We are fans of the intergenerational holiday, specifically in this case, three generations, three days, and with Rotorua the destination. Travelling with children as well as grandparents makes memories for the entire family, while also making looking after the little one(s) that much easier. As most people will know, there’s so much to do in Rotorua, but can a three-year old, the three-year old’s 40-something parents, and the three-year old’s 70-something grandparents really all do the same activities?
Well, yes! And before anyone goes making outlandish accusations that we only invited the grandparents in order to have travelling babysitters, with the exception of one activity and meal, we did our itinerary together.
So with three generations spanning 70-years, the five of us embarked on an adventure tailor made for pre-schoolers, retirees, and everyone in between. Here’s where me, Aimee, Riley and Aimee’s parents Kathy and Alan went:
Whakarewarewa Forest – commonly known as “The Redwoods” – is 5600-hectares of forest defined by the juxtaposition of enormous Californian Redwoods with oversized native ferns. Renowned as one of the premier mountain biking destinations anywhere in the world, the walks here are equally as good. They’re also free, which is always a bonus on holiday.
But if you do have a bit of budget, combine one of the shorter walks in The Redwoods (there’s a terrific, neck-craning 2-kilometre loop option from the visitors centre that blew little Riley’s mind) with the Redwoods Treewalk.
Timing the Treewalk with the setting of the sun is a surreal experience as you traverse 28 swing bridges, 20-metres off the ground, but still dwarfed by the 70-metre tall redwoods. You’re also surrounded by giant lanterns, while dancing laser lights create the feeling of glow worms. Suitable for little ones like Riley (who was very excited by all the “wibbly-wobbly bridges), as well as the grandparents. One of the absolute best things you can do in the North Island.
While the grandparents opted for a relaxing morning at the pool and spa of the Rydges Hotel where we were staying, Aimee, Riley and I jumped in the car and drove 20-minutes northeast to Okere Falls. This is a scenic reserve of beautiful native bush, highlighted by the 7-metre Tutea Falls – reportedly the highest commercially rafted falls in the world.
Don’t worry if you’re confused as to what exactly is Okere Falls and what is Tutea Falls. The easiest way to explain it is that Okere Falls is both a waterfall and a small town, but the waterfall that people are generally talking about when they say “Okere Falls” is in fact Tutea Falls.
To get to where the thrill-seekers take that famous plunge, you walk the Hinemoa Steps down to Tutea’s Cave – a centuries old hiding place for Maori women and children during times of war. With some of the steps cut into the rock to form a partial tunnel next to the falls, this is both spectacular and unique.
From the carpark to the top of the steps takes only a few minutes and if you feel like more of a bush walk afterwards, there are plenty of options in the area, including an approximate 2.5-kilometre loop back to the carpark.
We’d definitely recommend this as a small excursion out of town and even in rainy conditions, it was easy enough carrying Riley up and down the stairs. That said, an appetite was worked up and we’d been told a toasted sandwich at the Okere Falls Store cafe was a must. Yes indeed, the grand prize winner of the best toastie in the annual Great New Zealand Toastie Takeover 2022 is this self-described little number:
Get Smoked, Pickled + Toasted – House smoked, beer brined brisket, McClure’s Sweet & Spicy Pickles, hop salted mozzarella, smoked cheddar, watercress and horseradish on Bread Asylum X Lumberjack Brewing spent grain sourdough with pickle brine sour cream and a beer gravy dipping bowl.
You can read more about Okere Falls Store chef Rich Johns in this New Zealand Herald article, but in summary, yes, that’s a toastie that is worth the hype. Okere Falls Store also didn’t disappoint with a full beer garden out the back.
Waimangu Volcanic Valley
In a place with countless geothermal areas to explore, it can be a little hard choosing which to see. If time and budgets only allow for one, you won’t regret a splurge at Waimangu Volcanic Valley (about 15-minutes drive south of Rotorua), and it also couldn’t be more perfect for three generations of visitors with differing levels of pace and fitness.
Waimangu is both the youngest geothermal area in the world, as well as being home to the world’s largest hot spring with the 38,000-sqm Frying Pan Lake. We did the ‘Full Waimangu Experience’ tour which allows you to choose between walking 1.5-kilometres at the low end, up to 4.5-kilometres at the high end. I walked the whole course, while the rest of the family opted for the 1.5ks where a private bus then picks you up to take you to a jetty on Lake Rotomahana.
