The clearly signposted Thermal Explorer Highway leads the way from Auckland to the Central North Island, home to many of New Zealand’s most iconic sights and attractions. This region is underpinned by awesome geological forces, which surface in the bubbling mud pools, steamy vents, geysers and colourful silica terraces around Rotorua – a small city equally famous for its vibrant Maori culture.
Further south is New Zealand’s largest lake, Taupo, with a lively resort town on its shores. A magnet for boaties and watersports enthusiasts, it’s also a popular base for adventures on the Central Plateau, cut through by the spectacular Desert Road. The centrepiece of the otherworldly plateau is Tongariro National Park, encompassing three gnarly volcanoes amid landscapes so dramatic they stole epic scenes in The Lord of the Rings and Hobbit films. The park’s extensive and varied trail network includes the world-famous Tongariro Alpine Crossing – New Zealand’s most popular one-day hike.
WHAT TO SEE & DO
In the heart of the North Island, Tongariro National Park’s grand (and occasionally lively) volcanoes are a must-see for their crazy rockforms and unique habitats. All three – Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro – can be explored via trails crisscrossing the park, many of which feature informative interpretation panels and the occasional puff of steam.
More geothermal energy bubbles up around Taupo, such as Craters of the Moon where a walkwalk wends through a strange, steamy park. Rotorua, however, is the biggest hotbed of activity. An historic thermal resort town with an infamously sulphurous aroma, it’s a great base for visiting various reserves such as Wai-o-Tapu replete with vivid silica terraces, geysers, bubbling mud and steamy pools.
The central North Island is rich in Maori history and mythology. At Rotorua Museum and Taupo Museum, thoughtfully curated exhibits present excellent introductions to this fascinating culture. Tongariro National Park Visitor Centre at Whakapapa also has informative displays. A powerful mix of geothermal sights and Maori culture are conveniently combined at Te Puia and Whakarewarewa reserves, where volcanic phenomena can be observed at close range alongside traditional Maori arts. Impressive carving, flax weaving and ta moko (tattooing) are displayed, while rousing concert performances feature waita (singing) and kapa haka (dance). Another popular way to encounter Maori culture in Rotorua is at an evening concert, often combined with a traditional hangi (earth oven) feast.
Walking & hiking
Tongariro National Park sports some of the most spectacular trails in the country, including the legendary Tongariro Alpine Crossing – a challenging day hike past Ngauruhoe and Tongariro volcanoes featuring shapely craters, steaming vents, alpine rock gardens and incredible panoramas. Various shorter walks from Whakapapa and Ohakune villages take in more peculiar volcanic sights and pretty native forest with the odd waterfall thrown in for good measure.
Rotorua and Taupo boast walks for every level of ability, with plenty of family friendly options featuring playgrounds, picnic and paddling spots. Taupo’s extensive Great Lake trails offer relaxing lakeside strolls, while the intermediate Huka Falls Walkway connects the town with New Zealand’s most famous cascade. Lakeside tracks are a speciality around Rotorua and its neighbouring lakes, with Okataina and Tarawera deservedly popular options.
Travellers looking for a shot of adrenaline are spoilt for choice. Taupo’s skydiving drop-zone often rates as the nation’s best, with awesome views over the volcanic plateau and massive lake. The rivers carving the landscape dish up plenty of watery fun, including jet-boating, kayaking and whitewater rafting. Taupo’s scenic bungy jump platform perches high above the Waikato River.
More unusual activities include rolling downhill inside a transparent orb (known as a Zorb or Ogo), zip-lining through the forest heights on Rotorua’s Canopy Tours, or flying through the air on Rotorua’s Sky Swing where you’ll also find the Skyline gondola and luge – exhilirating fun for all ages.
