Think of things to do in Rotorua and costly activities like bungee jumping, whitewater rafting, ziplining, Zorbing, etc. will come to mind. However, I found that some of the best things we did in Rotorua actually did not cost us a penny at all.
Here is my list of the best things to do for free in Rotorua:
No. 1: Explore Ōhinemutu Maori Village
Ōhinemutu Maori Village is home to a few hundred descendants of the Ngāti Whakaue tribe which arrived in New Zealand in or around the year 1350. They eventually set up home on the western shores of Lake Rotorua because of abundant geothermal energy in the area which could be used for cooking, heating and bathing. It was for the same reason that Hubby and I discovered this village as we had noticed smoke coming out of the ground in the vicinity of a beautiful church, and decided to walk towards it. And what a precious find it was!
After parking our car by Lake Rotorua, we followed a path lined with houses till we arrived at what we subsequently found out was Tama-te-Kapua Meeting House and Te Papaiouru Marae. A marae is a sacred place used by the Maoris for religious and social purposes like celebrating birthdays, holding funerals, etc. There were intricate wooden carvings at the meeting house and marae.
Opposite the marae was St Faith's Anglican Church, which we had initially seen from afar. Built in 1914, the church's exterior has a distinct Tudor style. We did not venture into the church, but wish we had as I've since read that the interior of the church has exquisite wooden carvings, woven panels, and an image of Jesus wearing a Maori cloak etched into a window. Apparently, that image of Jesus appears to walk across the surface of Lake Rotorua, as the church sits on the water's edge.
The tombs in the church's cemetery are all raised above ground because of the geothermal activity in the area.
We walked towards the lake and came across Muruika Urupa (Maori Soldiers' Cemetery at Muruika Point) just behind the church. More than 70 members of the 28 Maori Battalion who fought during the Second World War are buried there. The tombs are similarly raised above ground due to the geothermal activity in the area.
An obelisk, plaques and tablets honouring Maori soldiers who served during the First World War and other missions and can also be found at the cemetery.
As we walked around the village, we could see geothermal activity all over. Boiling hot pools, steam rising from the sidewalk and bodies of water, and signages warning of danger posed by the thermal area.
Here's a video of the geothermal activity:
We didn't see other tourists in Ōhinemutu Maori Village. In fact, there was hardly anyone walking around there that morning. The peace and tranquility coupled with steam venting all around us made our visit especially mystical and magical.
No. 2: Stroll through Whakarewarewa Forest Park (also known as "The Redwoods")
Just a short drive from city centre of Rotorua is Whakarewarewa Forest Park. The park covers an area of 55 hectares and is popularly known as "The Redwoods" because of the towering Californian Redwood Trees which are grown there. The tallest tree at the park stands at 72m, but in its native California, these trees can grow as tall as 110m!
We explored the park on foot one morning by walking along one of the many forest trails. The shady trail felt a few degrees cooler than the city, and there was plenty of fresh air and lovely beams of sunlight filtering through the canopy of the Redwoods. We thoroughly enjoyed our stroll through the park.
No. 3: Visit Kuirau Park
Kuirau Park is New Zealand's only free geothermal public park where you'll find a steaming crater lake, bubbling mud pools, and even free footbaths. Soak your tired feet, climb a tree, birdwatch, or roll out a picnic mat. Don't miss out on this unique park when you're in town.
No. 4: Take a Dip in Hot & Cold Thermal Pool
On the road leading to Wai-O-Tapu Thermal Wonderland, you'll find cars parked by the side of the road and their occupants disappearing into the brush, as they head to one of Rotorua's best kept secrets, the Hot & Cold Thermal Pool. The natural pool is the meeting point of a geothermal stream and a cold freshwater stream, making the water warm and ideal for a relaxing dip in the great outdoors.
There are signs warning the public of the hazards of bathing there, but most ignore them and head straight for the inviting pool.
No. 5: Hunt for Glow Worms at Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake)
After reading a travel blog on finding glow worms at a secret dell in the vicinity of Lake Tikitapu (Blue Lake), I was really curious about it and made it part of our plan for Rotorua. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we didn't manage to go glow worm hunting there.
We did, however, manage to find time to go for a dip in the lake. It was the year-end holidays for the Kiwis, so the lake was fairly busy with vacationers camping, swimming and boating. Certainly not the picture of peace and tranquility I had imagined. We found a spot on the beach to plonk our belongings and the kids raced off into the icy cold water for some splashing good fun.
Should we return one day, we'll definitely go look for those glow worms near the lake.
No. 6: Take a Walk along Lake Rotorua
Lake Rotorua was formed from the crater of a large volcano which erupted 240,000 years ago. It is the second largest lake by surface area in the North Island.
On our last day in Rotorua, we bought some burgers and had our lunch by Lake Rotorua. We walked along the shore, and especially enjoyed the view of the lake from Ōhinemutu Maori Village. We even came across a specimen of the Maori waka (canoe) on the water's edge.
No. 7: Watch the Alpacas and other Farm Animals at Rotorua Hideaway Lodge
Strictly speaking, this activity is not free, as it was only possible because we stayed at Rotorua Hideaway Lodge for our 3 nights in Rotorua. If you're looking for a place to stay in Rotorua, this lodge should be right at the top of your list.
We fell in the love with the place the moment we opened the door to our studio and found a plump white rooster on our porch! The studio overlooked the lodge's farm which had sheep and the cutest family of alpacas we've ever seen. We could spend hours just observing them.
I had searched extensively for a place to accommodate our family and couldn't find an Airbnb for a group of our size in a central location and with sufficient bathrooms at a good price. In the end, we picked Rotorua Hideaway Lodge which had excellent reviews online, and those reviews did not disappoint.
Each king studio cost us S$179.52 per night with kitchen facilities. The lodge was comfortable and had a laid-back ambience. The supermarket was a short drive away and we were able to stock up on groceries to prepare our meals in our studio. For families with young kids, they'd enjoy the outdoor play area too.
No. 8: Pick Your Own Fruit
There are several fruit farms in and around Rotorua which allow customers to pick your own fruit when in season. We googled and found strawberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry and boysenberry farms in the vicinity.
On the morning that my 2 girls went ziplining, my sis' family together with my parents went to the berry farm closest to our accommodation, Out of the Blue Berry Farm, and had an awesome time picking blueberries. Although the act of picking berries is free, you do have to pay for the berries picked, but they don't cost that much at all. Typically, these farms would also have a store selling homemade jams, ice-cream, etc. and are great for souvenir shopping.