Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The ground is thinner in Rotorua

When the winter chill descends upon Auckland in full, what better place to flee for a few days than New Zealand's hub of bubbling geo-thermal energy?

PhotobucketI hadn't been to Rotorua in nearly a decade, even though it's just 3 hours from the big city. But it was Queen's Birthday holiday weekend (although curiously enough, it's not her birthday, which is in April) and I actually had a few days off work in a row, so we spontaneously set forth. Rotorua (also known to some, quite bizarrely I think, as "Roto Vegas") is a tourist landmark and has lots to do from the tacky to the sublime. The downtown itself isn't much to write home about, really, but the surroundings are fantastic.

Rotorua is full of thermal activity -- the whole place is basically the crater of an ancient volcano -- and is a little like New Zealand's version of Yellowstone National Park, albeit smaller. The whole town smells strongly of the rotten egg tang of sulfur, which takes getting used to, and you'll find steamy vents and bubbling hot mud pools in the earth all around. Hot mineral baths and pools have been a part of the city's charm for decades, and with the temperature nudging 0C we immediately went to the Polynesian Spas to bathe in waters as hot as 40C. Quite a rush to sit in steaming alkaline water in the exposed freezing open air, and Peter enjoyed going down a water slide approximately 700 times.

PhotobucketWe bundled up and also walked along the shores of Lake Rotorua, which boasts several steaming scorched geothermal features, and then visited the most excellent Rotorua Museum. Back in the 1920s or so, this huge, gorgeous Edwardian building was home to the Rotorua Baths, where folks came from far and wide to "take the cure" of the hot waters. Today the museum has very good exhibits on local volcanic history, the extraordinarily brave 28th Maori Battalion of World War II, and its own bath house history.

PhotobucketI found it rather fascinating in a "Road to Wellville" type way to see the old abandoned baths and equipment (which included such attractions as the "douche massage rooms!" and the "cleansing apparatus"). You could even visit the creepy basements which once housed mud baths, and climb up to the roofs to get a great view of the entire area and the dazzling architecture of the Museum's rooftop gables and towers.

Toss in some Thai food, new "Doctor Who" on the telly and a trek in a nifty redwood forest that reminded me of home, and you had the makings of a groovy long weekend. Best of all, our hotel on the lakeshore was terrifically warm (the radiators take advantage of the plentiful natural heat) -- you can't beat spending some of the coldest days of the year in a place warmer than our own chilly house!

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