Looking for a holiday destination that can keep the whole family active and entertained? Julia Wong suggests Rotorua may be the ticket.
Being the home bodies we are, hubby Matt and I rarely venture out of Auckland with our two young children Anika (three and a half) and Siobhan (11 months). So a trip to Rotorua was a real treat. We headed out of Auckland on Friday evening with a car jam-packed with warm winter woollies. Matt checked out metservice.com before we left and said we were in for some cold, but sunny days - perfect for all of the activities we had planned.
We stayed at Tuscany Villas in the heart of Rotorua. We were arriving late, and the owners Neil and Dianne Wilson, had kindly left the key out for us and put the heater on, so the room was cosy and inviting after a long road trip. The set-up was perfect for our family and we thoroughly enjoyed our stay. Our one-bedroom spa suite, with its private spa pool, cost $199 a night.
Mountain-biking in the Redwoods
Cost: No charge
Matt's a mad keen mountain biker and this was his favourite part of the weekend. Located in the Whakarewarewa Forest 5km south-east of Rotorua, the beginner trails are a short walk from the car park. Maps are available for $5 and are essential if you want to venture further into the park. There are numerous trails of varying difficulty, which are all clearly marked and graded on the map.
We took one of our mountain bikes and our Wee Ride (a child's seat that attaches to a bike) down with us, along with helmets for Matt and the girls. You can hire bikes and helmets from an outlet in the car park but, if you have your own, it's a good idea to take them with you.
Matt took each of the girls on the Kids' Loop, which is an easy, short trail. It's an ideal track for young children learning to ride a mountain bike. He then decided to be a bit more daring with Anika and took her on The Tahi and The Dipper, both grade two trails that are each around 2.5km long. Anika was keen for perhaps the first 4km, but after that the novelty wore off and the mantra for the trip back to the car park was: "It's too long, Daddy." Given his time again, Matt would have done one of the trails solo, and left the tempestuous three-year-old with Mum.
Because there are so many trees around the trails it can get pretty chilly. You'll soon warm up if you're riding, but if you have kids in bike seats, as we did, then make sure you layer them up.
Cost: Gondola: Family pass: $62
Skyline Luge: two rides for two adults (kids free): $34
Skyline Skyrides is one of Rotorua's best-known family fun and adventure activities. It's on the side of Mt Ngongotaha and you get up there on an eight-seater gondola.
We headed up the mountain and kicked off our visit with a delicious buffet lunch in the Cableway Restaurant and Bar. Then it was time for the main attraction - the luge.
Because both our girls are under five they were able to ride the luge for free, carried in tandem. I took Anika and Matt had Siobhan. Depending on the time of day you head up, there can be quite a wait to get to the luge, so be prepared to sing some songs or use other means of distraction to keep those toddlers happy.
We had one ride down the Scenic Track, which is 2km long, and has rest areas where you can pull over and enjoy the stunning views over Rotorua. The Intermediate Track offers a few more twists and turns but is still suitable for all ages. The advanced track, short and sweet, is only 1km long and a thrilling ride that's only suitable for children over 10.
Matt said afterwards Siobhan several times tried to launch herself out of the luge, so he had to keep a tight grip on her for the ride down.
The journey back up in the chair lift was lovely, a nice time to chat about the day and check out the panoramic views. Given our time again, we would have brought our own helmets up with us (they were all in the car from the mountain biking) but at the time it didn't cross our minds. As it was, Matt had a good laugh at my expense, because none of the adult helmets would fit my dainty head and I had to wear a fetching child's helmet.
There are other activities you canenjoy up on the mountain, including walking tracks, the SkyVue Extreme 4D Spaceship and the Sky Swing.
Cost: Family Spa family pass: $36
Right in the heart of Rotorua, the Polynesian Spa includes hot mineral bathing and a variety of spa therapies.
None of our girls can swim yet, so we opted to stick to the family spa area where we could look after one child each. If your children are a little more independent, it is an ideal opportunity for one adult to have some "me time" and indulge in one of the spa therapies while your partner keeps an eye on the children.
We started our visit by heading off to the changing rooms to get into our togs. I took the girls with me and Matt went off to the men's changing rooms on his own. Big mistake! I was in the changing rooms by myself trying to wrestle togs onto a wriggly 11-month-old (picture trying to dress an octopus with six extra limbs) while Anika hopped around demanding to be let out into the swimming area and generally making a nuisance of herself.
When we were finally ready to go Anika, bless her, decided she had to go to the bathroom! So off the togs came again. Note to self: Next time, make sure to have a 1:1 ratio between adult and child at all times, including both the swimming pool and changing room areas.
