The first thing that hits you driving into New Zealand‘s Rotorua is the pungent sulphur smell. As kids, we would roll into town in Dad’s Chrysler holding our nostrils, yelling out the windows: “Rotorua stink bomb.”
A small price to pay for the hotbed of geothermal energy that delivers not just that rotten egg odour (or worse) but blissful hot springs rendering natural therapeutic benefits.
Rotorua, in North Island’s Bay of Plenty, is renowned for its hot springs, boiling mud pools, spouting geysers, warm geothermal springs, silica terraces and Māori culture, earning it one of Forbes Magazine’s top 50 destinations last year,
The sulphuric wonderland, shrouded in rising clouds of steam has brought me back, decades on.
Specifically, we are embarking on hours of tantalising spa treatments at the exclusive Wai Ariki Hot Springs and Spa, set on Rotorua’s southern lakefront. More than that, Wai Ariki (“chiefly waters’’ in the Māori language) invokes the origins of its thermal waters and the te ao Māori – the Māori perspective entwining nature and people, with staff well versed in indigenous storytelling. So settle back, listen and indulge your senses: time is on hold.
Opened last year with the aid of $NZ 52 million of government funds, the luxury spa has won three accolades from The Designers Institute of New Zealand, with judges hailing it a “cultural and architectural masterpiece”.
It is essentially a nod to Māori design, culture, language and principles befitting the Māori legacy of healing geothermal waters, their beliefs and customs: they believed each geothermal activity had spiritual significance. The Ngāti Whakaue people from Rotorua play a key role in elements of the spa, reflecting kinship with the natural environment.
The stunning, cavernous structure, a six-year endeavour delayed by Covid lockdowns, supply delays and building costs, is the only Māori spa developed and owned by holders of customary rights and responsibilities over land, or mana whenua. It is managed by Destinations by Belgravia, a spa and wellness provider in Australia and New Zealand.
Keen to sample the wares, we wend our way to a plethora of geothermal hot and cold outdoor pools said to have healing effects entrenched in centuries-old wellness practices of the Ngāti Whakaue tribe.
The so-called Geo Soak Pool, containing silica, aims to stimulate the immune system and inhibit aging. We are encouraged to rub the silky, amoeba-like substance on our skin for maximum benefit.
Originally called Whangapipiro, a sign declares the pool was renamed the Rachel Spring after Madam Rachel, an English cosmetician who promised youthful complexions from the softening effect of silica water on the skin. But on googling her later, I find Madam Rachel was a con artist who peddled potions for premature aging at astronomical prices in 1840s London.
On this late overcast afternoon, we sink into each pool, savouring the warm sulphuric waters lakeside – and the solitude. There are few other visitors today, though marketing staff say they have been solidly booked since opening.
Sky Pool is just that: you rest your head on a raised centre piece and gaze to the heavens for utmost tranquillity; then to a mildly heated herbal pool.
Finally, a 90-minute massage with essential oils: as a former Bali resident I find the rhythmic kneading and strokes reminiscent of that soothing soporific technique.
It’s early evening as we emerge from showers more than three hours later to a decorative grazing platter of cheese, cured meats, dried fruit, nuts and smoothies – no alcohol is on the premises.
Basking in post-treatment tranquillity, we decide to continue the three-hour “Restorative Journey’’ or Wai Whakaora spa package in the morning.
This series of hot and cold experiences, designed to bolster therapeutic benefits, in my view, are standout treatments.
Five heated outdoor geothermal pools and three different saunas are interspersed with cold water pools including an ice-cold plunge pool and a frigidarium in which you dunk yourself with buckets of ice-cold water and ice – it is worth the pain. Many swear by the mental and physical benefits of extreme temperatures.
I can barely leave the sublime hydrotherapy pool, frothy with cascading fountains and massage jets targeting the body’s pressure points to soothe aching muscles and joints.
Hauling ourselves to the geothermal mud lounge, we smear the silky, mineral-rich mud from small buckets on to our arms, legs and face to exfoliate and nourish the skin. Māori warriors apparently used mud paste to heal scars and wounds. As modern-day Pakeha, we stretch out on day beds under infra-red panels until the mud is dry. The steam room, where we recline on heated stones in a mist, helps to melt it away. The showers do the rest.
Exiting, we almost float past a row of six enormous tekoteko – human-like figures crafted to represent ancient tribal ancestors guarding the land on which Wai Ariki stands.
Prices online only:
Restorative Journey, including mud bath and sauna: 120 minutes: $NZ155 pp.
Wai Ariki 90-minute Signature Massage + Bathing: $NZ340 pp.
Grazing platter with non-alcoholic beverage: $US25 pp.
Deborah Cassrels was a guest of the Wai Ariki Hot Springs and Spa.
For more information and bookings, please go to: