Rotorua

Rotorua, quite in the middle of the North Island, is one of the world’s most active geothermal and volcanic region, making it an interesting mix of bubbling natural hot springs, mud, lakes and giant redwood forests. It also happens to be the centre of New Zealand’s remaining maori culture, and a hub for activities ranging from mountain biking to rafting.

Steam from underground.
Steam from underground.

Rotorua is situated between several mountains: Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. A maori gentleman I met at the spa told me that kiwis use the mountains as reference points, to distinguish which tribe you come from. Unfortunately as my trip was at first mainly for relaxing, and I didn’t have a car to get me out from the city, I missed out on the mountains and forests.

Rotorua information center.
Rotorua information center.

In the celebrations of Valentine’s day, I was lucky to have a chance to visit Hell’s Gate, quite similar geothermal activities and bubbling steamy and stinky hot pools as in the beloved town I once used to live in, Beppu, Japan. Right away when arriving to Rotorua the familiar odour of sulphur reminded me of the good ol’ times in Beppu, and as they also have different Hells, I felt right at home.

Mini volcano.
Mini volcano.

Hells gate is a thermal reserve, and a spa specialising in mud treatments and traditional massages. I was pampered and treated to an experience consisting of the mineral rich spa pools, a mud bath, and an hour long massage. Apparently after the treatments I looked relaxed, my skin was soft and I was pretty much spaghetti. The rest of the evening was pretty much soaking in my own spa (also a present), and sinking to sleep like a rock.

Spa pools all to myself.
Spa pools all to myself.

Had I had more time, still up and running maori village of Whakarewarewa would have been on my to-do list next. I wasn’t not that interested in the traditional maori dance (performed just for tourists), but more of their hangi food, steam boxes in the natural fumes, again very much like in Beppu. For some reason there were no restaurants in sight in Rotorua making this traditional (and cheap to make!) fare. It is rather sad to see McDonald’s and Subway everywhere, and not a problem to find pizza either, but when you try to find some original food, things get a tad tricky (unless sandwiches and fries are the traditional foods). So far I have not encountered any authentic kiwi food on my trip! I have noticed that they call sweet potato “kumara” and like to deep fry ‘em, and that kiwi burger might have lamb meat (why not, there’s 40 million sheep in the country!), but that’s about it. I wonder if I even get the chance! Anyway, Rotorua is a great destination for anyone looking for a bit of relaxation, some mineral rich water treatments, and spa life. Besides that, it’s a good base for adventuring to Hobbiton, Waitomo caves, and Taupo sky diving.

Wanaka and Franz Josef Glacier

From Queenstown I made my way to another lakeside town just few hours away, Wanaka, named conveniently after the lake Wanaka. Quite like Queenstown, Wanaka has some nice cafes and restaurants, but the activity offering is way lesser, which suited my sneezing and tired body rather well. Wanaka has grown exponentially in the recent years, and now it is a rather bustling little town, the gateway to Mt Aspiring National Park. Besides the gorgeous views (like everywhere), Wanaka offers options for water sports, skiing and scenic flights.

Le Wanaka beach.
Le Wanaka beach.

After checking in to my hostel (The Flying Kiwi, in case someone is looking to head that way) I took a little walk around town and sat by the lake for a bit, trying my best not to burn in the sun. In the afternoon I cooked some monster-resembling fish and fell asleep by the lake, deciding that maybe it was best I have an early night in. 8 people dorm and no snorers, WIN! The next morning after breakfast I dragged my overflowing backpack and bags to the bus towards Franz Josef.

Eager travelers waiting for their ride.
Eager travelers waiting for their ride.

The bus ride to Franz Josef took 6 hours, including two 30 minute breaks to a in-the-middle-of-nowhere-cafe and a salmon farm. Interesting stops, but not much to eat if you’re not into sandwiches and pies. In between appreciating the ever changing nature – from rough rocky terrain to lush rainforest to double tier forest to mountains, and the seaside with trees that grow in an angle – I dozed off between unconsciousness and the driver’s soft talk about why the trees grow in two layers and how it is not allowed to have the trees so close to the road as they at one point were. Beautiful drive, but I would have liked to have a pitstop in a place like Jones’ Fruit Farm, where we stopped on the way to Queenstown and to Wanaka.

