Supporting local: family fun in Rotorua
The Keam family walk, swim, ride and eat their way around Rotorua.
A mid-winter getaway is always more alluring if there’s the promise of a hot mineral spa to soak in at the end of each day. With that in mind we (Jane and Matt) took our two girls Lulu (2) and Zippy (4) to Rotorua for a fun-filled and adventurous weekend.
We arrived to a beautiful, calm and crisp day. As the sun was diving down, we took the kids to the Skyline Rotorua luge. Just jumping on the gondola to head up Mt Ngongotaha to the luge was enough excitement for the kids – you’ve got to love how the joy is so often in the journey for kids! As we rode the gondola, Zippy and Lulu spotted the moon and we talked about Lake Rotorua, volcanoes and the unique Rotorua ‘effervescence’. I thought the girls might be a little young to experience the full excitement of the luge, so I was surprised to see them grab their helmets and try to race each other (with us driving of course) on the scenic course for younger luge riders. Their faces were pure excitement! As we finished our ride I told the girls we would get to dine in the Stratosfare restaurant with the same beautiful view of the dusky Rotorua skyline that we saw on the way up.
I was unprepared for the Stratosfare’s amazing buffet selection. There were so many options for all of us and I do believe the girls even had more than their usual one plateful before they had dessert (that’s a toddler win!). While they stuck jellybeans on everything, I drank a Mamaku Blue Margarita made from the lushest blueberries from the nearby Mamaku blueberry farm.
Arriving at the centrally located Aura Accommodation, we discovered a sustainably minded hotel with the environment considered on every level, including geothermally heated rooms, recycling and composting facilities, free bikes and milk in glass bottles. This is definitely a great choice for those conscious of their carbon footprint. We unpacked and got an early night. By way of a ‘night cap’ I soaked in the hotel’s private mineral spas, open till 11pm, while Matt watched the kids (and TV) in the hotel room. What a perfect way for a tired mama with busy toddlers to end the day!
On Saturday morning we headed to the 3D Trick Art Gallery and Rotorua Heritage Farm. The girls got a short lesson to help them understand the concept of 3D images, and after that they were excited to pose with pandas, pretend they were All Blacks, and hang precariously from rock ledges. The deer on the farm provided some fun as we fed them; I was amazed at how calm they remained in the midst of toddler chaos!
We had a relaxing bite to eat in front of a warm fire at the Farmside Restaurant – just what we needed on what had been quite a cold morning. The delicious dusted calamari and arancini balls were the perfect winter comfort food and the girls munched contentedly on their loaded fries and nuggets. It was so comforting that some of us were ready for a nana nap…
So we headed back to the hotel, and after putting Lulu to bed for a sleep, Matt had some down time at the hotel while Zippy and I headed to central Rotorua to start the two-hour Rotorua Duck Tour. The amphibious Duck vehicle is such a unique experience, and took us to some of my favourite places in the area. The Duck is an original World War II vehicle, with its own very interesting history, as our informative tour operator, Marcus, explained. We explored Lake Tarawera, Blue Lake (Tikitapu) and Lake Okareka. Hearing the region’s volcanic history was great for the visitors on board, including Zippy who was surprised at the number of volcanoes surrounding us. As soon as the duck hit the water, suddenly transforming from truck to boat, all the kids started grinning and shouting with excitement.
I found myself getting emotional as we discussed the Tarawera eruption in 1886, as five of my ancestors had passed away in this eruption, near the buried village. Marcus had vast knowledge of local Māori history and the various eruptions that created these beautiful lakes.
Reuniting with Matt and Lulu after her nap, we headed to the Redwoods on the edge of Rotorua’s lakes region. The Redwoods Treewalk, which opened in 2016, sits nestled amongst the 75-metre tall Redwoods Forest, near the information centre. High above the forest floor we walked across eco-suspended bridges that wound their way through the forest.
As we followed the elevated track, I realised the ‘Don’t run’ rule might be a little challenging to enforce with our lively girls! They were so excited that they thought the best way to experience the trees was to move at great pace! I managed to slow them down (somewhat) by showing them the beautiful lanterns that were just being lit as we arrived. They were enchanted at how the lanterns turned the green trails into a magical forest at sunset, and were clearly unperturbed by how far above the ground we were!
After the short drive back to the city (with the heater on!) we were warmly welcomed at Our House gastropub in the Eat Street foodcourt on Tutanekai St. It’s proudly Māori owned and operated, and the staff were so friendly and fun for the girls. We can highly recommend the mussel pot, kau burger, delicious rēwana loaf with herb butter and the little tamariki cheeseburgers. The girls were dancing to the Kiwi tunes and getting their excited voices on when we announced the next stop... dessert!
We walked home via Lady Jane’s Icecream Parlour also on Tutanekai St. There were long deliberations over what to order, but, “Sprinkles on everything, Mum” was the main request, and yes, Lady Jane’s delivered! Matt was equal levels of happy with a three-scoop sundae, with all the extras.
The sugar hit got us all home and it wasn’t long before I was back in my happy place in the mineral pool. A win for everyone.
On the last day of our trip we headed to the Polynesian Spa on Hinemoa St and were treated to a private spa overlooking the lake. We ventured out to the main family-friendly pool for a few runs on the slide – is there anything a preschooler loves more than a slide into a pool?! This was the perfect place to unwind from a fun weekend away, even for those with energy still to burn. The girls were smiling the entire morning.
Last but not least, we headed to Mamaku, a 20-minute drive from Rotorua, for the Mamaku Express Rail Cruising experience. Heading out from Mamaku, the self-driven railway car cruises through tall, green native bush to a point overlooking Rotorua at Tārukenga. This was a relaxing activity for the family, as even the girls had to sit still! The return journey takes about one-and-a-half hours, and here’s a pro tip: for an even more relaxing trip, don’t tell the kids about the horn!
Leaving Rotorua, we felt so grateful this gem of a city was only an hour from our Mt Maunganui doorstep. The variety of attractions and natural beauty is world-class. Introducing Zippy and Lulu to these integral parts of our nation’s history was a real privilege. As I reflected on our holiday, I looked back to see the girls fast asleep only five minutes after getting in the car; it was definitely the peaceful kind of ending to a whirlwind weekend I’d hoped for!
Words & photography: Jane Keam
AS FEATURED IN ISSUE 51 OF OHbaby! MAGAZINE. CHECK OUT OTHER ARTICLES IN THIS ISSUE BELOW