Finally we were ready to take the plunge. Bliss. This was the perfect end to a busy, active day. The girls enjoyed the swim, and Anika was in her element on the water slide, with either her dad or me at the bottom to catch her.
The spas are open until 8pm daily. We saw plenty of parents with their children, pyjamas in hand, obviously intending to have a dip and then head straight home to bed. What a marvellous idea! The combination of the warm water and the minerals makes for a truly relaxing soak.
Cost: No charge
Kuirau Park is a 30ha park (including playing fields) close to the city centre, and is well worth a visit if you have little ones in tow. You can see the active geothermal hot springs and mud pools that Rotorua's famed for, plus there's a large garden, ornamental lake and a neat children's play area.
Both our girls enjoyed a runaround in the park and a short walk along the boardwalk to take a look at the hot springs and mud pools. All areas are well fenced for safety.
Cost: Sheep Show family pass: $77
Organic Farm Tour family pass: $82
As we headed out of Rotorua, we made one final stop at the Agrodome, a 160ha farm 9.5km out on State Highway 5. There are heaps of activities for the family, from the world famous Sheep Show to the Organic Farm Tour.
Matt and I enjoyed the hour-long Sheep Show but to be honest, it was a bit of a stretch to keep the girls entertained for the entire duration. I'm sure slightly older children wouldn't have any trouble staying focused. The show includes a sheep-shearing demonstration, a chance to hand-milk a cow and a dog trial. Anika's enthusiasm perked up at the end when she was allowed to get up on stage and pat some sheep. We then popped into the nursery to look at the lambs, kids and ducklings.
We had a bit of time to kill before the Farm Tour, so we popped into the Station House Café for a bite. It was a sunny day, so we sat out on the deck and enjoyed some peace and quiet. Matt would have happily stayed there for the rest of the afternoon reading the newspaper if he had been able to. A word of advice though - be prepared to hold baby on your lap while you eat, as the café doesn't have any high chairs. The Farm Tour was a highlight for all of us. Again, this is an hour long, but both our girls were enthralled for much longer than at the Sheep Show. The tractor driver gives a great historical commentary and there's time to feed the animals and get up close and personal to some truly huge cows.
It was a great way to end a fabulous weekend, soaking up some fresh country air, and spending quality time together as a family. It reminded me that we must make the effort to get out of the city more often.
Child-friendly cafés and shopping
Capers Epicurean, 1181 Eruera Street, Rotorua.
Open: 7.30am-9.00pm, seven days a week
We went to Capers on our first day for breakfast. Luckily, they open early as we were outside the doors at 8am ready to tuck into some breakfast treats. The food was delicious and the coffee hit the spot. A children's breakfast includes scrambled eggs, mini sausages, toast, fruit and hash browns. Anika insisted on dunking her scrambled eggs into the tomato sauce meant for the sausages, much to my dismay.
There is plenty of room for strollers if necessary, however we did not bring ours in because we were able to park right outside. High chairs are available.
There is also a separate children's area suitable for children aged two to eight. The room includes a PlayStation, TV, and building blocks, along with some wall-mounted toys.
Fat Dog Café and Bar, 1161 Arawa Street, Rotorua.
Open: 7am until late, seven days a week
Sunday morning bright and early saw us at the Fat Dog Café, one of Rotorua's most well-known eating establishments. The meals are enormous - somehow we failed to see the kids' menu (although there is one available) and ordered Anika toast. She was given what looked like a whole loaf of toast, along with butter, two jars of jam and some sachets of Vegemite. Suffice to say, Matt had to finish it off for her. Again, the coffee was just what was needed.
High chairs are available but it would be difficult to move a stroller in between the tables. Again, this wasn't a concern for us as we were parked right outside.
Fat Dog is immensely popular. We arrived bang-on 8am and got our order in just before the breakfast rush saw a queue out the door of people waiting to order.
There is also a fish tank and a good selection of children's toys, but no designated play area.
Monkey Kids, 1145 Pukuatua Street, Rotorua.
Open: 9am-5pm, Monday to Friday, 9am-4pm, Saturday
Our action-packed weekend left very little time for retail therapy, however, we did manage to drop into this lovely little store. It had a wide variety of high quality toys for very reasonable prices. Anika especially loved the dress-up clothes area and the dolls houses. Well worth a visit.
Julia Wong is a staff member of OHbaby! and lives in Auckland. She is the proud mother of two pre-schoolers, Anika and Siobhan.