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Credit: Blaine Harrington

Rotorua on a Budget

Rotorua has two main draws - its super-accessible and very obvious geothermal phenomena - complete with bubbling mud pools, explosive geysers, silica terraces, sulphur pools and natural hot springs - and its Maori culture.

It also offers plenty in the adrenaline and adventure activity category too including the eternally popular backpacker rite-of-passage experiences of bungee jumping and skydiving.

However, immersing yourself in these attractions can guzzle up your budget at an alarming rate. Most of us don't have limitless funds to spend on our fun but luckily for us penny-pinching backpackers Rotorua has plenty to offer in the low cost or totally-for-free categories too.

The lakes of the area – all 16 of them – are themselves a natural playground for the budget conscious made up of the heart-achingly beautiful, seeped in the historically significant, littered liberally with the geothermically active and infused throughout with Maori myth and legend.

Bagging Some Bargains

It's hard to come somewhere so jam-packed with fun activities and not have the necessary funds to play. So, if you are left feeling like a Cinderella unable to go the ball you might like to check out one of the New Zealand based deals and discount sites which are thankfully numerous.

These sites present such possibilities, for example, as reduced rate skydives, Maori cultural experiences and guided kayaking tours as well as offerings in the accommodation and eating out categories too.

Have a good root around because although some have smaller discounts such as 10% off there are some truly dream-like deals with lots of sub NZ$20 and even crazy NZ$1 price tags for those who get in quick.

The following are two examples of such sites but there are plenty more -  Book Me & Grab One.

Credit: Vaughan Brookfield
Credit: Vaughan Brookfield

i-SITES

These superb tourist info goldmines are literally everywhere in New Zealand – Rotorua's is on Fenton Street. Make this your first port of call because here you will find all kinds of gems regarding free activities and events along with a wealth of maps and guides - all totally free.

Rotorua Sleeping on a Budget

Hostels – the backpackers’ main budget choice for sleeping – are ten a penny in Rotorua. Such fierce competition means you can expect great standards - whether you plump for dorm beds or private rooms - and all kinds of special deals and added extras.

Some hostels present their guests with discount booklets or have arrangements with certain operators to get special rate deals or you might find price-inclusive breakfasts for example. Do your comparison sums to make sure you are bagging the best bargain.

The i-SITE will have details of everything on offer from the super-funky party places to the laid-back tranquil escapes.

If you are intending to hostel it all over the country it might be worth investing in a BBH membership which typically gives around a $3 discount per night – quickly recouping your membership fee and then saving money. There are three BBH affiliated hostels in Rotorua. For full details see www.bbh.co.nz.

Eating on the Cheap in Rotorua

At first glance meal prices can seem horrfiying to the shoe-string traveller in Rotorua but there are bargains to be had if you know where to look.

The Kiwi snack of choice is a hot pie and these have morphed from pies as you might know them into all kinds of gourmet treats. Typically cheap, almost always wonderful and appetite satisfying, pies can be found everywhere – from garage forecourts to hot cabinets in supermarkets. Bakery choices – such as the Gold Star Bakery on Old Taupo Road – generally serve up great quality pies with seemingly endless choices of filling so you'll never get bored.

Other cheap eats include Ali Baba's kebabs on Tutaneki Street or check out the snack and lunch choices at the White Street located Ciabatta Bakery.

Many pubs, restaurants and cafes have lunch and dinner deals such as the two for one kind if you happen to be travelling with a buddy or have a big appetite. Ask at your hostel or wander and check out chalkboard displays and promotions.

Most hostels in New Zealand have kitchen facilities so you can prepare at least some of your own meals and save a fortune.

Abracadabra Cafe and Bar
Abracadabra Cafe and Bar

Partying on the Cheap in Rotorua

Happy hours abound and vary from bar to bar so if you are clever you can avoid paying full price for your party drinks all night long. Some – such as the Abracadabra Cafe and Bar on Amohia Street - offer early evening happy hours throughout the week (or in this case actually Tuesdays to Fridays because it isn't open Sunday and Monday evenings). As well as live music on Fridays (DJ's, bands, acoustic) over the summer in their funky tropical garden bar. Others, such as the award-winning Brew Craft Beer Pub on Tutanekai Street with its outside seating, only offer happy hours on Friday nights.

Live music lovers will have plenty to keep them happy. The iconic Pig & Whistle is always a great starting point where musicians of varied genre can be heard doing their thing on Thursday, Friday and Saturday night.

Ask at your hostel for any partnership arrangements with local bars or to tap into their knowledge of any current promotions.

Low Cost and Free Activities

The Rotorua Walkway

There are a total of 26 km to this ten-years-in-the-making scenic walkway composed of boardwalks and paths and dishing up fascinating doses of history, legend and geothermal activity. If that length sounds like hard work no worries – it has been cleverly divided into eight sections, each of which can be taken on separately and typically take around 20 minutes to saunter. Arguably the most interesting and lovely are the lake-front section, the Motutara section - which takes in bubbling mud-pools and sulphur vents – and the Te Arikiroa chunk which was the site of a bloody Maori battle. The end of the walkway at Kuirau Park opposite Rotorua Hospital comes complete with a boiling lake.

