fact, many Maori did not self-identify as Maori until well into the 1830s. Maoritanga, loosely translated as “the ways of the Maori,” serves as an umbrella term for the cultural traditions and organization of Maori life. Although many Maori now live off the traditional grounds in an urban environment, New Zealand has experienced a renaissance of Maoritanga as more Maori look to their rich heritage for identity.

Basic Concepts

The most fundamental idea of Maori custom is the notion of tapu and its lesser-known counterpart, noa. Tapu, roughly translated as “sacred” or “spiritual restriction,” indicates the presence of supernatural power (whether good or evil) and commands respect and attention. Ignoring tapu is a great taboo – yes, that is the root of the English word – across New Zealand. Noa underscores the absence of such power and thus deserves no special caution. For example, a man has the tapu responsibility in a tribe to oversee ceremonial duties and give speeches at a marae, but he cannot look respectable without the help of the female’s noa duties of preparing food and singing songs. Personal relationships within and between tribes also require an understanding of mana. Translated literally, the word means “prestige” or “responsibility,” but the meaning is more of an essence that grants seniority to a worthy individual. Traditionally, the amount of mana in an individual depends on his or her ancestry, experience, and seniority in a tribe. Nowadays, mana is instead often influenced more by one’s success and achievements.

A Maori tribal structure

In New Zealand, tribal association is not an official designation; there are over 40 recognized iwi in New Zealand. Within the iwi exist smaller regional communities called hapu. These communities were originally groups that owned land within the tribe. Today, each hapu seldom owns more land than a marae reserve. For this reason, the hapu generally has more significance for rural populations; city-dwellers generally tend to identify less with their hapu.

The Marae

The marae are sacred grounds around a Maori whare tupuna (ancestral meeting house) and the site of the powhiri (formal welcome), receiving visitors into the community. The ceremony consists of four basic components. Upon arriving at the marae, a warrior from the village will greet visitors with a haka, an elaborate set of body movements and a tongue-protruding facial gesture (it’s exceedingly uncouth to return such a gesture). The wero (challenge) ends when a teka (peace offering) is offered and accepted. After this step, a female elder will issue the karanga, a chant of welcome and mourning for the visitors’ great ancestors. As your group crosses the marae, pause and bow in respect for the ancestors of the tribe before congregating in front of the whare. In response to the chief’s whaikorero (speech of welcoming), the designated chief of your group will deliver a brief speech in return (preferably in Maori as well, but protocol varies). To seal the bond of friendship, both chiefs press (but do not rub) noses together in the traditional greeting known as the hongi.

After the hongi, the separate groups finally mingle and are called to dine in the whare kai. Shoes are not worn inside the whare kai, and pictures may not be permitted, depending on the tribe. After a karakia (prayer) is given, the hangi (dinner), is prepared – sweet potatoes, meat, and other goodies roasted in a pit of stones.

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