What to do and see in Rotorua, New Zealand’s spa town

by Virginia Larson / 06 August, 2017

My Weekend of Mud

Virginia Larson takes the cure in Rotorua.

I am up to my neck in muddy water. A twig floats past. Well, more of a twiglet. A mound of small round stones has formed under my bottom. My arms are gently floating, elevated in a warm soup of silt and minerals. My feet are slung in a canvas foot-rest, positioned at just the right spot in the tiled bathtub to stop me sliding into the murk. I have a bowl of sweet-smelling, purified mud “on the side”. But I’ve reached a state of such meditative, Prozacian bliss in my 40°C mud-puddle, I’m only just bothered enough to reach out and smear some grey gloop over my face and neck.

I’m meant to get out after 20 minutes and rejoin the real world. Maybe Mary will forget about me and I can lie here for the rest of the morning, listening to the sound of rain on the roof, with soft, grey light filtering through the louvre windows. But Mary Crane, professional adviser and spa therapist at Rotorua’s QE Health, is not the forgetful type. She’s a friendly, cheerful bundle of efficiency in a black smock and pants, and she’s already had quite enough trouble for one morning, without finding she’s left a client gently broiling in volcanic mud.

The overhead lights in the spa-bath area blew a fuse just before I arrived. Mary was –uncharacteristically, I think – in a bit of a bother. “They all went pfft! Your bath’s ready but the lights are out. Ian’s called the electrician…”

the Lake Tarawera shore (probably getting a coffee from The Landing Cafe behind him).

We take a peek. I think my room looks perfect: bathed in natural light; steam rising from the tub; none of that annoying tinkly piano music favoured by beauty therapists. I’m in – blown fuses and all – undeterred by a fleeting worry that Ian the handyman and a random sparkie might burst through the curtains and find me mud-masked and nipple-up in glorious grey swill. “Thank goodness you have a sense of humour,” says Mary, leaving me with a bundle of towels, a pitcher of water and instructions for making the most of my wallow.

QE Health spa celebrates 75 years of holistic health care this year. It opened in 1942 as a convalescent hospital for soldiers returning from the battlefields of World War II. Ngati Whakaue gifted iwi land on the Rotorua lakeside and access to mineral-rich spring waters.

After the war-wounded moved on, the building was renamed the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, and patients with arthritis, rheumatism and similar conditions began turning up for thermal treatments and physiotherapy.

How to take a steamy selfie: first, book your trip to Rotorua, then visit Kuirau Park, Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland.

It’s expanded its spa services even further in recent years, with a gym and fitness training, beauty treatments, a “wellness for cancer” service, a range of mud and massage therapies, yoga, even Cuban dance. More than $1 million of the spa’s revenue comes from French citizens of New Caledonia, who fly to Rotorua for the “cure medicale”. There must be beaucoup of them; there’s a sign on one of the doors, “Vestiaire de Dames”, which translates rather quaintly to “ladies’ cloakroom”.

The QE Health building is delightfully old and rumpty. Even its marketing man, Graeme Simpson, calls it “our proudly battle-scarred old building with a heart of solid gold”. In fact, it was only ever meant to be temporary, designed to last 10 to 15 years, and that was in 1942.

Mary takes me on a tour. She shows me the mud room where big white buckets are packed with the dry stuff, ready for thermal water to be added in a contraption she likens to “a huge bain-marie”. As well as the baths, you can be slathered in mud and wrapped like a papoose. There’s a wax room, where you can immerse your painful hands or feet into heated paraffin wax. You can be massaged under jets of warm thermal water. We poke our heads into the Mokoia lounge, which has sprung a leak in the morning’s downpour. There’s a bowl on the floor collecting the drops.

Department of Conservation Waiotapu thermal area.

At one of the thermal pools, I talk to the happily submerged Rawiri Te Kowhai. He’s a QE regular, “from the village”: he waves in the direction of Ohinemutu, the Maori village on the lakefront, with its fine meeting house and lovely little St Faith’s Church. Four years ago, says Rawiri, he was overweight and had type 2 diabetes. “The doc said I was a walking heart attack.” He started on a Maori men’s health programme that included regular gym and water therapy sessions at QE Health. Now, he and his “cuz Lance” – on the other side of the pool, a fellow health convert – are training for a body-sculpting competition.

I get a farewell hug from Mary. She tells me this building will be torn down in a few years; Ngati Whakaue will use the land to build a flash hotel and QE will rise again in Rotorua in a green, sustainable, world-leading healthy building.

I’m sure it will be splendid, but there’s something especially warm and welcoming about this sprawling old pile. I buy a bunch of mud and manuka masks and bath bombs in the lobby shop; really, I wish I could spend the rest of the day in a fluffy robe with les dames, and chatting to the boys from the village in the Rachel Pool.

Philly Angus enjoys a liquid volcanic mud bath at QE Health, in a bathing suit for modesty’s sake.

