I feel guilty saying this, but I also hate to lie: Most of the things to do in Rotorua left me less than inspired. While it’s true that I only booked one night in the inexplicably famous lake town, I feared even that would be too much.
Many of the activities, to be sure, focus around New Zealand’s native Maori people—frankly, the commodification of their culture. This put me off in principle, but it seemed especially cheap given how many Maori I saw in ordinary places once I arrived in the Rotorua area.
One particular man, who was just behind me in line for coffee at a gas station, seemed hyper-aware that I was hyper-aware of his face tattoo. I didn’t look in his direction again, although I’m sure he noticed that as well and found me even less polite as a result.
The Size of Trees
My first stop in Rotorua was Whakarewarewa, a California redwood forest that was free to enter, assuming you didn’t get suckered into paying for the canopy tour. (I didn’t.)
The redwoods themselves were less than mighty (they didn’t seem all that large or old, as redwoods go), though I did take to one particular type of vegetation. They were ferns, only they were the size of trees.
When I’d seen a few near the end of my Alpine trek from Lake Taupo, I’d assumed they were palm trees, on account of their shape. In hindsight, one item I should’ve added to my list of things to do in Rotorua was finding out exactly what these organisms were.
Capturing a self portrait in the good light of early morning, I noticed upon inspecting one particular image that the leaves of the fern tree had cast shadows on my face. If I’m honest, they were not entirely unlike the tattoo of the man in line for gas station coffee with me.
Rotorua might’ve been a hub of Maori culture, but it was also home to the rudest people I’d met in New Zealand thus far. Several motorists plowed full speed ahead toward pedestrian crossings as I was walking through them, and cursed at me for having done so.
(I later discovered that apparently cars, not people, have the right of way here. Apparently, being courteous and sensible are not among obligatory things to do in Rotorua.)
After a protracted check-in to a private room at a below-average hostel (prices in New Zealand have made me a desperate 30-something—what can I say?), I headed toward Wai O Tapu thermal park—this place was not entirely different from Orakei Korako, where I stopped last Wednesday. Well, apart from the lime-green lake anyway, which perfectly matched the shirt I was wearing.
Upon returning to the hostel, I was pleased to find that the flirty man who protracted my check-in was on Grindr, confirming that he was a proverbial member of the family. Unfortunately, he was also a fucking flake and a half, which seems to be a requirement for gay men of a certain age these days.
More Than the Beach
Having barely slept Friday night on account of how miserably hot my private hostel room had been, I headed for the coast first thing Saturday. I’d ticked all the items off my list of things to do in Rotorua; I was ready for some sun and surf.
Or at least I thought that’s what my morning was going to entail. In fact, what appeared to be a car-accessible viewpoint atop Mount Maunganui necessitated a hike of nearly an hour; by the time I finished that I craved breakfast more than the beach.
I was unsure, as I finished my avocado toast with poached eggs, whether the three-hour drive northward to a remote beach on the Coromandel Peninsula would be worthwhile. I feared it would be redundant, or maybe even outright disappointing.
In fact, the only disappointing things that happened en route was seeing 10 avocados sold for $5; I’d paid $16.50 for my not-so-filling breakfast. The moment I saw the magnificent view of New Chums Beach from hundreds of meters above, all my disappointment regarding things to do in Rotorua fell away like the loose gravel I kicked down to the sea as I strutted atop my newfound perch.
Terrifying As Well
Just before heading back to ground level, I encountered an older couple—a Kiwi man and an American woman—who recommended I do another hike, specifically the one at Castle Rock. I had no intention of following this advice, of course, being that I would be sleeping in an Airbnb near Auckland Airport for my Sunday morning flight to Christchurch.
Still, something the woman said stuck with me. “Would it be worth it if it wasn’t?” she asked, I suppose rhetorically, when I told her I found the observation deck to be terrifying (as well as beautiful).
Then again, the scariest experiences of my life the past several months have all involved flakey fuckboys, a fate I thankfully avoided when the one at the hostel blew me off. (And let’s be clear: Sleeping with service industry workers is never a priority for me when I travel, whether we’re talking about things to do in Rotorua or any other city around the world.)