My forays to the New Zealand hot springs were by far the most fun of my around-the-world trip so far. I admit to being a spa-water-mud addict and will gladly spring into any naturally hot thermal waters anywhere. But four hot springs/spas in four days – I really felt like having a gourmet feast! And amazingly, each one was different, not only from the water composition, but the entire atmosphere from clinical to rustic to luxury. So here is my assessment of these very special places, all located within easy driving distance of Rotorua:
Maybe the most “rustic” of the four, but enchanting in its simplicity and close-to-nature aspect. An Eco-Trail to the Te Manaroa Spring – the largest source of 100% pure boiling water in New Zealand – rounds out the experience. Just a 400 meter walk (at most) and there you are – gazing through fern fronds and steam into the bubbles percolating from the earth. How a boulder can be covered with luscious moss not a meter from this heat source is a wonder to me!
The five pools are all outdoors and offer something for everyone – children can splash about in the family pool, adults can relax in the “Tranquil Garden Pool” in 39° degree heaven while looking lush greenery surrounding the Otamakokore (say that fast!) River. I had the pleasure of enjoying my own (skinny-dipping!) little private sitting pool in a zen-garden-like atmosphere.
Oh, and just driving to the Hot Pools through the Waikite valley is great with all sorts of vistas unfolding at every turn, sheep grazing on steep little volcanic grass-covered cones, punctuated every now and again by an earth-vent letting off some steam.
George Bernard Shaw visited this place in the early 1900’s and supposedly said something to the effect – as he was a confirmed atheist – that his religious friends would want him to go through this “Hell’s Gate” in order to attain salvation. True or not, it makes for a good reason to name this most active geothermal field in the Rotorua area.
After a self-guided leisurely walk of easily two hours through parts of the 25 hectares Hell’s Gate Thermal Reserve with its steaming fumeroles and boiling mud pools, I was ready for my treatment:
First you immerse yourself in a (private) large-bathtub size pool filled with geothermal water heated to about 39° and the finest of mud. It settles on the ground, so you have to keep stirring it up, or scooping it up and spreading it on yourself. The texture is silky soft, with a very gently exfoliating effect. Twenty minutes is all you are allowed in here. That’s plenty.
Then you take a cold, yes, cold water, shower (reminded me of the sauna experience – dipping into a cold water pool after being so hot). An attendant led me to a sitting pool of warm, sulphur-rich waters. Good thing she was leading me gently, I felt most lightheaded by this time. Another 15 minutes in those waters. Sulphur-rich waters are supposed to be good for the skin, helping to heal any cuts or wounds.
By the end of that session, I was ready to lay down. And that is exactly what the next step was going to be – on a massage bed, with gentle Maori music in the background. One hour – yes 60 minutes – of a heavenly “traditional Wai Ora massage” followed. I had a very good therapist (of Chinese birth) who started at the soles of the feet and worked her way up. Gentle, long but firm strokes. I probably fell asleep at some point … if this is “Hell’s Gate” then there is no reason to want to go to heaven. I wonder if George Bernard Shaw had a treatment like this one after his walk?
Touted to be New Zealand’s leading international spa because it was voted by Condé Nast Traveller as a Top Ten Spa 2004-2007 and again in 2009, it is located on the shores of Lake Rotorua. This is a high-volume place with 26 pools in four areas with something for everyone: family, adult, private, deluxe. A natural hot mineral spring supplies therapeutic acidic water to the Priest’s Bath (named after the rheumatism-wracked catholic priest, Father Mahoney, who first soaked in his hand-excavated pool in the late 19th century) and another spring provides soothing alkaline waters to the other pools. Fourteen pools have views of the lake. Everyone very friendly, everything very clean, all the pools very enjoyable. And yet – the experience did not get under my skin the way the others did.
Originally a rehabilitation hospital for returning servicemen in 1942, it is now New Zealand’s leading specialist rheumatology and rehab health center. The Spa is a recent addition, although it shares the space with the hospital. Medical treatment and supervision is foremost at this establishment. The treatment spaces themselves exude that special old-fashioned hospital atmosphere, but that is not to say that it is unpleasant. On the contrary, you know you are in good hands, even if you are only here for “cosmetic” purposes – and all the waters are geothermally heated, wheter alkaline or containing sulphur. QE also offers medically supervised treatments of up to three weeks for various rheumatological and dermatological conditions, as well as just relieving “burn-out” syndromes. The treatments range from “Watsu” (gentle form of body therapy performed in a warm water pool combining elements of massage, shiatsu, joint mobilisation) to Pyretic Baths (a steam bath at a temperature of 43-46° and a relative humidity above 100%) to Aix Massage and more. Aix, pronounced “aches” intrigued me most….
I was given a tour of the facilities by the manager and then indulged in a one-hour Aix Massage. Naked (but covered with a towel) and wet, I lay on a massage bed while 8 shower heads with warm Rachel Spring (alkaline) water continuously sprayed on me. Stefanie, an excellent therapist from Glasgow, Scotland, performed an all-body massage using an almond-oil – she has a bathing suit on since she gets soaked, too. You’d think that water and oil don’t mix, but amazingly, the combination of water and oil does work and I ended up with silky smooth skin. This massage was first introduced to Rotorua from Aix-les-Bains, France in the early 1900s and is great for stress reduction and relaxation. Ahhhhh!
Well, that was all I did as far as spas go in Rotorua! Would I do it all over again? You bet! But there are still 94 other hot pools in New Zealand waiting!!