I have only good memories of Rotorua. Growing up in Tauranga, a weekend treat was a family day trip over the Mamaku Range to the town, thermos and picnic basket in the boot of the Ford Anglia, then that first whiff of sulphur, a dip in the old Ward Baths and lunch by the duck pond in the Government Gardens. Years later, our son learnt to wake-board and waterski on Rotorua’s lovely lakes; one time he talked me into a white-water rafting trip on the Kaituna River, complete with the stomach-lurching, seven-metre drop over the Tutea Falls. On cooler days, we’d join boatie friends moored up on Lake Tarawera’s Hot Water Beach, and burrow our feet into the sand until our toes were toasted.

This mid-winter visit of mine has more of a modern-day “taking the cure” theme – a nod to Rotorua’s spa town history. Even in the mid-1880s, Victorian tourists were drawn to its “hot lakes” and – too briefly – Rotomahana’s magnificent pink and white terraces, where they tromped around the eighth wonder of the world and dunked themselves, woolly long johns and all, in its natural pools. The 1886 Mt Tarawera eruption buried the terraces, and the town’s early bath-houses and sanatoriums were blighted by plumbing problems; the acidic waters and hydrogen sulphide gas tended to eat the metal piping and peel plaster from the walls. The chemistry has since been mastered, thermal waters diverted to private and public hot pools, and silica-rich mud, glorious mud, repackaged as a therapeutic product.

Like a giant’s garden, a swathe of Rotorua’s redwoods forest lights up at night, with David Trubridge-designed lanterns.

All this geothermal activity still lends Rotorua an element of Mother Nature-generated excitement, however. Geysers erupt out of the lake occasionally; steam finds new vents from the underworld, sometimes in residents’ backyards.

Fittingly, the town has not only built on its natural spa attributes, but also reinvented itself as an adventure playground, with a host of outdoor activities from the adrenalin-raising to the sedate. I swear that everyone I talk to has a mountain bike or two stashed in their garage.

I’m far too relaxed for any hardcore, even medium-core action, so intersperse my QE mud bath and massage at the Polynesian Spa with a walk in the redwoods – at night, though, on a suspended wibbly-wobbly wooden walkway among giant, glowing David Trubridge-designed lanterns and fairy lights. I also take a Segway tour of the town. My guide, Eliza, living the Rotorua outdoorsy dream, has been up since before dawn training racehorses on the city’s race track. We make an extra Segway circuit of Sulphur Point; its mineralish glitter has a bleached-out beauty all of its own. We also womble merrily through Kuirau Park on our two-wheelers, stopping to tell taniwha stories in the steam and admire the mud pools.

Mudtopia, billed as the Southern Hemisphere’s first-ever mud and music festival, is heading to Rotorua this December. Tickets have just gone on sale. I’m tempted.

Dusk on Lake Tarawera, flat-topped Mt Tarawera in the distance.

TO STAY & TO EAT

 Rotorua offers accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets, from campgrounds and cabins to sumptuous lodges. I luxuriate at Arthur and Denise Gray’s Black Swan Lakeside Boutique Hotel (www.blackswanhotel.co.nz), set in lovely, tiered gardens on Kawaha Point Rd. The Grays are Auckland escapees; I quiz Arthur over my delish smoked-salmon breakfast omelette. He says they thought about moving to Queenstown, but Rotorua offered both the tourism business opportunity and “a real sense of community”.

There are myriad dining options in town, including the covered stretch of Tutanekai St called “Eat Street”. One night, I watch the world go by, with a cocktail, at Tamati Coffey and Tim Smith’s Ponsonby Road Lounge Bar, then pop across the street to join a friend for shared plates at Atticus Finch restaurant. (Check restaurant and cafe guides for what’s hot.)

Thermally and blissfully immersed, with a lake view, at Polynesian Spa.

TO DO

There’s a host of activities on offer in Rotorua, year-round, from free to expensive. This is cycling country, so check www.riderotorua.com and www.rotoruanz.com/visit/see-and-do/cycling-mountain-biking   for everything you need to know about biking in and around the town. Popular with pros and amateurs alike is the Redwoods/Whakarewarewa Forest, which also has trails for walkers and horse riders. For wheels of a different kind, take a guided, battery-powered tour of the town with Rotorua by Segway (www.rotoruabysegway.com). And you can get a bird’s eye view of the redwoods, day or night, with Redwoods Treewalk (www.treewalk.co.nz). If you want to explore Hot Water Beach and learn about the Maori and European history of the area, hitch a ride with David and Karen Walmsley’s Totally Tarawera Ecotours. They also have two secluded “glamping” sites for hire on the lakeshore, for a totally pimped summer camping experience. For the full Rotorua activity menu, visit www.rotoruanz.com

Two of Lake Rotorua’s black swans question why these gulls aren’t at the beach where they belong.

SPA TOWN

There’s a “spa and wellness” section on the rotoruanz website that includes hot pools, free and paid entry; also spas, geothermal sites and hotels that offer healing/beauty therapy services. My weekend treats were a mud bath at QE Health Spa (www.qehealth.co.nz ), and a deluxe soak plus “nature’s gift” massage at the Polynesian Spa (www.polynesianspa.co.nz ).

This was published in the August 2017 issue of North & South.

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