Down under there's a world of first-class hot spring hopping.
As every bright-eyed tour guide and bright-colored travel brochure will inform you, New Zealand offers a squillion opportunities to play outdoors: hiking, cycling, rock-climbing, kayaking, surfing, snow-skiing, water-skiing, sailing, parasailing, caving, yada yada yada. It all screams good healthy fun, but unfortunately, I’m not very athletic.
On the other hand, I excel at bathing. That’s why I headed to North Island, New Zealand, for world-class hot-spring hopping. There in the Taupo Volcanic Zone, where streams boil and the earth steams, the landscape looks like a puzzle put together the wrong way. I drove north from Wellington, up a two-lane road that curved and undulated like what Americans might call a “country lane,” but which in New Zealand is “State Highway 1.” It followed a sparkling river for many kilometers, and then crossed higher, drier passes, then crested over a view of waterfalls, forests, and grassy plains, interspersed with spherical hills that looked as if something had taken a bite out of them.
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Though both North and South Islands have hot springs, the greatest density is in Rotorua District, an area of about 1000 square miles, with several lakes, and a population of close to 78,000. I planned my trip at one of NZ’s fantastic information centers, called i-SITEs, in Wellington, where a former Rotoruan recommended that I stay at Hotel Millennium, because it’s so close to the Polynesian (a large, popular spa) that after a soak, I could totter back to my room and not have to drive in my super-relaxed state. I was glad I took her advice: my room’s balcony overlooked Lake Rotorua, which was thick with water birds; their exotic, loud calls came in at dusk and dawn through the slightly sulfurous air.
Downstairs in the hotel’s pool area, I was the only guest, so after checking with the staff, I ventured to skinny-dip in one of the two big hot tubs, keeping my towel nearby in case I was suddenly joined. Floating in warm water, facing the skylight on which rain was pattering, I felt suspended between heaven and earth.
A Swanky Polynesian-Inspired Spa
The Polynesian Spa, like most others, has several levels of access to its 28 pools, starting with relatively low-cost entry to the family area and a big swimming pool. The high-end option involved a private tub, but I sprang (get it?) for the middle path: for about $30, I could enjoy numerous, small-to-medium pools of varying heats and acidity/alkalinity levels, all with views of the adjacent lake. I spent the day slipping from a shallow, stream-like pool to the waterfall pond to a deeper, hotter pool with soothing alkaline water. Each pool was surrounded by bushes and flowers, so it seemed as if I was actually out in nature rather than near the middle of town.
It rained lightly throughout the day, so I got to float in hot water with cool raindrops on my face. I could have stayed all day–oh, wait, I did. After eight hours, I sloshed back to my hotel room, glad for the lack of commute, and sure that I’d had the best possible hot-spring experience.
South of Rotorua is the Waikite (why-KEET-ay) Valley, the site of much geothermal and tourism activity, including the infamous “Kerosene Creek” beach. Although it’s on public land with no entry fee, visiting there can get expensive because cars are routinely broken into–especially rental cars.
Waikite Valley Thermal Pools offers an affordable, family-friendly option for day use, as well as a campground. Its six pools are heated by a stream from the largest source of boiling water in the country. The water coming from Te Manaroa Spring has to be cooled in shallow ponds; clouds of steam pour off the cooling area by the driveway. If it were in the US, the stream would be fenced off and inaccessible to prevent anyone from getting hurt (triggering a lawsuit); but Kiwis are used to steaming strolls, so there’s a gorgeous, damp little nature walk along the stream where you can catch glimpses of the cauldron below and read about the springs’ history and place in Maori culture.
This place was started by local residents in 1972, and it serves as the community’s swimming pool. About US $10 buys an all-day pass, complete with priceless views. I spent the day looking at the birds and ferns, relishing the occasional drops of rain, and watching the clouds and the clouds’ shadows sweep across the wide green valley.
Only as the lifeguards were packing up did I leave–reluctantly. Although my hotel’s hot tubs and the high-end Polynesian spa had been exquisite, if I lived in Rotarua, the more natural, less expensive spring would be the place I’d go to most. The Polynesians had exquisite landscaping, but Waikite Valley had a beautiful landscape.
Hot-Water Beach Heaven
There are only two ways to get to the hot-water beach and campground in the Lake Tarawera Scenic Reserve. Ambitious, outdoorsy types can hike up the hill track (footpath) 10 miles each way, or people like me can be taken by water taxi (a motorboat) at a moderate expense.
My guide anchored a few feet out from the black-sand beach, then led me along a shaded, nearly invisible path through the tree ferns, reminding me en route that New Zealand has no snakes. A few minutes in, he pointed to a set of wooden steps, leading into a tiny black pool covered in something green. Actually, it was two pools, separated by mud-and-rock embankments that looked very old and not very sturdy. A hand-painted sign warned not to move the rocks, and beyond the rise of the hill was a toilet block, the guide told me. But otherwise, everything was exactly as it had been since the last volcanic eruption, remote from signs of human activity, which made me both excited and apprehensive. “You’re sure you’ll be back to pick me up?” I asked, and he said he would, late that afternoon.
I allowed as how it seemed like the kind of place a person could skinny-dip, and he agreed, so the minute he was gone, I stripped off and lowered myself into perfectly warm water. My first impressions had been wrong: it wasn’t scum on top but the petals of blossoms that had fallen from boughs surrounding the pool. And the water wasn’t murky black, but clear: it just looked black because of granules on the bottom.
Curious about the volcanic gravel, I scooped up a fistful of the tiny black-and-brown stones, surprised to find the substrate hotter the further down I dug. Usually, in any lake or pond I’ve been in, the sun warms the sand on top, and the stuff beneath is cooler. This was the reverse: I could get even warmer than I was already by moving a layer of stone and settling further into it.
This was the ultimate in hot-spring hopping, I decided. The secret hot-water pond near the remote hot-water beach was even more spectacular and more natural than the public pools, even more, exotic and luxurious than the spa.
Naked, comfortable, and alone, I floated in a reverie, more relaxed than I had been in years. The only sounds were the soft, far-off hum of bees, and the occasional rustle of ferns as they moved in the breeze…and then, kids’ voices!
People were tromping down the trail; as I stood to grab my towel, three tweens had reached the clearing. They looked astonished at the sight of a grown-up in the buff, but even as I shouted embarrassed apologies, the children turned their backs and stood resolutely not looking at me, hands clasped behind them. I was out of the pool in seconds, and gabbling nervously to the kids’ mother, who appeared behind them, and who seemed not in the least perturbed that I’d accidentally exposed myself to her children’s innocent gaze.
Relieved, I told her that her kids’ politeness had saved me from humiliation and that I thought her children exceptionally nice. She shrugged off my thanks, and once I was back—decently clothed—in the water, we had a lovely chat about nature, alone-ness, and the value of being alone in nature. The children remained respectful and polite, happily enjoying their camping trip and not a bit freaked out about the large American who’d temporarily forgotten her togs.
After they departed, I moved to the darker, shallower side of the embankment, alone in the ferny glade. Wallowing in the warmth, I stayed for hours, barely moving, thinking thoughts primordial, maybe crocodilian.
I felt that I belonged in that spot, which was both other-worldly and womb-like. I wanted the peace never to end; I wanted to live in that water forever. I’ve enjoyed hot springs from Iceland to Thailand, and am looking forward to soaking in British Columbia and Costa Rica, but I’m pretty sure the prettiest, most perfect soaks will always be in New Zealand.