10 Things To Do in Rotorua and Taupo
Even though we have three full weeks in New Zealand we’re already finding it’s not nearly enough time to give each city the attention it deserves. But with nearly a dozen countries on our wish list we had to make some hard decisions ahead of time without knowing a lot about each city we’d be visiting. So with three days between Rotorua and Taupo, two cities in the center of the North Island, we crammed in as much as possible- already knowing we’d like to come back some day.
Waitomo Glow Worm Caves I’ve been talking about visiting the Waitomo glow worm caves since we booked our trip to New Zealand. I was happy to learn that the fluorescent blue worms were a nice stopover on our four hour drive to Rotorua. The topography of the Waitomo region of New Zealand reminded me a lot my summer days growing up attending camp in Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri. AKA lots of rolling hills and high speed limits.
During our tour of the caves we learned that Waitomo is a Maori word made up of two parts. 'Wai' which translates as water and 'tomo' which means entrance or hole. Waitomo can be translated as the 'stream which flows into the hole in the ground.’ This made a lot of sense as we boarded a boat in a pitch black part of the cave and made our way in complete silence down a portion of the river. As soon as we entered the complete darkness of the cave, hundreds of thousands of glow worms appeared before our eyes attached to the roof of the cave. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Scattered in clumps across the ceiling the worms almost looked like different constellations.
Waitomo Lookout Point While we waited for our time to explore the Waitomo caves we decided to do a short hike nearby to the top of a hill that overlooked the Waitomo region. If you’re a fan of Lord of the Rings you’d definitely enjoy this viewpoint. It was truly like taking a close-up glimpse into the world of Middle Earth.
Stratosphere and Skyline Rotorua After a two hour drive from Waitomo we were about ready for dinner and I was lucky enough to snag birthday (also Valentine’s Day) reservations at Rotorua’s most romantic restaurant, the Stratosphere overlooking the whole town and nearby lake. The only way to enter the restaurant is by taking a gondola ride almost 600 feet up the side of Mount Ngongotaha. The Stratosphere is part of the amazing Skyline complex where you can also luge down the mountain as well as mountain bike.
Our meal at the Stratosphere will probably be one of the best, and heftiest meals we will have during our whole time in New Zealand. Being that it was Jeremy’s birthday we splurged on an amazing Las Vegas style buffet complete with a charcuterie station, seafood, various local meats, pasta, soups, salads and of course desserts. Also because it was Valentine’s Day the meal included a complimentary glass of bubbly! Before we left for our trip we’d heard that in order to save money we’d be better off cooking most of our meals because there wasn’t anything particularly distinct about New Zealand cuisine. The Stratosphere must have been an exception to the rule because everything we had was freshly cooked and high quality. Staff was visible behind the counters actively cooking and replenishing the food to be sure it was hot at all times and not just sitting under a heat lamp. We tried several New Zealand specialties like their green lipped mussels, lamb and grass fed beef.
At one point during our meal our waitress asked what brought us into Rotorua and we explained that we were taking an extended honeymoon journey. Later in the meal our waitress returned with a card signed by all the Stratosphere staff as well as a special dessert not found on the regular buffet with “Congratulations” written in chocolate! It was such a sweet and thoughtful touch to our meal, and later we found that management even comp’d our drinks!
Wai-O-Tapu Geothermal Wonderland The Wai-O-Tapu geothermal park is a volcanically active park filled with geysers, boiling mud, sulphur flats and more. If you’ve ever seen the movie Land Before Time, picture the scene in the movie when Little Foot and his friends go through the dark and scary bubbling mud pits gobbling up shrubs and trees and you’ll have a better idea of what the park looks like. It was so cool to be that close to such a volatile area and a little bit amazing that you are allowed to wander about, although highly encouraged to stick to the clearly marked paths or your childhood fears of sinking into quicksand might just come true!
Aratiatia Falls Our Air BnB host in Rotorua told us about this dam that is opened up four times a day causing an intense eight minute waterfall over what looks like a dried rock bed most of the day. We’ve been finding so far that a lot of hidden attractions are just off the main roads and conveniently most of them have a parking lot nearby! After we parked it was a short walk uphill to a great viewpoint overlooking the spectacle.
Huka Falls The Huka Falls are the largest falls on the Waikato River, near Taupo on New Zealand's North Island and according to the visitor website they are also the most visited natural attraction in New Zealand! Huka Falls was definitely a place on my wish list when we decided to visit New Zealand. I’d stalked lots of blogs and seen many pictures of the falls but seeing the rushing rapids up close was so much better in person. The falls are caused by the normally wide Waikato River being squeezed into a small gulley a fifth of it’s normal width. I’ve only seen a handful of waterfalls in my whole life so seeing two in one day was completely surreal!
Spa Thermal Park Hot Springs As soon as we entered Taupo we decided that after several days of long walks we deserved a dip in nature’s hot tub, natural hot springs. Taupo’s thermal hot springs are located in a large public park and the best news of the day was that they were free! Apparently quite popular with the backpacker crowd, we squeezed in among the hot waterfalls to soak our travel weary feet. Quite similar to a hot tub, you can’t last super long in the heat, so it was great that the springs were actually connected to a river in which you could cool off in before making your way back to a warm pocket.
Exploring Downtown Taupo Immediately upon arriving in Taupo we knew that it would be somewhere we’d regret not staying a bit longer. It reminded us a bit of a Michigan beach town, with a great little downtown area filled with lots of different restaurants, breweries, shops and more. My friend from Auckland suggested we visit Body Fuel café for an oaty caramel slice and we were not disappointed with the layers of oat crumbles and thick caramel sauce! We’d definitely suggest visiting if you ever find yourselves in Taupo and trying one for yourself. Jeremy also found a great little kebob place that made them just like he remembered in Europe. I was also happy with this lunch choice as you were allowed to add three different sauces to the gyro wrap; we went with mint yogurt, hummus and sweet chili. Hotels and motels lined the lakefront and with lots of Air BnB choices, this town in not somewhere you'd want to pass over on your way through New Zealand.
Acacia Bay Walk In New Zealand and Australia they call any hike through the woods a bush walk. So we decided that a bush walk along the Lake Taupo coastline would be a great way to get a feel for the area. After consulting a map with decided that an hour and a half trail with a few good viewpoints of the lake would be a great way to spend some time enjoying the gorgeous day. The trail was a short drive from the downtown area through the Acacia Bay neighborhood and the parking lot consisted of just a bit of gravel on the side of the road. It was a very warm day and it was nice that most of the trail went through the forest which kept us a bit cooler and there were several different points when you could walk a bit off the trail down to the waters edge and get a good glimpse of the lake and town.
Taupo Botanical Gardens Since we’re doing a six month trip on a budget, we’re conditioning ourselves to be on the lookout for free activities. Luckily the botanical gardens in town provided several trails featuring native plants and flowers for free of cost. The trails winded through the gardens and since they are located on a bit of a hill provided a great view of Taupo.