From Taupo we drove the short distance north to the town of Rotorua. Rotorua is Taupo’s bigger, more-famous sibling. Sort of a Queenstown of the North Island, it’s known for outdoor pursuits.

As we drove out of Taupo, we wrinkled our noses and started to worry that someone was having tummy problems. Then we realized the bad smells weren’t coming from inside the car. This area of the country is a geothermal hotspot, and it’s common to see steam rising from the ground. Along with the geothermal activity comes a pervasive smell of sulfur, which we more or less got used to after a couple of days.

Thermal pool in Rotorua
One of the many thermal pools in Rotorua. This one is in a public park.

There are plenty of thermal pools in Rotorua. They show up everywhere – even in people’s backyards. Many lodgings offer thermal pools or naturally-heated hot tubs, and ours was no exception.

We stayed at a Top 10 Holiday Park, a franchise that caters to the ubiquitous camper vans that roam the country (we’re getting around in a small Toyota, not a camper. It’s a great little car except that I’m too tall to get into it without lots of awkward contortions). We were surprised by how many people were staying there. On a couple nights the place was full! Compared to our first few weeks on the road after lockdown, there are a lot more tourists out and about. There is a large campaign to encourage domestic tourism, and many companies in the tourism industry have slashed prices.

A few rainy and windy days put a damper on outdoor activities, but we did manage to get up to the Skyline Luge. This mountain luge is run by the same company that runs the luge in Queenstown. The scenery isn’t quite as good as in Queenstown, but we all agreed that the luge tracks here are much better. The longest is 1.25 miles, and is great fun.

Rotovegas sign in Rotorua
Rotorua acquired the nickname ‘Rotovegas‘ during a failed bid to build a casino.

2 years ago TripAdvisor users ranked the Tamaki Māori Village as one of the top 10 cultural experiences in the world. How could we pass that up? One rainy evening we joined a full bus of tourists for this nighttime introduction to Māori culture just outside Rotorua.

The village is run by a Māori family, led by a very charismatic chief. Similar to Sturbridge Village or Plimoth Plantation, staff in traditional dress educate visitors about Māori culture and provide demonstrations of activities like cooking, weaving, music, and warfare.

Dinner was cooked in the traditional hāngi method, which uses a pit oven to steam meats and vegetables. It was tasty, and fortunately they cooked enough extra that we were able to satisfy Jack’s appetite.

Despite the rain we had a great time and learned a lot. I am in no way qualified to speak about the Māori culture, but I left with the impression that it is rich, multifaceted, and places a high value on family and harmony with the environment. And with luck, the photos of me attempting the haka (ceremonial dance) will not end up on the internet.

Welcoming our group
Demonstration of the haka (ceremonial dance)

On another day we went RailCruising. RailCruising is a new use for unused railway lines. Computer-controlled railcars drive you down the track, allowing you to sit back and enjoy the scenery from a rarely-seen vantage point. The downside? The wheels are really loud! We had to yell to hear each other.

Railcruising cars
Railcruising: off the beaten track?

A final, unexpected experience. We had some time to kill on our way out of town. We happened upon a mini golf course that advertised mini golf “with bunnies.” Sure enough, a half-dozen very large and very relaxed bunnies live on the walled-in course. While they didn’t directly interfere with our play, another group had to work around a bunny that plopped down on one of the greens as they tried to play through.

Mini golf with bunnies
Mini golf with bunnies, just like the sign said.

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