Rotorua is the only New Zealand destination to feature on the latest New York Times Places to Visit list. From hundreds of submissions from readers, “Sulphur City” was placed at 45 out of 52 places on the list.

I have been a guide to a group of 10 Americans on a day trip from Auckland to Rotorua and I have to say, they were not too impressed. There were no marked paths in Whakarewarewa, the largest of the thermal parks around the city. Billed as a ‘living Maori village’, it was expensive to enter and the attitude of the hard-to-locate staff was less than friendly. My group was also aware of the danger of falling into a boiling pool while we were trying to find our way back to the safety of the entrance.

Rotorua (rnz.co.nz)

The provincial city of 59,000 buried in the centre of the North Island’s thermal region, is flat and featureless. However, Rotorua has to have something going for it to be nominated for the US newspaper’s Places to Visit list so I have to admit, I must have missed something. Perhaps it is a new attraction that I have not seen but am impressed with from the photos online and what I have read about it.


In 1898, the government decided to set up a nursery to replace the loss of native trees caused by European settlers clearing them for pasture land. A trial using 170 different tree species was undertaken around the Green Lake district with the first Californian Coast Redwoods being planted in 1901. Fourteen years later, timber from these Redwoods was used for firewood until it was discovered the strength of the timber made it perfect for mine props in the Waihi gold and Huntley coal mines.

Redwood Grove (rotoruanz.com)

In 1925, and again in 1947, the Redwood Grove was dedicated to Forest Service members killed in the two world wars. In 1970, the same grove was opened to the public with a walking track created through these magnificent trees. In 1993, a mountain bike track was cut through the forest and since then, more MBT’s have been created in and around the forest.

In 2010, Australian Mountain Bike Magazine named Rotorua’s trails the best in the world and 5 years later, the International Mountain Bike Association awarded them gold-level ride status, one of only six places in the world to be awarded this status!

Mountain Bike Trail Rotorua (rotoruanz.com)


For the past decade, Rotorua has been competing with Queenstown as an international tourist destination. Although ziplines are found in a number of New Zealand locations, the Native Forest Zipline Tour offers the only zipline installed in a native forest. Located just outside Rotorua, it has been declared New Zealand’s #1 outdoor activity on TripAdvisor, although with so many adrenaline activities available in the dramatically magnificent scenery of Queenstown, I have to question that claim. However, having the opportunity to glide over the canopy of a native forest has, up until the installation of this particular zipline, been only available to birds so I can understand the unique value of this activity.


During a visit to Rotorua’s Redwood Forest in 2009, German tourist Alex Schmid was smitten and immediately developed a spiritual connection to these grand trees. He moved to Rotorua and having built forest walks in Germany, he spent the next few years planning an elevated walk in the Kiwi forest which now attracts around 500,000 visitors a year. The half kilometre long Redwoods Treewalk is the longest suspended bridge walk of its kind in the world. The ‘eco tourism’ attraction opened in 2016 and is unique in that it allows people to walk 12 metres off the ground along 23 suspension bridges that carry the walk around 22 redwood trees – all attached without nails. A deck surrounding each tree allows space to stop and gawk at the surrounding forest.

Take the walk here:



Now I want to highlight (pardon the pun) the addition of the ‘Redwoods Night Lights’ into the Redwood Forest walk. There are other suspended forest walks in New Zealand but none have the spectacular light display that this nocturnal eco-tourism experience offers in Rotorua. When darkness falls the 115 year old forest comes alive with a spectacular 2.5-metre tall light installation.


Environmental artist David Trubridge has designed 30 lanterns and 40 coloured spotlights which have been artistically placed among the trees to produce a magical light show that harmonizes with the majesty of the trees themselves.

This is one of the first design led tourist attractions in New Zealand and will no doubt inspire others to bring the country’s iconic natural wonders to life at night. Maybe we will someday see Mitre Peak, one of the world’s most popular natural wonders, floodlit!!

With the unique and beautiful “Redwoods Night Lights” bringing Rotorua’s forest to life at night, including this Kiwi city on the New York Times Places to Visit list now makes some sense to me.

Ceidrik Heward

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