​Watch a geyser explode, bathe in sulphur pools or fling yourself into the air, these are some of the surprising things to do in Rotorua, New Zealand. However, there are more gentle options like thermal spa treatments and Maori culture to explore which make this a great stop for singles, couples and families too.

Located on New Zealand’s North Island on the shore of Lake Rotorua, the city of Rotorua packs a lot of punch with adventure activities and amazing scenery. I visited with my daughter and we both enjoyed the wide variety of activities on offer.  Rotorua is an all-rounder with activities for all ages and abilities.

Maybe you are fascinated by geothermal activity (there is something quite intriguing about those bubbling pools) or you like exploring places that are a little bit different. Perhaps you are like me and relish the restorative qualities of the mineral baths. There are many reasons to put Rotorua on your travel list but these six were my favourite surprising things to do in Rotorua.  I’ve included a basic guide to the cost of each experience to help you make your own list.

Lake Rotorua

Lake Rotorua. Photo: Kerry Heaney

6 surprising things to do in Rotorua

Polynesian Spa

Mist wafts from the surface as my feet feel their way into the disturbingly warm, opaque alkaline pool at the Polynesian Spa on the shore of Lake Rotorua. Every breath of the sulphur-laden air speaks of the ancient volcanic activity underneath.

The sodium silicate-rich Rachel Spring water is said to nourish the skin and bless bathers with ageless beauty, while the slightly acidic Priest Spring pools promise relief from aches and pains. There are 28 spa hot pools here built on the site of a bathhouse that brought Rotorua to fame in the 1800s.

There is a day spa here too and you can indulge in everything from a massage to mud therapy. Yep, that involves being slathered in mud but it’s worth it.

A spa soak was the perfect pick me up after a short flight to Auckland and onwards to Rotorua with seamless connections from Air New Zealand.

Allow yourself plenty of time here to relax and soak up the mineral goodness.

Why do this and how much does it cost?

You will feel fabulous after a soak at the Polynesian Spa, or at least I did! There are many pools to enjoy at the spa. An entry pass to the family swimming area costs $54.95NZ for a family while the Deluxe Day Spa pass costs $59.95NZ per person.  TIP – it’s cheaper during the week – just $44.95NZ

Skyline Rotorua

Jump onboard the eight-seat gondola for an easy trip to the top at Skyline Rotorua. Photo: Kerry Heaney

Skyline Rotorua

Start a visit here by jumping onboard the eight-seat gondola for an easy trip to the top. Add in lunch or dinner at Stratosfare Restaurant with 180-degree views from Mount Ngongotaha. Head down the mountain on a driver-controlled luge ride at your own pace.  There is an intermediate track for those who want to go faster.  Amp it up with fly back down on the 400-metre zip line.  Speeds of up to 60km/h can be reached.

TIP: The kids (both small and big) can make up their own pick and mix box with around 100 jelly bean flavours.  The Jelly Belly Concept store is located at the top of the Gondola.

Why do this and how much does it cost?

This thrill city offers the best overall view of Rotorua and really gives you a chance to see the whole landscape. It has something for every member of the family too. Skyline Rotorua costs $54NZ for five luge and gondola rides or gondola and lunch, $65NZ adults and $41NZ children.

Skyline Rotorua 180-degree views from Mount Ngongotaha. Photo: Kerry Heaney

Skyline Rotorua
Steaming Cliffs Hells Gate Rotorua

Steaming Cliffs is the hottest pool at Hells Gates. Pic Kerry Heaney

Hells Gate

You can step up your thermal activity with a visit to Hell’s Gate on Rotorua’s outskirts. Expect to see pools of boiling mud, a hot waterfall and a lunar-like landscape.

Long before literary luminary George Bernard Shaw visited in the early 1990s and declared “This must be the gateway to Hell”, Maori warriors favoured the sulphur-laden waters as a lotion for septic wounds. Shaw named many of the bubbling ponds, such as the 68-degree Celsius Baby Adam which curiously reminded him of his three-year-old nephew bouncing on his knee.

There’s also the Inferno Pools, Sodom and Gomorrah, which exceed boiling point and can erupt up to two metres high.

Despite the warning signs to stay on the path when walking, when you get to the mud baths it all changes. Here visitors are encouraged to jump in the spa pool and slather themselves with the silky-smooth mud for its unique beneficial properties.

Next is a dip in the sulphur spa which promises increased blood circulation and overall wellbeing.  It does, but don’t let the water near your eyes or you will have sore eyes.

Afterwards, you can relax in the coffee shop with an egg and lettuce sandwich which smells curiously like the mud and sulphur pools combined.

Why do this and how much does it cost?

Hell’s Gate has history, walking trails, a pool and mud, glorious mud.  You can spend a lot of time here walking and exploring. A geothermal walk which takes between one and one and a half hours, as well as Māori carving and a mud foot pool costs $39NZ for adults and $99NZ for families. The sulphur spa is an additional $25NZ for adults.

Maori warriors favoured the sulphur-laden hot water here as a lotion for septic wounds. Photo: Kerry Heaney

hot waterfall Hell's Gate
surprising things to do in Rotorua

The Pohutu geyser at Te Puia. Photo: Kerry Heaney

Te Puia

Rotorua’s most famous geothermal marker is the Pohutu geyser at Te Puia which performs up to 20 visitor pleasing eruptions a day sending water nearly 30 metres in the air.

Geyser viewing is part of a three-kilometre tour through this 60-hectare centre for Maori culture and geothermal wonders. Displays include traditional Maori carving and weaving, a look at some of News Zealand’s national treasures at the Kiwi conservation centre and a glimpse at how Maori people lived before European settlement.

You can enjoy a traditional Hangi-style Maori feast dinner and then take The Geyser By Night tour. It’s a chance to see the valley under lights while sipping hot chocolate.

Why do this and how much does it cost?

If you want to see geyser action, this is the place.  A Te Puia day pass (valid for two days) is $39NZ for an adult, $70NZ for two adults and two children.

Te Puia displays include traditional Maori carving and weaving. Photo: Kerry Heaney


traditional Maori carving and weaving
Redwoods Treewalk Rotorua

Illuminated lights at Redwoods Treewalk. Photo: Kerry Heaney

Redwoods Nightlights

For another magical nighttime experience, head to Redwoods Treewalk, a 700 metre, 20-metre high treetop walk through a giant redwood forest.  Suspended walkways with 28 swing bridges overlook illuminated lights from New Zealand’s world-acclaimed design and sustainability champion David Trubridge, which are strung between the trees.  There are stairs to climb and walkways to negotiate so this experience may not suit everyone, but I did enjoy it.

The Redwoods Treewalk makes my list of surprising things to do in Rotorua because the beauty is so unexpected.

Why do this and how much does it cost?

Redwoods Treewalk really is a bit magical walking through the tops of the trees and unlike any other night time experience. An adult pass is $35NZ and a family pass for up to three children is $99NZ.  

Rotorua Canopy Tours


Rotorua Canopy Tours

Looking for bigger adventures?  How about throwing yourself off a 22-metre-high tree platform to fly like a bird? That’s definitely a surprising things to do in Rotorua!

The guides at Rotorua Canopy Tours make it seem so easy to zip line through the ancient forest that they even have people stepping off backwards and ziplining upside down, waving their arms.  Although it seems crazy mad, the safety aspects and procedures are strongly emphasised so even a novice can feel the confidence they need to step off and soar.

Eventually, the guide’s stories about flesh-eating possums who emigrated from Australia aeons ago and turned into carnivores, along with the rats that attack New Zealand’s native species seem more frightening than ziplining. Luckily, a conservation trapping scheme funded by Canopy Tours guests has brought sections of the forest under pest control, so native birds have a better survival chance.

Why do this and how much does it cost?

Read about my Rotorua zip lining experience if you need convincing. The basic Rotorua Canopy tour costs $149NZ for adults and $449NZ for a family package (2 adults, 2 children).


These experiences top my list of surprising things to do in Rotorua, New Zealand  What’s on your list and when are you going?