The space and the pace

Wrong meal. Late flight. Bad start. There's nothing like a half-assed departure to dampen expectations. Still, a sponsored junket to New Zealand - and Rotorua, no less - could hardly fail to deliver a relaxed bliss.

And friends had long exhorted me to visit our neighbours across the Tasman, where Trevor Chappell's underarm infamy of 1981 apparently remains a hot topic. Some 30 years after said incident? Surely not, I mused.

It was only later in the evening, while perusing local TV in my hotel room, could I hear the cries of a horseman of the apocalypse. Using the medium of a sports cable channel, he beseeched me to " ... come and celebrate Australia Day-ah by reliving 24 HOURS OF KIWI SPORTING TRIUMPHS OVER THE AUSSIES-AH!" So, there you go, caught behind - just like the rest of them.

Heritage Hotel formed the base upon arrival, and a handsome one at that. Overlooking Whakarewarewa Valley, it reminded me why those same friends had enthused that everything looks like Hobbiton in New Zealand. It doesn't; but the verdant panorama, with steam rising from primeval swamps, has you putting away your camera before realising you just took six shots.

It's the smell that hits you first, of course. A malodorous, almost insistent pong that arrives well before the scenery. Rotorua is well-known for its pungent geothermal activity. Still, the sulphuric stench is a small price to pay for the glorious show of nature on offer. Bubbling mud pools, fizzing vents and hot springs set deep in the lushest of forests make for a pretty agreeable backdrop to dinner.

Locals say the mineral-rich pools will heal what ails ye; from lumbago to pimples. Following a sumptuous meal and four glasses of red, I was in no position to gainsay their claims - the setting's therapeutic properties seemed self-evident. And, as I sat beneath a fire-lit canopy with the rain beating softly above, the fissures hissing and geysers gurgling, one thought was inescapable: you lucky sods. Like much of New Zealand, Rotorua's charm comes to you in a framed, heritage-listed kind of way, but it's no less achingly beautiful for it.

The Maori have a maintained a deep spiritual link with the area that dates back more than 700 years and Te Puia centre, with its conservation, craft and commerce stands as testimony to a people determined to invigorate a community that has a long-standing tradition of bartering and trading. The centre's chief executive offered a neat precis: "It's not the commercialisation of our culture, it's the re-commercialisation of our culture."

You can while your time walking across the boiling mud pools, acquainting yourself with the kiwi birds in their breeding house, learn how to carve and weave or play with the state-of-the-art displays. Better still, you can wander around a traditional Maori village and learn the customs.

Favourite moment? A firm response to some isolated tittering during the traditional nose-bump greeting. "We respectfully ask you do not laugh during the Hongi. It's a very serious matter to us." A nice reminder that we were guests there to learn, not to turn them on their backs and tickle their stomachs.

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Central to their relationship with Rotorua is Mount Tarawera, which erupted in 1886, wiping out villages, draining lakes and taking scores of locals with it. Peering out of the glass-bottomed Helipro chopper, making out where chronology and geology conspired to leave great volcanic markers in the earth, it was impossible not to recall the stories of the locals. The loss of the Pink and White Terraces (massive silica deposits produced by the geothermally heated water), the fate of Te Wairoa (also known as The Buried Village); there's a kinship with the land city slickers cannot begin to fathom.

Less taxing for those with vertigo is a morning cruise along Lake Tarawera. Our ship moored in Duck Bay, home to the Hot Water beach where hot springs propel invigorating jets from the lake bed. As I soaked in the natural thermal rock pool, glass of bubbly in hand, I had nothing more on my mind than becoming a prune. A kind of bliss. As the crew of the Clearwater Cruises served us breakfast it struck me that, trimmings aside, you could hardly fail to recharge your batteries here.

And if you're the type who gets seasick, then off-road driving may not be the answer. But it worked for me. Off Road NZ whispered sweet LPG-scented nothings to my inner petrolhead; runs on the sprint car circuit, karting track and four-wheel-driving safari were more fun than a rational adult should have without additives.

I could probably say the same of Skyline Skyrides, which sits atop Mount Ngongotaha, but given it followed another four glasses of red after dinner at the lovely Cableway Restaurant (they do spoil you ...), it may not be a claim that would stand up to empirical scrutiny. Still, I hazily recall cackling maniacally while hurtling downhill in a three-wheeled luge along the one-kilometre "advanced" track (there's a two-kilometre scenic version for the more reserved) before skidding into an inelegant heap. I'm told they also have brakes.

A little more sedate, but no less spectacular, was the chairlift offering a grand panorama of Rotorua. As we sat enclosed in the gleaming new eight-seat gondola, I realised it had been a long time since I had felt this relaxed. Or drunk; I always get the two confused.

Looking to unwind from all that unwinding? You could do much worse than the Polynesian Day Spa. Having missed the metro bus, I decided it was time to avail myself to the joys of an upper-body massage. Bonnie was my masseur's name, and bonnie was her technique. After 10 minutes I was relaxed; on 12 I was jelly. I have a vague recollection of stumbling groggily out of the booth and being asked the time. I'm pretty sure I dribbled "2012?", which has to be a recommendation of sorts.

A grand way to finish off the trip and one, as I dozed off, that had me contemplating how what appealed to me about the place above all was the people. The best thing about New Zealanders? That there aren't many of them. Oh, they're lovely and that's no mistake. It's more about the different spacing and pacing. One wouldn't want to damn their pretty isles as some quaint backwater. That would be stereotyping and patronising. And only half-true.

It's just that the beat is absorbed by the inhabitants and, as a result, you get folk not nearly as obsessed with getting the 42-inch plasma for the dunny. There's a quality of life we lost a long time ago and with that comes an innate smugness and calm. There's a reverse snobbery at play, we're just too "thuck" to get it.

So, to that most banal of observations for a tourist destination; I'd rather live than visit here. And what will linger long in the memory from my brief stay is the bubbling, geothermal activity and the authentic, even bubblier hospitality. Right proper geysers, if you will.

- The author was a guest of Te Puia.

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