New Zealand is a place where people ski on active volcanoes and bungee-jump off suspension bridges into gorges. So when three friends and I took a trip last March to Rotorua on the North Island of the other land Down Under, we were prepared for adventure.
Or so I thought, until I found myself about to hurtle 500 feet down a hill in a giant water-infused ball called a Zorb. But the 30-second ride down a zigzag course ($32) was thrilling, and as I emerged dripping wet, I contemplated another go-round on a different course.
Rotorua is a three-hour drive from the capital, Auckland, which is a nonstop, $1,400 economy-class or $10,000 business-class flight from Los Angeles or San Francisco on Air New Zealand or Qantas. The warmest months are September through April, with daytime temperatures soaring to near 100F in January and February. You can transfer by air to Rotorua, but we opted to drive, through a region so sparsely populated I wondered how long it would take to find our bodies if the car broke down.
The town's full Maori name is Te Rotorua-nui-a-Kahumatamomoe ("Second Lake"), and it is the heart of New Zealand's prominent aboriginal Maori culture. In no time, we found our lodging, Peppers on the Point (peppers.co.nz/on-the-point), part of a chain of distinctive luxury properties sprinkled around Australia and New Zealand. The lodge, on five prime acres at Kawaha Point fronting the 23-square-mile lake, was built in the 1930s as the mansion of a hotel magnate. It offers seven roomy suites starting at $817 a night during the peak summer season beginning Oct. 1, along with a tennis court, private beach, and spa.
When we pulled in, Manager David Small said we'd be staying in the owner's adjacent part-time residence, the Lake Villa. Since our visit was at the end of the summer season and neither the owner nor a large guest group were around, we lucked out, getting the five-bedroom house. It has the best views of the city and lake, punctuated by lazy drifts of steam from local geothermal activity and amazing sunrises and sunsets.
The first night, we popped into the main house just as the ma?tre d' was serving canap?s and drinks to newlyweds just in from Canada to take advantage of the region's many golf courses, including Arikikapakapa, which has boiling thermal mud pools alongside the fairways (drive straight, or you're in trouble). Rather than stay for dinner, we decided to check out the Pig & Whistle Pub, formerly the local jail. The meal, $25 each for a lamb burger and ginger beer, was decent, but you go there more for people-watching and listening to local bands three nights a week.
The next day we set out for pampering, New Zealand-style. After a delicious breakfast of roasted mushrooms with scrambled eggs, we drove about 20 miles to Hell's Gate and the Wai Ora Spa. Dubbed "the gateway to Hell" by George Bernard Shaw in the early 1900s, it's billed as the only place you can sample all three of the things Rotorua is famous for: geothermal activity, Maori culture, and spas. Our Maori guide, Patrick Tamati, took us on a tour of the 50-acre property, past prehistoric-looking trees, bleached white scrubs, and bubbling pits and pools of mud. At one point, he urged us to slather on some of the sulfuric mud from a dried pit, typically used to cleanse and heal the skin.
Maybe it was a guy thing, but the mud baths take some getting used to. As part of the spa's more expensive packages, which cost $57 to $160 per person, you plop down into a warm mud pool for 20 minutes to open the pores. Following a cold outdoor shower, you sit another 30 minutes or so in warm sulfur-rich water known for its skin-healing properties. Your reward is an hourlong full body massage with local Manuka tree oil. However, even the fragrant oil didn't prevent our skin from exuding sulfur for the next two days.
Back that evening at Peppers, we headed to the main house for drinks and hors d'oeuvres, followed by a fabulous four-course Kiwi/French fusion dinner made by the resident chef, Reg Hawthorne. The char-grilled kingfish salad with prawn and mango salsa drizzled with lemon coulis was exquisite, as was a $90 bottle of Yalumba's Octavius 2001 (Australian) shiraz from the extensive wine cellar.
On our final day in Rotorua, we set out for a three-hour RiverJet Thermal jetboat safari ($75). The black boat speeds through the magnificent Tutukau Gorge on the Waikato River en route to another geothermal site, Orakei Korako. We heard all about the Maori battles that took place nearby and saw water so clear that hundreds of trout were visible. On the outbound leg, we hiked into a giant cave with a clear pool at the bottom and up over canyons and cliffs with strange rock formations. On the return trip, our guide engaged in a little hard-racing action, as the speeding boat made several 360-degree spins and veered close to islands and fallen trees.
On the way back to Auckland, we made a detour off the highway to Mamaku Blue Winery, the country's only maker of blueberry wines. The spicy blueberry chutney makes for good eating and great gifts.
There's plenty more in Rotorua, including helicopter tours of live volcanoes, visits to a geyser that erupts some 20 times a day, tandem skydiving, dinner at the village of Te Wairora, which was buried by an 1886 eruption and later excavated, whitewater rafting, and sky rides in a gondola on Mt. Ngongotaha. All those things are on my wish list for the next trip back.
By Cliff Edwards