Our tour of New Zealand, unfortunately, is for the most part on a pretty tight budget. And that’s okay – I’m used to being very frugal when it comes to travel, and we are stretching it further by couch surfing instead of hostels, and virtually not eating out at all. And after all, we don’t mind doing this because the money we’re saving will be balanced out by cruising the Milford Sound and doing some crazy stuff in Queenstown.
But then we came to Rotorua, and liked it so much we stayed for three days. Which is fine if you have money to spend because there is absolutely tons to do. On our third day, we felt like we were wasting valuable time in the town because we couldn’t let ourselves justify actually doing anything cool.
Number one on our list was Hobbiton; after that, anything would need to be free or cheap.
And while there are a handful of free things to do, you won’t even get an entire day out of them, so what then?
I’ve put together a list of 15 things you can do in this small town – if you have the money (and actually, you don’t need a lot of it, just we’re being super cheap), you could stay here for a week and never run out of activities.
If you can’t get to Matamata yourself, a Hobbiton tour will cost $114 including pick up and return to and from Rotorua on the Hobbiton bus (it’s $79 from Matamata). It sounds like a lot on a backpacker budget but the tour is ABSOLUTELY well worth doing if you are a Lord Of The Rings fan. The one hour bus journey is beautiful (you feel like you’re driving through the Shire for most of it) and the driver provided entertaining commentary.
The guided tour is excellent with lots of inside info on the filming, secrets about what the cast got up to, things that accidentally made it into the movies and lots more. You get to walk past virtually all the hobbit holes (I stopped to get pictures with at least 5 of them!!) and there’s even one you can go inside. Unfortunately they are external sets so there’s nothing to see inside, but it’s still awesome!
And then you get to go to the Green Dragon pub for a free drink! Of course you don’t have to have alcohol, but beer and cider are included.
You can book at the Hobbiton office in Rotorua on the day, or book in advance online.
White water rafting
I’m not going to lie, this was second on my list for Rotorua, but we ended up guilting ourselves out of spending the money. You can spend upwards of $100 on white water rafting, but if you have a look on bookme.co.nz, you can actually find some spaces for under $50!!
There are a couple of different grades of rafting available – the most popular one is a grade 5 tour that includes a 7m waterfall drop!
This was hugely tempting, but I’ve done white water rafting in three different countries (though none with a waterfall!) and I didn’t feel I could justify spending almost $100 on both of us doing it. Which is ridiculous because at that price it’s a steal.
Want to pay to be rolled down a hill in a giant inflatable hamster ball? Then why not do it in the place it was invented?!
This is definitely one of the cheaper activities, and I feel like I’ll regret not doing it. It usually costs around $39 ($45 for the water one), but again bookme often has morning deals for just $22.50!
Whakarewarewa – The Living Maori Village
There are several of these Maori cultural experiences in Rotorua, but I think this looks like one of the best. Some of the others look far too touristy and I’d rather experience something a bit more authentic.
The village is set among some of the most popular geysers in the area, and you can see them during your tour, essentially combining two great experiences into one. All reviews I’ve read say that you learn a LOT about the tribe, the culture, the language, how they came to live in the area and how things have changed. There are also two traditional Maori performances each day, at 11am and 2pm, so try to coincide your tour with this!
The best thing is, this is one of the cheaper tours in Rotorua at just $35 – and once again, bookme offers it for anywhere between $17.50 and $31.50! An absolute steal, and another thing I wish we’d done.
You can also pay more to include a traditional hangi dinner. You can book either tour online or at the tourist office in Rotorua.
Like EVERYWHERE ELSE in New Zealand, Rotorua offers jet boating experiences.
These boats take you out onto the lake and spend up to an hour spinning around and bouncing over the water at breakneck speeds. It’s a lot of fun, but the prices vary up to almost $100, so it’s not the cheapest experience!
Karawau are one of the main companies that offer this, and you can also parasail with them.
Keep an eye out on bookme, they usually have deals closer to $50!
With almost a mile of tree top adventures including ziplines up to 220m, this place looks really fun! And unlike pretty much everything on this list, I’m pretty sure it’s something you can ONLY do in Rotorua if you want to do it in New Zealand.
Tours are $139 and you can find out more info on their website!
