Journey to another world: Waikite Valley Thermal Pools

It was as if we’d been flung onto the set of Jurassic Park or a documentary about ancient Gondwanaland (minus David Attenborough’s compelling commentary).  Steam billowing overhead, rising and swirling all about us.  Moisture dripping from tiny ferns growing timidly between the mossy rocks at our feet.  Rain falling in a fine mist, mingling with the steam and hanging in the air in a vaporous haze.  It was quiet, only the sounds of water dripping, splashing, bubbling, gurgling.  Altogether quite surreal.  And wet.  Very wet.

My husband, baby girl and I had just arrived at Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, but it felt like we’d stepped back through time and discovered some lost world.

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Waikite pools is located about half an hour’s drive from Rotorua, tucked away amongst the rolling hills of NZ’s lush countryside.  We’d stumbled across it on our family’s whirlwind trip across NZ’s north island earlier this year, having nearly overlooked the small ad buried in the back of the tourist pamphlet.  But thanks to a lucky glance at the right page at the right time, we chanced upon an incredible (and supremely baby-friendly!) destination!  (If you’re interested, you can read about some of our other NZ adventures here and here).

The rain that day had obviously deterred the crowds, with only a few bathers lolling about in the water.  After paying our $16.50pp entry fee (absolute bargain! Plus $3 for Coco), wriggling into our swimmers and compulsory aqua nappy for Coco, and then depositing our gear in the lockers, we were ready to dive in.

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There are a number of pools to choose from, as well as private spas off to one side, ranging in temperature from about 35 to 40 degrees.  Bypassing the large, family friendly pool (complete with a shallow toddler / baby section and shade sail overhead for sunny days), we tiptoed into one of the three smaller pools overlooking the boiling Otamakokore Stream.

The rain might have put people off, but we actually relished the contrast between the hot water and cool rain that still drizzled down.  Coco went wild as soon as she hit the water, squealing excitedly and wildly splashing all four limbs about – she absolutely loved it!  John and I took turns catching her as she threw herself off the stone pool edge into the water over and over again, a huge smile on her chubby face.  It was amazing for us to see her so happy and to be able to share the experience with her.  Sure, she won’t remember any of it in the years to come, but in that moment she was so wildly happy and seeing her like that made the whole thing that much more enjoyable and memorable for John and I.

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Waikite pools are an amazing destination for travellers with babies or young kids in tow.  It’s affordable, easily accessible and is an activity that the whole family can enjoy together regardless of age.

Apart from being super family friendly, the pools are also exceptionally beautiful.  The complex of pools is of course artificial and man-made, but you’d almost never know.  Ferns and small shrubs surround and separate the pools, providing some privacy as well as a sense of intimacy with your fellow bathers.  It’s like you’re bathing in a natural hot water spring, it feels incredibly authentic.  In addition to all of the greenery, the pools are edged in natural stone and small boulders protrude from the water.  These provided perfect handholds for Coco to practise her standing up and, once she was feeling super confident, her climbing skills too.  Finally there’s also the exceptional view over the boiling stream, which is flanked by dense banks of delicate ferns shrouded in mist.IMG_6312

Upstream is the source of all that water – the Te Manaroa boiling spring.  The spring is a natural wonder, spewing out approximately 50 litres of boiling (yes boiling!) water per second.  Some of this mineral-rich water is pumped up into the pool complex, where it cools slightly as it winds its way down a series of sluices and channels until it arrives in the various swimming pools.  Waikite pools prides itself on being the only thermal pool complex of its size in New Zealand that uses 100% pure natural geothermal water.  That’s right – the water isn’t treated or filtered, nor is it recycled into the pools.  Each night they drain the pools then refill them again in the morning – quite incredible!

After about 20 minutes we transferred to the family pool for a splash around in the shallow toddler section.  Coco had a blast, crawling around in the water and sliding on her tummy.  Eventually, once all of our fingers and toes had turned decidedly pruney, we towelled off and headed to the change rooms where hot showers, heated floors and baby change tables awaited.

Following a quick lunch at the onsite cafe we threw Coco up on John’s shoulders and headed up the eco trail to check out the thermal spring.  After a five minute walk through the tree ferns and dripping undergrowth, we were rewarded with close-up views of the spring, gurgling and belching water out with accompanying masses of steam.  At times it was impossible to see anything at all as the steam (exacerbated by the rainy conditions) completely enveloped us.  It was incredible – even Coco was captivated!

After the best facial and whole-body steam session imaginable, all three of us felt incredibly relaxed and yet thoroughly thrilled and excited by the wonderful time we’d just had at the pools.  Pruney and happy, we piled back into the car and headed back to the real world.

Getting there

We flew Air New Zealand from Sydney to Auckland (3 hours) then hired a car from the airport and drove to Rotorua (via Cathedral Cove and Thames).

From Rotorua, take State Highway 5 south and lookout for the sign to Waikite Valley Thermal Pools (we missed it and had to backtrack a bit).  Turn right onto Waikite Valley Road and continue until you reach the pools.

The important stuff

  • Waikite Valley Thermal Pools charges $16.50 for adults and $3 for kids under 5.  You can find the rest of their pricing (including family packages) here.
  • Babies and toddlers must swim in an aqua nappy if they aren’t yet toilet trained.  Best to BYO as I’m not sure whether they sell them at the pools.
  • You can rent towels and lockers, though there are also free storage cubes to put your stuff while you swim.  There are also picnic tables by the family pool, or you can eat at the cafe (see below).
  • There is a camp ground located right next door with shower, laundry and kitchen facilities – amazing!  So you can pull up, pitch your tent and plop on over into the pools.  Oh, and if you’re staying at the camp ground then you get unlimited, free entry to the pools (excluding the private spas)!
  • The Pukeko in a Ponga Tree cafe is located onsite, serving up burgers, coffee, ice cream and cold drinks.  We had the lamb burger – awesome!
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