Insightful North Island experiences

Learn about ancient forces and sacred traditions in Rotorua and the Bay of Plenty

By Carrie Miller
Redwood trees in Whakarewarewa Forest. Five minutes from Rotorua, the park’s trails offer hiking and mountain biking.

Curved like a smile across the North Island’s east coast, the Bay of Plenty and the string of towns threading its white-sand shorelines is a popular destination for New Zealanders, especially in their summer months. Often overlooked by travellers taking the direct route from Auckland through the central plateau down to Wellington, the region—like its name suggests—offers plenty to see and do. Stretching from the southern Coromandel Peninsula to the East Cape, the Bay of Plenty encompasses 4,700 square miles of rich farmland, dense forests, sunny beaches and an active geology.

“From White Island on the north east coast to Rotorua and the Tongariro National Park, there’s a roadmap of geothermal connection of geysers, volcanic cones, hot springs and natural resources for bathing, cooking and healing,” says Community Leader Te Taru White. “The Bay of Plenty has a rich geothermal story that’s rooted in Māori oral tradition. Earth mother Papatuanuku and her unborn son Rūaumoko, the deity of volcanoes and earthquakes, are the geothermal heart and pulse of this region.”

The Māori knew a good thing when they saw it, settling here permanently around the 13th century. Captain James Cook followed in 1769, naming the bay for the bountiful resources he saw in the area. Warm and welcoming, the Bay of Plenty is both a Kiwi favorite and a place full of memorable discoveries for visitors.

A geyser erupts in scenic Te Puia, a park and Māori cultural centre in Rotorua.

Explore

The region’s natural beauty can be experienced in a number of ways, from scenic forest hikes to seashore meanders.

Mount Maunganui: This narrow peninsula at the mouth of Tauranga Harbour (known by locals as “The Mount”) is one long sandbar and a beach lover’s paradise. Don’t miss a hike up the 250-metre Mauao, a cone-shaped hill with sweeping views of the Pacific Ocean. (Different tracks and guided options are available.)

White Island: New Zealand’s only active marine volcano is located off the coast of Whakatāne. You can visit by boat or take a look at its impressive steaming vents via an aerial tour. White Island lives up to its Māori name Te Puia o Whakaari, which means “dramatic volcano”; it has erupted more than 35 times since 1826, but poses no threat now.

Whakarewarewa Forest: Located outside of Rotorua, the forest can be explored by mountain bike, foot, horseback, or via the TreeWalk, a network of 21 suspension bridges linked by Californian coastal redwoods trees. Other Bay of Plenty woodlands to visit include Kaimai Mamaku Forest Park, crisscrossed by 186 miles of hiking trails; Lake Waikaremoana, encircled by a 29-mile one-way hiking track; and Ohope Scenic Reserve, where the Whakatāne Kiwi Trust conducts night walks for a chance to spot the nocturnal wild kiwi.

Steam from geothermal activity envelopes a boardwalk in Kuirau Park, Rotorua.

Wine & Dine

The Bay of Plenty is known for its fruit, honey, seafood, and wine. Throw in a welcoming café culture, and you won’t go far without encountering a tempting meal or refreshment. Rotorua’s Okere Falls Store specialises in organic and artisanal food as well as excellent coffee. Te Puke is known as the kiwifruit capital of the world (nearly 80 percent of all New Zealand’s kiwifruit is grown in the Bay of Plenty) and nearby Kiwifruit Country takes you on a behind-the-scenes tour of a kiwifruit orchard. Comvita in Paengaroa is one of the leading producers of delectable manuka honey, and a guided tour of their headquarters provides a glimpse into the secret lives of bees. And then, of course, there is wine—a blend of fertile soil and sunny, warm climate produces top-notch Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as Pinot Noir. Two wineries to try: Mills Reef in Tauranga and Volcanic Hills in Rotorua.

 

The sun sets in Whakatāne, a town on the east coast of New Zealand’s Bay of Plenty.

Artistry

Rotorua is well known for its geothermal sights—geysers, mineral pools, gurgling mud pools, and man-made adventures such as four-wheel drive tours, gondolas, and jet boating. There’s also a wealth of Māori cultural experiences. The Whakarewarewa geothermal area, along with its vents and geysers, supports a living Māori village that offers guided tours, cultural performances, overnight marae stays, and more. Te Puia (home to the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute) features several Māori meeting houses.

“Māori, as an oral tradition, capture their knowledge and their relationship with nature in storytelling, carving, weaving and song and dance,” White says. “It is our privilege and responsibility to share these stories of our ancestors with visitors to this region.”

Engage

In Whakatāne visit the Mataatua Wharenui, an experiential attraction focusing on a Māori ancestral house that features detailed carvings and an unlikely, fascinating story. Visitors can immerse themselves in cultural rituals as well as tours and interactive workshops designed to give you a feel for the depth and complexities of Māori culture.

Top Tip

Add a couple days to your visit and a road trip along the East Cape to your itinerary. Winding around the spur from Opotiki to Gisborne, this scenic drive (207 miles) skirts the shore. It’s an opportunity to connect with rural seaside New Zealand and its secluded beaches, ancient pohutukawa trees, Māori meeting grounds, and churches.

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