From there we reunited for a 45-minute boat cruise above where the iconic Pink and White Terraces were buried when Mt Tarawera erupted in 1886. It was that eruption that created this entire valley, and the way the staff at Waimangu combine history with geology with ecology – the native plant and bird species here are worthy of a visit in and of themselves – makes this a hugely impressive operation.
Tip: don’t miss the small detour to see the Inferno Crater Lake – you’ll have forgotten about those stairs as soon as you see that piercing blue water. Don’t be tempted to jump in though! Temperatures sit at around 80 degrees celsius.
All up, the ‘Full Waimangu Experience’ tour takes between 3-4 hours and you can go at your own pace.
50-years since opening, the Polynesian Spa remains a Rotorua institution. Sourced from two natural springs, there are 28 different pools spread across three public and two private areas.
We started in one of the Lakeview Private Pools and as first-timers to the Polynesian Spa, finally realised why this place has attracted so many international visitors for so long. The secluded rock garden setting is exceptionally cute and had the grandparents particularly chuffed: “How is it we’ve never been here before!?”
From there it was to the Deluxe Lake Spa where five pools of differing temperatures have you in Goldlilocks mode until you find your absolute favourite. With these waters long believed to hold healing properties, it’s also the setting that’s undoubtedly good for the mental health as the Deluxe Lake Spa has been carefully sculpted to appear as a series of impossibly perfect natural rock pools.
And just as the visit to Okere Falls was followed up with award-winning toasted sandwiches, a solid soak at the Poylnesian Spa gets rewarded with award-winning gelato to cool you down. Little Lato is onsite at the Spa and is the creation of Hannah Wood, a New Zealand graduate of the Carpigiani Gelato University in Bologna, Italy. An entrepreneur who’s passion for gelato has garnered literally dozens of awards in just five years, Riley can recommend the Hazelnut Chocolate, while my money is on the Mango Lassi.
Rydges provides affordable family accommodation with good sized pool, an excellent buffet breakfast and a prime location near The Redwoods. Request a room in the recently refurbished wings.
The Forgotten Wilderness Of Whirinaki
2022 saw me visit Rotorua twice. The first time was back in May and was minus the family but at the encouragement of my wife. For years I’d wanted to see the remote, under-the-radar Whirinaki Forest about 75-minutes from Rotorua, and with a spare couple of days up my sleeve, Aimee pushed me to do that spur of the moment adventure. She’s a great lady and the almost Singapore-sized wilderness that is Whirinaki was everything I’d hoped it would be. You can read about that experience here on the Roxborogh Report and here in the New Zealand Herald.
It’s no secret Rotorua has had a bit of a tough time of it lately in terms of headlines. In the past 12 months, the birthplace of international tourism in New Zealand has sometimes seemed as likely to be the subject of news stories regarding emergency housing as it is for its literally dozens upon dozens of world class tourist attractions. But here’s the thing: ask me today where in the North Island I’d recommend for a safe, activity-filled family escape and Rotorua would still be at the top of that list.
While we shouldn’t dismiss those stories, nor should we let them create a misleading impression. I use the word “misleading”, because unless you’re planning on a late night stroll down certain parts of Fenton Street – a street you’d be unlikely to stroll down irrespective of good or bad press – the odds of your holiday intersecting with any of those negative news stories are infinitesimally slim.
Fenton Street may be a major vehicle thoroughfare with quite likely more motels than any other stretch of road in the country, but in a city as culturally rich as Rotorua, with some of the best mountain-biking and hiking on the planet, with internationally significant geysers and thermal areas, with striking rainforests, stunning lakes and volcanos, with award-winning zip-line operations, and yes of course, the luge, Zorbing, canyoning, kayaking and just about every adventure activity humans have dreamed up, who’s thinking, “You know what honey? Let’s go for a meander down Fenton Street!”?
Besides, Rotorua needs us. But don’t feel like that should be your reason for going there. Go there because if you’re someone that likes to do stuff on holiday, Rotorua has the stuff. And go there because despite any challenges, it’s still a safe, vibrant, fun place for families.