New Zealanders wanted to save money way back when, and so the bridges are one lane only.
New Zealanders wanted to save money way back when, and so the bridges are one lane only.
Native bushes and trees living in harmony.
Native bushes and trees living in harmony.

I arrived in Franz Josef glacier town at 4, which left me plenty of time to find the hot pools I read about and have a proper soak. Franz Josef is way bigger than Mt. Cook, consisting of 1 main street and another street for mainly motels and backpackers’, several (pub/Asian) restaurants and glacier tour operators. I do kinda feel bad for not taking a helicopter ride (I’ve never been) to actually see the glacier, or do anything ice-related for that matter, but I didn’t feel like investing in such an experience, and opted for the pools in stead. 3 different pools, 36, 38 and 40C hot, just what one needs after a day on the bus sneezing. In the evening I went for a little walk to try and catch the sunset, but there was too much rainforest and mountains on my way. Another early night, luckily I fell asleep before the snoring begun. I woke up at 5, but managed to stay in bed for another few hours. Onwards to the longest leg of my journey, 10.5 hours on the bus! Apparently there’s one of the world’s most dramatic coastal roads on the way.

I expected to see him on the mountains.
I expected to see him on the mountains.

Chim chil pong

No, the title does not refer to slot machine sounds even though slot machines can probably be found in some chim chil pongs. The term refers to a Korean spa, which in my case was Dragonhill Spa in Seoul.

Soaking, steaming and chilling for 24 hrs? Sure!
Soaking, steaming and chilling for 24 hrs? Sure!

This particular Chim chil pong was apparently one of the best in Seoul. It consists of separate bathing floors for men and women; in addition to 3 different temperatured baths, there was ginseng, herb and seasonal herb baths, massage bath as well as additional beauty services such as massages, body scrubs and hair removals that could be purchased for extra cost.

Directory of Dragonhill Spa
Directory of Dragonhill Spa

When entering the spa, you get clothes for the public area, and a locker key that works as money inside the spa. After soaking in the baths and enjoying the saunas (infra red and one that had mist spraying from the ceiling), most people go to hang out in the arcade, public space, cafes and various hot/cold rooms that are located in the common areas.

Christmas feeling and sleepy people
Christmas feeling and sleepy people

You can spend 12 hours in the spa with no extra cost, so people go there to hang out and spend time with family, sleep after going out to party, or to go on dates (some of the small rooms seemed to be very nifty for that purpose). Our initial plan was to sleep in the spa but since it was crowded (Saturday night) and home was near, we opted for a good solid sleep, though there was also a sleeping room for women only.

Spa tombs
Spa tombs

Going to chim chil pong is definitely worth it, since you get to experience the way Koreans spend time. It is a cheap option for hotel (12,000 won: approx. 10e) and definitely interesting! If you intend to stay for longer than 3 hours, I suggest bringing a book or something to occupy yourself with. During the wee hours of night, the atmosphere might get gloomy.

Koreans seem to share the Japanese ability to sleep anywhere, anytime
Koreans seem to share the Japanese ability to sleep anywhere, anytime

Oh onsen!

In the promised town of Onsens, one simply cannot spend half a year without entering at least few of them. Today I visited rather different onsen than the natural ones I went last month.

 

Family onsens in Myoban

The original plan for today was to walk to Myoban, which is 5km from APU. Since the day was so lovely, we kept on walking past the family onsens and tourist attractions to Kannawa, the most famous onsen area in Beppu.

(Perhaps) rice drying in a hut with clay ground, Myoban onsen area

 

We found our onsen almost by accident, after deciding not to go to a public 100yen bath.

Onsen in Kannawa, no idea what it was called

 

This onsen featured a sauna-like room, where we wore a yukata and went to lie down on floor covered in strays. There we were for 10 minutes, it felt almost like being in a sauna at home (though our weeds are birch, and usually we don’t have rocks under our heads)!

Door for midgets, leading to the hot chamber with stray floor

 

After the steam “room” (height was about 1,2m), we went to bath in the super hot ofuro. 750yen for this fun, I guess it’s about the average price or a bit higher than others. My skin does feel softer than before!

It’s good to have visual instructions

 

Next time maybe the most famous “8 Hells” onsens, who knows?