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Taking the waters

15 July 2022
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polynesian spa group in pool
The iconic Polynesian Spa offers a mix of public and private dips overlooking Lake Rotorua. Photo: Polynesian Spa

Warm up and wind down this winter with a luxurious dip (or three) in Rotorua’s welcoming waters.
Words Josie Steenhart

Across time, almost every culture in the world has held traditions of ‘taking the waters’ – bathing that’s not just about getting clean but also refreshing and revitalising the mind, body and soul.

First tapped into by local Māori and then by the early European population, 2022 Rotorua has returned to its roots as a destination for relaxation and rejuvenation with healing hot pools, skin-loving mineral mud and a side of invigorating outdoor adventure.

Whether it’s a steamy cedar tub set in native bush after a hard day’s mountain biking, a sulphurous, decadently muddy dip for baby-soft skin or a luxe soak in alkaline pools overlooking the lake, Rotorua offers a bathing experience for every taste. Or do as I did and try them all…

IN HOT WATER

An institution in the region since 1972, Polynesian Spa, on the stunning, steaming shores of Lake Rotorua, offers 28 mineral pools fed by two natural springs – the slightly acidic Priest Spring (which promises to relieve tired muscles, aches and pains) and the skin-nourishing alkaline waters of the Rachel Spring – with a mix of public and private dips, a variety of temperatures, and both family-friendly and adult-only options.

Open from 9am to 10pm, you can spend the whole day dipping in and out (drink lots of water throughout to avoid getting dehydrated), or if other activities beckon, pop back after dark for an extra fix and a relaxing finish to your day.

There’s also an on-site day spa offering everything from Aix (water) spa treatments to signature geothermal mud wraps, massages and facials, and a pre-therapy soak in the Deluxe Lake Spa pools is included with any retreat booking.

Secret Spot Hot Tubs is tucked away in the Waipa Valley in the heart of New Zealand’s mountain-biking mecca. It’s owned by adventure-loving brothers Keith and Eric Kolver, who conjured up the concept while canoeing the Whakatāne River in wild driving rain and gale-force winds.

The 12 6-foot-wide hot tubs, which can be booked for 45-minute sessions, are handcrafted from western
red cedar by the brothers’ mate Butch Menzies at Kiwi company Mason Ridge and cleverly set just the right distance apart along a boardwalk framed by native bush.

A hidden spring high in the Whakarewarewa Forest provides the crystal clear water, which, having spent
hundreds of years filtering through the volcanic aquifers beneath the forest, has the perfect mineral balance and a neutral pH, The water temperature is set according to the day, usually around 38 to 40°C.

For refreshing liquid of another kind, press the buzzer beside your tub and order from an array of beverages including Good George beers and ciders and a selection of the brothers’ favourite wines and non-alcoholic drinks. If gorgeous hot water isn’t enough, and you want to add luscious warm thermal mud to your bathing experience, take a short drive out of town to Tikitere, or Hell’s Gate, where Māori warriors have soothed battle-scarred bodies for centuries in the nutrient-rich waters.

Due to its beauty and healing properties, Tikitere became a destination for spa and nature seekers in the 1870s. Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw visited the area in 1934 and on viewing the bubbling hot mud, sulphurous hues, swathes of steam and lakes of boiling water is said to have exclaimed, “This could be the very gates of hell!” On hearing this, local Māori decided the English name for the area would
become Hell’s Gate.

While the dramatic backdrop of the geothermal park itself makes it easy to see what captured the imagination of the noted playwright, the adjoined public bathing options are a much more soothing proposition.

Framed with native bush, there’s a selection of sedate, deliciously hot pools to choose from, including the very popular muddy numbers, where once you’ve waded in, you scoop out handfuls of finely milled thermal mud from containers attached to the pool, smooth it on your skin then leave to dry for a surprising pleasant, gently detoxifying and exfoliating ritual.

edited te puia pohutu geyser erupting
Photo: Polynesian Spa

BRIGHT LIGHTS, SULPHUR CITY

If your fingers and toes are starting to resemble raisins, time to get out of the water for a bit.

A couple of exceptional night-exclusive experiences on offer in Rotorua are the Redwoods Nightlights Treewalk and Te Puia’s Geyser By Night. You’ve probably seen photos of the Treewalk but until you’re out there in the dark, high up in the tall treetops surrounded by the dazzling light displays and with no
other sound except the wind through the boughs (and the occasional cry of delight), it’s hard to imagine just how cool this one is.

Some numbers: this award-winning eco-tourism walk is 700m long, through 120-year-old trees across 28 suspension bridges and 27 platforms floating between 9-20 metres above the forest floor, features 34 exquisite lanterns by world-renowned Kiwi designer David Trubridge as well as many thousands of other lights, and takes about 40 minutes to complete.

Offering a variety of cultural and geothermal experiences, Te Puia is a must-do when you’re in Rotorua, and their newest attraction, Geyser By Night, takes you into a world of night-time wonder via a 3km multi-sensory, interactive guided trail under the stars, through Te Puia’s very special geothermal valley.

To make a full evening of it, head to the on-site restaurant before the tour starts to feast on a buffet dinner complete with full hāngī as well as a plethora of other dishes.

NATURAL HEALING

Another unique healing experience I was directed to in the area was with traditional Māori bodywork and counselling practitioner Wikitoria Oman.

Wikitoria practices romiromi, which originates from the centuries-old wānanga lore of traditional Māori healing, and utilises a natural approach to restoring wellness of the mind, body, spirit and emotional being.

For want of a way to describe it without it sounding too woo-woo (it wasn’t, and for those needing reassurance, she’s ACC-registered), my hour-long appointment was a multi-layered experience combining ancient karakia (prayer) and massage in the form of pressure on haemata points – for body alignment, the release of cellular blockages and the rebalancing of energy centres.

According to Wikitoria’s website, which explains it better than I can: “Physically it works on the central nervous system, and spiritually it helps to balance mauri (life essence) with wairua (spirit)”.

I came away feeling, if not transformed, definitely a bit calmer, less physically wound-up, mentally clearer and privileged to have had the opportunity to meet and be treated by Wikitoria.

LAKE LIFE

While not water of the bathing kind, a visit to the stunning watery paradise that is the Waimangu Volcanic Valley is the perfect Rotorua day excursion, ticking off multiple lakes of both the hot and cold kind including the world’s largest hot spring, the brilliant blue Inferno Crater Lake and the tranquil Lake Rotomahana, plus plenty of hissing geysers, plopping mud, pūkeko, pīwakawaka and lush native bush
and wetlands.

I opted for the ‘Full Waimangu Experience’, which involves a fabulously interesting and literally breathtaking walk to Lake Rotomahana before hopping on a sturdy little boat for a 45-minute pootle around under the imposing Mount Tarawera, into a crater lake, over the site where the famous pink and white terraces now lie and back to shore to board a bus for a pleasant rumble up the road back to base.

Usually I’d discourage technology use when spa-ing (except to take selfies, obviously), but I highly recommend downloading the free Waimangu app before you set off, to discover hidden content and rediscover the former wonders of the world (you’ll see what I mean when you get out on the lake).

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