Gondola ride & luge
Run by the same company as the one in Queenstown, you can take a cable car up the mountain (it’s more of a hill but it’s actually a dormant volcano so it earns its name of mountain) that overlooks Rotorua. Up here is the zorbing and a few other activities, and there are some fun luge tracks! Personally? I’d rather do the one in Queenstown purely for the scenery.
Quad biking & horse trekking
At Adventure Playground, you can choose between quad biking, horse trekking, a 4WD buggy tour or clay shooting.
Quad biking starts at $75 for a half hour tour, but you can ride for up to two hours. They also have different levels of horse trekking to suit all abilities.
Strictly speaking, I don’t think you can sky dive in Rotorua. But you can sky dive in nearby Taupo for just $249, and it’s another popular activity in New Zealand. They offer a free return shuttle to Rotorua, making it an ideal trip out of town if you fancy throwing yourself out of a plane!
You can find all the info on prices and more on their website.
Agroventures is an extreme park on the outskirts of the town, featuring a few different activities including bungee jumping, jet boating and swooping down from being suspended 40m in the air.
Prices start from $49 for one “ride” to $109 for four (excluding bungee jumping), so it’s definitely more worth doing if you’re looking to do a few crazy things in one day!
Situated in the centre of town, the Polynesian spa baths are a perfect way to wind down after one of your crazy activities. They have various deals and combo tickets for families, but entry to seven spa pools is $27 for adult-only pools or $22 if you don’t mind relaxing with some kids.
All info for the spas can be found on their website.
picture: my own
After everything listed above, you might be surprised to see a museum on this list. At $20 a ticket, you can see why it is.
Especially when Te Papa museum in Wellington, one of the most celebrated museums in the southern hemisphere, is free…
That said, it has excellent reviews, and you will learn all about the rich Maori culture, the history and evolution of the surrounding volcanoes, and a guided tour is included in the price.
And it’s worth going along just to get a picture of the stunning Tudor-style building, even if you don’t go inside.
Te Puia is the most famous geyser in the area, and if you don’t do the Maori experience or want to see some of the other smaller geysers, look no further than this one.
Rainbow Springs Nature Park
This park is mostly dedicated to birds, lizards and fish, and it has a log flume ride that looks pretty fun – a great day out for the kids. It’s a good place to see the elusive kiwi too. Tickets are $40.
Waitomo Glowworm Caves
Like Hobbiton, while this isn’t in Rotorua, day trips from the town are very popular. Waitomo is around an hour away and you can choose from various tours through the caves. The pictures look absolutely magical, so I can imagine just how much better they must look in real life.
I really, really wanted to do this, but at $75 each it’s not cheap. It’s also not that expensive, but $150 here and there adds up terrifyingly quickly.
Bonus: Black water rafting
Kind of tied in with the glowworm caves, I originally thought this was a more extreme version of white water rafting. Nope – it’s a mix of caving (different levels and abilities but the most popular tour is beginner level so anyone can go) before cruising down through the caves on a rubber dinghy. The main original tour is $135 and it’s a very unique way to experience the caves and have fun doing it!
So what can you do for free?
That said, there ARE some things in the town that you can do absolutely free, and I think we exhausted most of those.
Most obviously, it’s free to sit by the lake and take in your surroundings. Personally I don’t think the lake is as beautiful as any on the south island but it’s still a pretty area and fun to watch the jet boats and people.
It’s also worth going to the museum even if you don’t pay the entry fee – the building and gardens are beautiful, especially on a nice day.
A short walk from the town centre is a very pretty area in Ohinemutu consisting of a “marae” (traditional Maori meeting house or church) known as Te Papaiouru, and a pretty Anglican church housed, like many significant buildings in Rotorua, in a Tudor style building. The meeting house is of the tribes Ngāti Tae-o-Tū and Ngāti Tūnohopū and for me it was one of the most interesting cultural sights of our visit.
There are some geothermal springs surrounding this area, which can also be found in Kuirau Park at the top of town. Our hostel was conveniently located right opposite this park and if you don’t go out to see the geysers, you must at least see the natural mud pools right on your doorstep.
Let’s consider for a moment that Rotorua really is a tiny town. And there is ALL OF THIS to do. I could have stayed for a week.
But sadly, money talked and we had to move on. And surprisingly, Rotorua, you are definitely on my list of places to go back to. With a hell of a lot of money.