The 700 islands of New Zealand are known for their rugged beauty. An ideal New Zealand vacation includes visiting the beaches throughout the country, the South Island’s Alps and fjords, plus the volcanic zone on the North Island. New Zealand’s volcanic activity is so close to the earth’s surface that you can even dig your own hot tub in the sand—just be sure to take care around the showering geysers.
Aside from the once-popular tourist site Whakaari (White Island), the volcano off the North Island’s east coast which erupted in December 2019, it’s unlikely New Zealand’s volcanoes will cause problems for travelers. But New Zealand’s volcanic zone makes for some very unusual sites that can’t be missed.
Have a bath at Hot Water Beach
One such place is on the Coromandel Peninsula, near the towns of Hahei and Tairua, on New Zealand’s North Island. Called Hot Water Beach, it looks like many New Zealand beaches—a sweeping crescent of golden sand framed by green trees and some rocks, and with good surfing waves. For most of the day, the beach is usually empty. But for a couple of hours on either side of low tide, one small part of this beach gets very crowded.
From a distance, it’s puzzling. A 60-foot section of the beach is packed with people, either busily digging in the sand or lying down near the water’s edge. The rest of the beach remains empty.
Beachgoers aren’t here for sunbathing or swimming. Instead, they’ve brought a spade (usually borrowed or rented) and they’ve come to dig their own natural hot tub. The challenge is to pick the right spot.
The water that oozes out of underground vents here is very hot—about 147℉. On some parts of the beach, it makes people walk very quickly so they don’t burn their feet and can make it a challenge to stand in one place. Hot tubbers aim to find the ideal spot where the piping hot underground water mixes with the cold ocean waves coming in with the tide to create a hot tub with a perfect temperature.
Once they’ve found their spot, these spa DIYers dig a pool and build walls of sand, leaving a lower area nearest the ocean where the cold water can enter. Experts sculpt their own sand lounge chairs too. The perfect natural hot tub can be enjoyed until the tide comes in and the waves completely cover the hot water vents and wash away all the temporary hot tubs.
But be careful of the showers in Rotorua
Though baths are ideal at Hot Water Beach, you’ll want to avoid the natural showers three hours south near the city of Rotorua. There’s spectacular evidence of the active earth’s core here and, especially outside of town in the geothermal parks, some geyser showers you’ll want to keep your distance from.
Just outside Rotorua, in Te Puia, is the largest active geyser in the southern hemisphere. It’s also one of the most dramatic. The Pohutu Geyser erupts almost every hour shooting sulfurous steam and water up to 100 feet into the air for as long as 20 minutes.
Nearby, at Wai-o-tapu, is the Lady Knox Geyser which sends showers of hot water 30 to 60 feet into the air every day at 10:15 a.m.
Wai-o-tapu—called “New Zealand’s most colorful geothermal attraction”—has brightly colored pools of hot water turned bright orange, yellow and green by antimony, arsenic and sulfur. There are lakes of water or mud with bubbles bursting on the surface and reaching temperatures of about 163℉. A day spent wandering the park will spark wonder into the earth’s strange geothermal activities.
Even the city of Rotorua has natural thermal pools, steam vents, plus the occasional shower. Patches of fog—actually steam—appear from grates on city streets. In the city park, Kuirau, there’s a large lake of hot steamy water plus pools of mud looking like bubbling gravy.
Take a walk over the park’s lake on boardwalks to get close to the hot water. Within the grassy areas of the park near the playground, look for concrete pools with safer water. Here, the hot volcanic water is mixed with cool water, so you can take off your shoes and have a little soak.
Some areas of Kuirau Park are fenced off for safety and note that in the early 2000s, a new steam vent cracked open and threw showers of mud and rocks into the air.
While the baths are more controllable, in New Zealand’s geothermal zone it’s always wise to be cautious for unexpected hot water showers.