Rotorua is a major flashpoint for New Zealand’s cycling explosion, with trails from easy to epic. The Skyline gondola provides effortless ascent to the swooping downhills of Gravity Bike Park, while across town the internationally renowned Redwoods Forest has a vast network of all-level cycle rides through mature woodland. Rotorua’s national cycle trail – Te Ara Ahi – rolls through steamy terrain with significant sights such as Whakarewarewa and Wai-o-Tapu en route. The region’s two other national cycle trails are Taupo’s intermediate Great Lake Trail, and the epic Mountains to Sea that starts at Mt Ruapehu and takes in the history-laden Okakune Old Coach Road.
This mesmerising thermal reserve is reached via a short boat ride across a hidden lake, off the beaten track between Rotorua and Taupo. A pretty bushwalk skirts striking silica terraces astir with simmering pools and whirling steam.
Tongariro River Trail
This easy trail follows picturesque riverbanks with bridges to create various loops from Turangi township. Bikes can be hired to cycle to the National Trout Centre, which has fish ponds, educational displays, and picnic spots within leafy grounds.
Hot pools pop up all over this region, ranging from untamed creeks to polished spa resorts. Near Taupo, Wairakei Terraces is a winner for its range of outdoor pools sunken into peaceful, landscaped gardens.
It’s a scenic 20 minutes’ drive from Rotorua to this magical lake. On its shore lies the intriguing Buried Village, all but obliterated by a massive 1886 volcanic eruption. There’s also a cafe and swimming spots, while Blue Lake TOP 10 Holiday Park and Lake Okareka DOC campsite encourage overnight stays.
- Campervan travel around this region is easy, with clear road signage and comprehensive
- There are nine holiday parks around Rotorua, and more than a dozen around Taupo and the
Central Plateau. All are well-accustomed to touring campervans and foster a sociable,
- With the exception of January and Easter when New Zealand holidaymakers are out in force,
campsite bookings are usually not required so campervan travellers are free to follow a
- There are a handful of basic DOC campsites around Rotorua and Tongariro National Park.
- Freedom camping is permitted in some places; i-SITE visitor centres can advise where and
what rules apply.
- It will pay to stock up on supplies for the Central Plateau, where services are thin on the
- It’s also prudent to check the fuel gauge before driving The Desert Road.
- Northland’s Twin Coast Discovery [add link]
- Auckland to the Coromandel [add link]
- Auckland to New Plymouth [add link]
- Thermal Explorer Highway [add link]
- Waitomo–Rotorua Loop [add link]
- Central Volcanic Plateau [add link]
Central North Island Quick Facts
The centre of the North Island is the land of fire. It is dominated by volcanic cones and great lakes formed by eruptions long ago.
At the bottom of the region is Mount Ruapehu.
Two national parks combined, the district creates a natural arena for exploration, sport and relaxation. Scattered throughout are three active volcanoes, where you will encounter moonscape craters, native forest, lava formations, glaciers, crystal clear rivers and lakes, perfect for winter skiing or summer hiking.
Traveling just 1 ¼ hours north you arrive at Lake Taupo, where just about everywhere you look you will see a volcano. When thinking about Lake Taupo, think ‘fresh’. Fresh water, fresh snow, fresh air, fresh trout… Full of adventure, attractions, and of course trout fishing, Lake Taupo is the perfect place for fun and relaxation.
80km North of Taupo is Rotorua. New Zealand’s tourism icon. Rotorua is spiritual home to the Maori of Te Arawa, and is set amongst crystal clear crater lakes. You will experience some amazing natural earth forces, bubbling mudpools, spouting geysers and natural geothermal mineral pools… an extraordinary slice of New Zealand.
Another hour north and you arrive in the Waikato, where you can experience two landscapes. One above ground, the other below. Above, the region is blessed with lush green landscape. Below, underground caves, full with columns of limestone, and tiny glow-worms. The Waitomo Caves are full of walks and adventure trips for you to view this spectacular universe underground
Rotorua is located at the heart of the North Island of New Zealand, in the aptly named 'Bay of Plenty' region. The Rotorua region covers 261,700 hectares. Rotorua is also part of the Central Volcanic Plateau. Rotorua is 297 metres above sea level.
