letting off steam in rotorua: day five on the north island.

There’s no denying the popularity of referring to Rotorua as Roto-Vegas, a nickname that just about sums up the conundrum of this central North Island city. With a population of about 55,000, it is known for its significant Maori population and manicured English gardens (a contradiction in and of itself, perhaps), but also for its sulfur, steam and hot springs. It’s no surprise Rotorua is built on a caldera, a depression formed in the land when a volcano collapses. Caldera comes from caldaria, Latin for “cooking pot,” a picture that lends itself to imagining the pockets of steam found throughout the city as water boiling over the side of a whistling kettle.

You’ll know you’re in Rotorua by the smell. It hit me the second I stepped out of my car and I mentioned it to the hostel worker as she checked me in, knowing fully well it was as stupid as bringing up the rain in London or the heat in Death Valley. “Oh really? Haven’t noticed it,” she said. Well, I certainly did, and began to think the motto of Rotorua – “Feel the Spirit” – would be more accurately stated as “Feel the Sulfur.”

After my visit to the Waimangu Volcanic Valley the next morning, I made my way back to Rotorua to explore for a couple of hours. Walking through the city center, I came first to the Old Post Office, a building that ironically no longer fills the role that its name implies. Today, instead, it houses the i-Site and serves as the main depot for major bus lines running through the city. With its red tiled roof, Tudor Revival-style timber frame, and a memorial clocktower, the building does little to fit into its surroundings. While the architecture evokes a nostalgic charm of days gone by, there is a distinct feeling of Disney-like artificiality about it.

It’s a feeling that runs throughout the city. En route to Government Gardens, a sign on the Princes Gate Hotel read “Return to a Finer Yesterday” and the Blue Baths spa, its Spanish facade dated 1933, invited me to “Step Forward into the Past.” The Rotorua Museum, formerly the Bath House, mirrored the design of the post office, its many peaks and gables the showcase of the garden.

Indeed, everything about the gardens lent itself to postcard photographs – the straight and symmetrical lines of hedges and lawns, long walks lined with Victorian streetlamps and palm trees, and the neatly trimmed grass of croquet lawns and bowling greens. It felt like England and yet the vividly blue and cloudless sky and the mud pools glugging and chugging beneath the surface felt worlds away.

My last stop in Rotorua was Kuirau Park, an area thick with oak trees and smoking sinkholes. Here, your average neighborhood park takes on a darker side with sulfur-lined springs and steaming pools lining the wooden walkways. A sign cautions, “Danger, Keep to the Track: Gases, Hot Area, Unstable Ground,” but the sight of steam rising from the very backyard of a nearby house calls the proclaimed danger into question. In his article, “Among the Fascinating Maoris: Two Famous Villages,” first published in the New Zealand Railway Magazine on May 1, 1930, A. D. McKinlay writes:

“Naturally, the outstanding feature of interest to the visitor [in Rotorua] is the thermal activity. It is not spectacular, but eerie. Everywhere they bubble up, those fussy, energetic pools which you eye respectfully, but dare not touch. In the lake itself a tiny area close in shore steams and hisses furiously, while only a few yards further on, the water lies quiet and cool. At all points take care where you place your feet; you may be treading on solid ground, or you may blissfully be suspending yourself over the mouth of an inferno. Ordinarily, however, there is little danger to fear.”

Ordinary danger. I couldn’t think of a better way to describe life in New Zealand, a country where threats of volcanic eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are just the stuff of the six o’clock news.

Driving out of town, I returned again to the idea of Roto-Vegas. It’s a comparison I didn’t get at first. The town isn’t flashy, isn’t trashy, and certainly not known for shot-gun weddings. As far as I could tell, there was only one show, a dinner and cabaret combo at the Blue Baths, complete with feather boas and fedora hats for guests.

But then I began to draw on the fact that everything in Rotorua is an attraction. Put another way, everything costs money or comes with some kind of entrance fee. Whether at a museum, the historic Ohinemutu Village, or even a geothermal valley, you’ll find yourself being stopped and asked to pay your way. The Buried Village of Te Wairoa, just outside of Rotorua, is the site of a town that was completely wiped out by the eruption of Mount Tarawera. It was the kind of thing that grabbed my attention on the road atlas, but it turned out they, too, charged. To see what? Where buildings used to stand? Their brochure map is literally covered with x’s, marking the spot of where this or that building had stood. Go figure.

And the sheer quantity of attractions is enough to overwhelm you. Geothermal-related activities aside, there is enough to fill every corner of your itinerary, from mini golf and bungee-jumps to  the Skyline Gondola and luge complex like that found in Queenstown. Rotorua does, in a sense, represent all that New Zealand has to offer – an interesting Maori history, charming relics of English colonialism, and almost every opportunity available to get that adrenaline pumping – but something about the town bugged me. It could have been the patchwork way in which it was presented, the lack of cohesion between its many personalities, or perhaps the sense that it wasn’t worth visiting without a full wallet.

But then again, maybe all that sulfur just got to my head…

Check out Rotorua, whether for its English gardens...

...or its Maori culture, like the historic Ohinemutu Village.


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