Sometimes known as Sulphur City, due to the aroma of 'rotten eggs' in the air, the smell of this small city is a by-product of one of the highlights that attracts millions of tourists here, its astonishing geothermal character. But it's not just the volcanic phenomena that attract visitors to Rotorua, it's also the rich Māori culture and the old-world atmosphere and quaint historic buildings that are remnants from early European settlement.
Given the whiffy nature of the region, you might wonder what attracted the Māori Te Arawa people here some 600 years ago – until you see the splendid lakes of Rotorua and Taupo, well stocked with fish (mainly trout) that helped sustain the Māori people. The sense of place is intrinsic to the culture of the Māori people, who define themselves by iwi (tribe), hapu (sub-tribe), maunga (mountain) and awa (river). With one quarter of the population here being of Māori descent, the region offers plenty of opportunities to learn about Māori culture and the people are renowned for their spirit of Manaakitanga (hospitality).
Storytelling is important to the local people and you can listen to Māori stories on a cultural walk, by visiting the interactive Rotorua Museum, at an authentic Māori village, or even when staying at a homestead with an extended local family. One of the best introductions you can get is by attending a 'hangi', an authentic Māori feast where food is cooked in an 'earth oven', while watching the seductive 'poi' dance and the fierce 'aka' (war challenge) made famous by the New Zealand rugby team, the All Blacks, who perform it before international matches to intimidate their opposition. It works.
For many visitors to Rotorua, though, it's that constant feeling that the region is alive that makes it so compelling. While the Lady Knox Geyser erupts daily, it's upstaged by the Pohutu Geyser in the Whakarewarewa Thermal Valley, which erupts up to 20 times a day to heights of up to 30 metres (100 feet). Frying Pan Lakes has the world's largest hot water spring formed after the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886 and Hell's Gate is home to the only geothermal mud baths in New Zealand.
Being New Zealand, of course, there are adventure sports in Rotorua as well that go well beyond mud baths and trout fishing, and here it’s skiing and mountain biking on excellent circuits. However, Rotorua is also home to the most New Zealand of activities, Zorbing, the 'sport' of rolling downhill in a semi-transparent plastic orb, something that appears to come naturally to quirky New Zealanders.