Ruth Brown goes in search of pampering on a mums’ weekend away in Rotorua.
Ah, decisions, decisions. My travel buddy, Karen, agonises all the way down in the car from Auckland to Rotorua, should she have a facial or a massage? What is best? It’s a first world problem, I know, but when you’re on the way to the award-winning Wai Ora Lakeside Spa Resort booked in for the Mini Spa Sampler, it’s crucial.
We are on a mission for some major pampering. It’s the first time I’ve spent two whole days away from the kids. That alone makes me giddy with excitement.
Wai Ora Resort is tucked in a beautiful location beside Lake Rotorua. The rooms, though smallish, are stylish and well set up. Plus, when you have a choice of hot pools and jacuzzis a few steps away, there’s not much time to spend indoors. As spa co-ordinator Emma Paton says, you soon get used to roaming around outside in your bathrobe and slippers — everyone does it.
Next dilemma: what colour for our toenails? Sure, winter’s approaching and no one will see them but it’s still a tough choice between silver and gold.
At least some things come pre-determined, like the canapés and glass of bubbles that arrive after our indulgent pedicures. We were feeling more relaxed all the time.
As the sun starts to set on a gorgeous day we head to the Thursday Night Market for dinner. It seems all cultures are represented here — we try Argentinian stew, Croatian fritoles and Palestinian Aryas (meat-filled flatbreads). Then we watched the experts making crepes on flat griddles. It was mesmerising, but again, jam and whipped cream or blueberries and whipped cream? How to choose?
We were up early the next day for Tom Lynch of Foris Eco-Tours to pick us up to drive us an hour south to Whirinaki Rainforest. This was followed by some gentle (grade three) whitewater rafting on the Rangitikei River. Tom’s a former teacher who’s passionate about his bush and wildlife, as well as supremely knowledgeable. He knows this area like the back of his hand. He grew up in Rotorua and returned to set up Foris.
He’s been rafting since he was 18 but, now a family man, he knows it’s not all about thrills and spills. It’s more about gentle trips on the water, appreciating the quiet beauty of the bush which comes down to the water’s edge, yet towers above and on all sides. Sure, there are rapids — just enough to add a frisson of nervousness as you wonder how the raft will get through that tiny gap between two large rocks.
We get stuck a few times on “sleepers” hidden underwater. But for Tom it’s not really getting stuck unless he has to get out and push off. And he tries to avoid that.
He takes groups of students to the forest but also gets lots clients from overseas — his typical client is a 55-year-old US academic, who will be amazingly knowledgeable about the flora and fauna — enough to put the average Kiwi to shame. Even tourism industry people can barely place a grey warbler, let alone a miromiro, Tom complains.
In the bush, we hear the popokatea (white head) with its metallic tweet. We see a miromiro (tomtit) and taste red miro berries. In the old days, says Tom, Maori caught wood pigeons when the birds’ tummies were full of miro berries. Then roasted them, letting the tangy berries flavour the meat. Yum.
We walk among 1000-year-old trees. These are the podocarp “giants” such as miro, matai, kahikatea, rimu and totara — and there is very little left of this type of forest in New Zealand.
The view pool-side
After going bush with Tom, we couldn’t wait to get back to our menu of indulgence. The Polynesian Spa has 26 thermal pools to choose from, fed by therapeutic mineral waters from the acidic Priest Springs and the alkaline Rachel Springs. The sun is setting as we arrive, bathing the waters in a blush-pink light. We bypass the family pools (for once, I’m able to!) in favour of the luxurious Lake Spa: rock pools overlooking Lake Rotorua. The temperature ranges from 36˚C (if you’re pregnant this is you) to a steaming 42˚C. It’s no wonder spas and hot springs are favourites in winter, it makes a nice contrast to the evening chill.
If you’re pregnant you may want to splash out on the Tropical Mama Pregnancy Massage — a relaxing and pampering massage therapy with a sugar rub for the feet. Once again, the view is therapy itself, looking out towards the hills as the sun sets on this gloriously unusual part of New Zealand.
While I was enjoying a massage, Karen was enjoying hot, therapeutic waters and chatting to a very friendly Mexican mathematician. By the time he offered her a foot massage she was ready to go.
Local is best
Mokoia Restaurant at Wai Ora resort is a high-end restaurant that gets the locals’ stamp of approval — they all go there. When you can’t decide what to order, the restaurant offers shared dining — individual portions of the same dish so you and your friends can sample three or four dishes.
Everywhere on the menu you’ll see Kiwi ingredients such as manuka honey, kawakawa and horopito. Our dining companions, Tanya and Emma from the resort, also swear by manuka tea for kicking colds and flu into touch. The tea is available at the day spa as well.
And speaking of natural wonders, Tanya extolled the virtues of mud from Hells’ Gate Geothermal Reserve for keeping her skin looking great. (We made sure we got ourselves some on our way home).
Fire burn and cauldron bubble
Shakespeare’s witches would be right at home at Wai-o-Tapu Thermal Wonderland— it’s like a fairytale land gone very wrong. But this is what Rotorua is known for and it’s the stuff of fantasy.
You don’t want to take your preschoolers here as you walk along pathways with water at 100˚C on both sides. And those fantastic colours in the muddy waters are the shades of arsenic, sulphur and alkali-chloride.
The pervading fragrance is, of course, the rotten-egg smell of sulphur but the walk itself, on a fine day, is beautiful in a barren kind of way, as you gaze down into the mud, at the twisted manuka trees or the fluorescent green of “Devil’s Bath”. The marketing team clearly had a field day naming the highlights of the walk. With sulphur’s other name being “brimstone” names like “Devil’s Inkpot” and “Inferno Crater” make the most of the dramatic scenery.
We got to Wai-o-Tapu early so we’d get to see the Lady Knox geyser go off, with the help of a little washing powder. Yes, as our guide explained, they add 500g of surfactant to the geyser to make it whoosh dramatically skyward at 10.15am daily.
This is, in fact, how the geyser was discovered. In the early years of last century, a gang of prisoners found this source of warm water as they were clearing trees. They brought along their clothes for washing but when they added detergent, suddenly, whoosh, their laundry was 20m in the air.
The eruption can last for up to an hour but with the country getting over a drought, this time the jet lasted just a couple of minutes.
Strange, says Karen, as we left, that such a very male-looking phenomenon would have a female name. It is, in fact, named after Lady Constance Knox, second daughter of Uchter Knox, who was the governor of New Zealand, 1897 to 1904.
I was sorry to leave Rotorua and not just because it had been an amazing holiday free of the daily grind. The area inspired me to bring my own girls to this wonderland.
What to see and do
Ruth Brown is the mother of two girls who brought home souvenirs for her children which, sadly, were broken within 48 hours.