The whole area is dripping with Maori folklore and legend, some of which is explained by interpretation panels as you go. Grab a free map at the i-SITE.

Night Market

The Kiwis do night markets rather well. Typically they are buzzing places with heaps of cheap eats of varying ethnic origins, live music and budget-friendly stalls – and that is exactly what you'll find in Rotorua. Here the night market is held each Thursday from 5 pm on a section of Tutanekai Street which is closed for the duration to traffic.

Kerosene Creek (Credit: Vaughan Brookfield)
Kerosene Creek (Credit: Vaughan Brookfield)

Free Hot Springs

Folk come from far and wide to soak themselves in the curative waters of Rotorua's many natural hot springs and some of them can cost a pretty penny for the privilege. However, natural spas are not off the menu for the poor thrifty backpacker thanks to a handful of spots which won't cost a bean.

  • Kerosene Creek – we admit the name sounds anything but appealing but if your idea of lovely involves a native bush-surrounded thermal pool complete with waterfall this is the place to come.
  • Wai-O-Tapu Bridge – known locally just as 'the secret spot', this little gem is tucked away amid greenery and even has some handy steps for easing your aching body down into the steaming waters.
  • Wai-O-Tapu Waterfall – you'll have to endure a little mud here but that just adds to the fun and who cares anyway when there's a pretty-as-a-picture waterfall to rinse yourself clean from.

Ohinemutu

Head out for a stroll from Rotorua centre and ten minutes later you will arrive in the lakeside situated, living Maori village of Ohinemutu. Respectful wanderings around are welcomed and although the ornately carved marae (meeting house) is not open to the public it is still a stunning sight from outside.

The postcard pretty rust and cream coloured St Faith's Church here is actually Anglican and although it has a child's 'cute play-set' appearance from the outside its interior is strongly Maori influenced. There are some lovely carvings including the paua shell encrusted pews, weavings and the etched image of Jesus on a window sporting a Maori robe.

Kayaking the Lakes

Escaping into serenity is incredibly easy from Rotorua should you start to crave a break from its bustle. Simply pick your lake, pack your picnic, hire a kayak and prepare to be wowed by scenery which includes dramatic cliffs, mountain back-drops and lush bush tumbling down to the water's edge. Paddle your way to tucked away beaches, natural hot pools and caves lit by glow worms - all of which seem to come with an attached Maori legend telling stories of lake monsters, secret lover's trysts and ghostly canoes.

Guided tours are also available from any number of Rotorua companies but of course will cost a little more.

Lake Tarawera (Credit: Adrian Hodge)
Lake Tarawera (Credit: Adrian Hodge)

Mount Tarawera

If you're fit enough to have some breath left after hiking up this sacred volcano, prepare to have it taken away anyway by the views – rolling hills, mountains aplenty and neighbouring volcanoes all dotted about with sparkling waters of river, lake and ocean. Guided tours are offered for this hike along with a 4X4 cheat's journey to the top but the cheapest option is a DIY tramp.

Glow Worms

There are several places to get a magical glimpse of glow worms doing their thing in dark places around Rotorua but one of the easiest to access is the entrance to the Kaituna River Walk.

Geothermal for Free

Along with being New Zealand's premier spot for Maori cultural immersion, Rotorua is also geothermal activity central and bursting at the seams with thermal parks. Fascinating natural phenomena abounds here and some of it is free.

  • Kuirau Park – spewing out almost constant clouds of steam, this city centre park has a little bit of everything – thermal vents, boiling mud-pools bubbling along and a steaming sulphur lake. Areas of interest within the park are handily fenced off so you don't have to watch where you're walking and Taokahu Lake with its sulphur deposits is reached via a well-maintained boardwalk.
  • Pohutu Geyser – this geothermic star is actually inside the pay-to-enter Te Puia but as the geyser erupts 30 metres into the air views are possible from outside. Prime spot is the car-park of the Silver Oaks Geyserland Hotel located along Highway 30.
  • Sulphur Bay – already mentioned under the 'Rotorua Walkway', the boardwalk runs past several sulphur vents and steaming hot springs.
  • Rachel Pool – saunter through the lovely carved arches at the entrance to Government Gardens and make your way to the small sapphire blue pool. No refreshing dips here though – these waters boil away at an almost constant 212 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whakarewarewa Forest (Credit: Vaughan Brookfield)
Whakarewarewa Forest (Credit: Vaughan Brookfield)

Walking and Hiking

Rotorua is a walker's paradise with more trails and tracks than you could cover in many months spent here. Options range from the gentle sunset stroll type to full-on tramps. The i-SITE is an essential visit for anyone interested in taking to their own two feet, offering up a wealth of maps, walking trail leaflets and hiking-related information in general. Most of these are completely free.

One mega-popular walking location is the 288 hectare Whakarewarewa Forest complete with lake views, towering Californian Redwoods and almost 200 other tree species. Pop into the Redwoods Visitor Centre at the entrance to check out your options, grab any maps necessary and then set off for hikes ranging from 2 km through to 34 km.

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