The first thing I do when I climb down from the fun-sized propeller plane onto the runway of the airport (of equally small proportions) is sniff. Not a sharp snotty suck, but a long hard inhale.
It may seem a slightly strange thing to do, but mention Rotorua to anyone and first up they’ll mention the smell. The area’s geothermal properties mean the air is usually filled with a sulphuric stench that some find a little hard to bear.
When I arrive however, the skies are beautifully clear. With no clouds to hold in the odour, it smells surprisingly fresh.
This is the birthplace of tourism in New Zealand. It was once home to the pink and white terraces, a spectacular flight of steps and pools formed by geothermally heated water from two large geysers which was considered one of the natural wonders of the world. Visitors would make the journey from Auckland and beyond to bathe in the pools and take in the unusual scenery. But the terraces were destroyed by the 1886 eruption of Mount Tarawera – the volcano’s last.
Although that was well over a hundred years ago, the geological make-up of the region makes it prone to the occasional tremor – there are no less than six on my first night in town. As we sit sipping cocktails in the hotel bar, they come in quick succession – small but strong enough to be felt.
Despite the loss of the terraces, tourism lives on in Rotorua thanks to its enduring geothermal appeal. For example, at Hells Gate, visitors can bathe in mud baths or instead head for Lake Tarawera’s Natural Bush Hot Pool for a relaxing soak.
The majority of hotels in the area have also tapped into the area’s natural gifts to enhance their offerings for guests.
At the Holiday Inn, the outdoor pool is filled with the geothermal waters, releasing tendrils of sulphur scented steam into the sky. It’s the perfect spot for a twilight or early morning soak, as the waters ease my tension and wash my aches away.
The spa at the Millennium Hotel Rotorua offers guests the opportunity to soak in spa pools as they await treatments such as a Rotorua mud wrap or a facial using manuka honey. I opt for the latter. Not only does the locally cultivated honey smell wonderful as the therapist smears it across my face, but it also has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties making it a godsend for mischievous skin.
But geothermal tourism here is not just about spas.
At Te Puia, a Maori cultural centre set in the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley, the Pohutu Geyser puts on an explosive show for visitors, bursting steam and scalding hot water into the air as pools of hot mud bubble below. The geothermal properties of the site also heat up the menu, with a selection of canapés are lowered into a hole in the ground in a wooden box to be cooked by the heat of the steam escaping from below – a pretty unique twist on dim sum.
Just wandering around the town of Rotorua, steam billows through grates in the pavement or from small pools in the back gardens of its residents carefully marked with signs warning of the dangers of the water’s high temperatures. The sulphuric clouds of vapour appear all around the edges of the lake, giving it a mysterious look and feel which is most striking at dawn and sunset.
In line with New Zealand’s strengthening reputation as a destination for adventure travel, Rotorua’s attractions have now expanded well beyond its spa attractions to include adventure activities such as whitewater rafting, canopy tours, jet boating and mountain biking.
But the area’s geothermal properties remains its true point of difference and make enduring that curious smell well worthwhile.