Getting to Rotorua is easy either by plane, train or road. Located just 230 kilometres (145 miles) south of Auckland, Rotorua is a short 45 minute flight, or a pleasant three hour drive down the Thermal Explorer Highway. Direct one hour flights can link you from Christchurch International Airport, and there are connecting flights from other domestic airports around New Zealand.
Major state highways networks pass through Rotorua and make travelling by road straightforward. Self-drive options allow you the freedom to come and go from Rotorua as you please.
Population: ||Rotorua has a population of almost 70,000 people|
Climate:||The Rotorua District enjoys a temperate climate. It has a relatively high altitude (290m/950ft) resulting in daily maximum temperatures of 20-27 C (68-78F) in the summer months and around 10-12 C (50-55 F) during winter.|
The number of Rotorua residents in the European ethnic group fell from 43,836 in 1991 to 43,497 in 2001.
- 35.6% of Rotorua residents are in the Mäori ethnic group compared with 14.7% for New Zealand as a whole. This proportion is projected to continue increasing in the future. This is reflected in the fact that 56.2% of under-15 year-olds in Rotorua are of Mäori descent.
- Only 4.1% (2,469) of Rotorua residents are in the Pacific Islands ethnic group compared with 6.5% nationally, but the overall number of Pacific Islands people in Rotorua has increased substantially since 1991.
- Only 3.2% (1,947) of Rotorua residents are in the Asian ethnic group compared with 6.6% for New Zealand overall, but the number of Asian residents in Rotorua has more than doubled to in the past decade.
From the moment you enter Rotorua, you know you are somewhere like nowhere else. Lazy drifts of steam are emitted from cracks, crevices and culverts in parks, gardens, pathways and even residential streets. These constant steam drifts, together with the distinctive scent of sulphur, let you know you are in Rotorua, New Zealand - the centre of an active thermal area.
Auckland and Wellington are the closest international airports to Rotorua. Travel options to Rotorua include air, coach, train and self-drive.
- Air - Rotorua has daily air service links with Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Rotorua airport is a 15 minute drive from the city.
- Coach - regular scheduled services operate from Auckland and Wellington and other North Island Centres
- Self-drive - Rotorua is about three hours drive from Auckland and about five hours drive from Wellington
Once in Rotorua there is a range of bus, taxi, train, shuttle and rental vehicle services.
Sir Howard Morrison
Renowned entertainer and Maori leader Howard Morrison was born in Rotorua in 1935 and educated at Te Aute College. He worked as a surveyor's assistant before forming the Howard Morrison Quartet in the 1950s. Other members of the original group were Noel King, Wi Wharekura and Gerry Merito. The group's first record, which included the songs "My Old Man's an All Black" and "Battle of Waikato", was released in 1958 and sold 78,000 copies.
International film star Cliff Curtis was born in Rotorua in 1968 and attended Western Heights High School. He worked for four years as a builder and glazier before breaking into the world of television and film. Cliff appeared in The Piano in 1992, followed by Desperate Remedies, a performance that won him a 1994 Best Supporting Actor in Film award in 1994.
International film star Temuera Morrison was born in Rotorua in 1960. He performed in"Rangi's Catch", his first feature film, in 1972. "Other Halves" followed in 1984 and led to a 1986 GOFTA award for Best Supporting Actor. "Mauri", "Never Say Die" and "The Piano" were followed in 1994 by "Once Were Warriors", a film that catapulted Temuera to international stardom and earned him the NZ Film and Television Award for Best Actor in Film and Entertainer of the Year award in 1994.
Dame Susan Devoy
World squash champion Susan Elizabeth Anne Devoy was born in Rotorua in 1964. One of seven children, she attended school at St Mary's Convent and McKillop (now John Paul) College, learning to play squash at Geyser City Squash Club.
Wayne "Buck" Shelford
All Black legend Wayne Shelford was born in Rotorua in 1957. He was educated at Western Heights High School where he played in the first XV in 1973 and 1974. Buck played for Bay of Plenty Secondary Schools before he made his Auckland debut in 1982.