Rotorua is the North Island's tourist destination par excellence, one of the world's most concentrated and accessible geothermal areas, where twenty-metre geysers spout among kaleidoscopic mineral pools, steam wafts over cauldrons of boiling mud and terraces of encrusted silicates drip like stalactites. But constant hydrothermal activity is only part of Rotorua's appeal. The naturally hot water lured Maori to settle around Lake Rotorua and Lake Tarawera, using the hottest pools for cooking and bathing, and building their whare (houses) on warm ground to drive away the winter chill. Despite the inevitably diluting effects of tourism there is no better place to get an introduction to Maori values, traditions, dance and song than at one of the concert and hangi evenings held all over Rotorua and in nearby marae.
Maori-owned and -operated tour companies often make insightful, not to mention entertaining, ways of exploring Rotorua's surrounding area. To the south and east, the forests are punctuated by sixteen lakes tucked into bush-girt hollows, overlooked by mountainous products of ancient volcanic activity and its more recent manifestation, the shattered five-kilometre-long chasm of Mount Tarawera. During one cataclysmic night of eruptions in 1886 this chain split in two, destroying the region's first tourist attraction (the reputedly beautiful Pink and White Terraces), entombing the nearest settlement, Te Wairoa, now known as the Buried Village, and creating the Waimangu Volcanic Valley. This is just one of many, often magnificent, thermal areas around Rotorua. As well as Waimangu, the superior paying attractions are the Whakarewarewa Village on the outskirts of town; the Lady Knox Geyser and the coloured pools at Wai-O-Tapu, to the south of Waimangu; and the fierce bubbling mud of Hell's Gate, in the northeast of Rotorua.