Rotorua – Discover New Zealand


Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Thermal baths and Maori culture, what’s not to love?

(This is the ninth post in a series. Missed the first eight? Click here to see them all.) Another day, another trip on the Intercity bus. This one, however, becomes my favorite ride of all time. Having met up with my friend Alex in Wellington, she knows how much I love cows and bulls. She told me about a city named “Bulls.” She didn’t give me a ton of detail, but was sure I’d like it. I have no idea where it is but I’m hoping, somehow, to get there before I leave New Zealand. Well, low and behold, our first rest stop from Wellington up north is Bulls! This is absolutely my kind of town!

Every possible “bull” pun that can be made, is made. There is such creativity in the signage that I skip going to the bathroom to snap photos, and even end up getting a t-shirt! As we drive through the town, there are bull statues placed around the city, like a scavenger hunt, and one day, I hope to get more time there. But, for now, I am delighted with this, my new favorite town in New Zealand!

Bull puns in Bulls.

Photo by Heather Markel, copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

When we eventually arrive in Rotorua, I see that it’s a fairly large city but with a smaller town feel; buildings are low, there are parts of town that look like real people live there, and it generally feels like a nice place to wander around. I get off the bus – it stops in front of the tourist office – and learn my hostel, Rock Solid Backpackers, is a few blocks walk away. I check in and learn it’s very central, there’s a movie theater downstairs, and my room is very comfortable. I’m debating whether to add another night. For now, I’ve booked two nights and then plan to head someplace called Morristown where I will meet my friends from Auckland and then stay with them in Auckland. I give them a call to let them know I’m in Rotorua and check on plans.

My friend, uncomfortably, tells me she thinks I shouldn’t stay with them in Auckland because they’re staying with an elderly family member, and with the virus so unpredictable, and me traveling around, maybe it’s not a good idea. I wholeheartedly agree, and am so glad they made this decision because I don’t want to jeoparidize anyone’s health. After we hang up, I realize coronavirus shit just got real. I’ve spent over two years traveling the world and been blessed at the number of people who have taken me in. I guess I can’t rely on that anymore. What a strange world this is becoming. Or maybe it’s just because it’s Friday the 13th (of March)? And, what do I do now? I get a bit stressed out wondering whether to go to Morristown, whether to still go to Auckland, or whether to just head north to the Bay of Islands. I message Clay, the guy I met in Picton. He was also on his way to Auckland to meet friends coming in from Canada. I learn that his friends are now not even coming to New Zealand due to fears about the virus. I feel momentarily fucked by this virus, but I know I’ve dealt with many things not going as planned over the past 2.5 years, so I will figure this out. For now, I want to see this town before it gets too late. My friend even told me that she recommends one of the thermal bath spas that’s just down the street!

“Getting into deep conversations with strangers in a thermal bath is enlightening.”

Corn being cooked in the thermal water.

Photos by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

First things first, I’ve decided to skip Morristown after looking at bus schedules and, instead, book a third night at the hostel. That gives me some breathing room. I walk around near my hostel and find it very pleasant. I really want a cup of coffee and hope to get it at the French cafe down the street which the staff at the hostel recommended. It’s after 4pm though, and it’s closed. Sadly, I end up at Starbucks, but my caffeine-fix is satiated. I check out Polynesian Spa and like it. I thought I’d go to Hell’s Gate because it has a mud area, but it’s also quite expensive. This is much more affordable and seems nice. Though it’s open late, I’m hungry and decide to eat dinner and return another day. I end up eating at Yamato, a Japanese restaurant close to my hostel. They want to seat me at the bar, but the chairs are super high, and with my short legs, I don’t feel like sitting there, so I ask for a table. They seem reluctant to give me one, in case a larger party comes in, but they are not filled up, so accommodate me. Service is a bit slow, but I finally place my order, and the food ends up being delicious. I head back for some sleep and am looking forward to the Maori experience I’ve booked for tomorrow.

At the Living Maori village.

Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

I head out for breakfast. It’s Saturday and I hope to get to that French cafe. Once again, it’s closed. But, there’s a market in the street so I end up ordering a delicious and fattening portion of eggs, kumara (sweet potato) and bacon. It’s really good. Then it’s time for me to head to my Maori experience. I chose the Living Maori Village instead of one of the nighttime dinner shows, because this sounds more authentic. This ends up being a highlight of my entire time in New Zealand. I really like it. I learn a lot about the Maori people (which I will share in next week’s blog post) and feel very happy with my decision to come here. I eat lunch which includes a corn of cob cooked in their thermal baths and walk around the grounds which are highly impressive. I head to the gift shop on my way out and inquire where the bus back to town stops. They tell me they have no idea because they never take it. Just as I’m about to walk instead, I meet a lovely American couple who offer me a ride in their car. I accept and am back to my hostel a short while later. I put on my bathing suit and head to Polynesian Spa. It’s exactly what I need. There are several pools of thermal water and one is acidic which I’ve never heard of. It claims to cure aches and pains and it does! But the real action happens in one of the alkaline baths.

I end up meeting people from around the world in the tub. We get to discussing what we hope will happen as a result of this coronavirus pandemic. Though other countries are starting to have crazy high counts and social distancing, we are still in a hot tub at this point. Some of the hopes we discuss are:

  • US healthcare costs are cut because they’re ridiculously expensive, as are drugs, which should also have prices fall
  • We share resource production around the world instead of just in China so we don’t run out of things like hand sanitizer
  • Governments work together for the good of their people
  • If they can create a vaccine in a year, they should release the cure for cancer which we also know is possible
  • climate change advocates hire the coronavirus marketing team resulting in as many people paying attention to it.

Maori cultural dancing. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

Eventually we all move along. I go inside and change and head to dinner. I end up finding this really fun restaurant area that I hadn’t known existed last night. I put my name in at Atticus Finch and have to wait an hour. I end up being delighted I did because the fish dinner I order is spectacular. The next day I return to this restaurant area and learn there is also a bay area which is lovely. I contemplate taking one of the boat rides but decide they’re a bit expensive and I’ve already done several. Instead, I spend the afternoon wandering the streets, discover another Maori area, take in the sunshine by the water and, generally, enjoy a lovely and relaxing day. 

I’ve decided to head to The Bay of Islands directly from Rotorua. I’m not sure when I’ll see my friend near Sydney, and I want to see The Bay of Islands before leaving New Zealand. I’d rather head to Auckland a few days prior to going to Australia. So I’m going to head up north next and then figure out things from there. I figure I’ll stay for a week, if I can afford it, and then plan my next move. I’m hearing rumors of borders possibly being shut and I’m thinking that, if I do get stuck someplace, up north feels like I’ll be better off than in Auckland, so I go with my gut.

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