Standing on the thinnest crust of the Earth
One of my favorite parts of a cruise vacation has nothing to do with a ship. The treat is what I plan for the day or three before or after a cruise – a vacation within a vacation, a second adventure.
This second getaway may require serious Internet research and the will to seize an edgy opportunity, but it can be the most memorable moment of a journey. Besides, it’s often time and cost effective. If your cruise is far from home, you’ve already budgeted the flight, and planned everything from stopping the mail to who’s watching the dog.
You could choose a couple of pre-cruise days to unwind in a port city, which in itself offers the values of exploration, relaxation and reduction of anxiety that may result from hurrying to your ship. I’m suggesting that you also consider a special experience – another major reason to make the trip.
Which is how I found myself in November in Rotorua, New Zealand, walking tentatively on what probably is the thinnest crust of the Earth – at least among places where people choose to live.
Bubbling waters, Mauri culture
Not only is the area an opportunity to learn about the fascinating Maori culture that influences much of New Zealand’s outdoorsy, nature-loving way of life, but also to tip-toe close to the Ring of Fire. That’s the series of volcanos and plate movements that ring the Pacific Ocean, providing about 90 percent of the world’s earthquakes.
Yet, even where the land shakes as the Earth’s plates slide and grind below us, the action usually seems far away, deep in the rock where we cannot see nor feel its fury.
In Rotorua, the inferno says hello. Steam constantly streams from natural exhaust holes in the ground. Sulphur-laden geysers shoot skyward on irregular cycles. Mud burps with gas (above right). Pools of scalding water bubble day and night.
For centuries, tribes of Maori people have gathered in Rotorua, in an area that today is called Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve. One tribe of about 65 lives in the reserve and has built Te Puia, a new Maori cultural center with an arts and crafts institute for learning weaving and wood-carving, near the famed Pohutu geyser (pictured at the top of this post).
Travelers may spend the day – and small tour groups soon will be able to stay the night in a Maori meeting house – at Te Puia to begin to understand the reasons why anyone would choose to live close to the Earth’s fire.
They cook outside in pools heated from below and ovens that steam like pressure cookers.
They bath twice a day in mineral rich waters.
Preparers drop into the water food in a basket made of woven flax. That’s part of the hangi cooking system used for meals of fish, pork and vegetables that are served to travelers at Te Puia.
At the Parekohuru pool, I gained a sense of how close I stood to the cauldron below. Temperatures in the pool’s waters have been measured to 50 feet below the ground, bubbling away at 285 degrees Celsius; that’s 545 degrees Fahrenheit.
I spent three days in and around Rotorua, listening to the stories of the Maori people; walking in the woods of Whirinaki Forest with a guide from Te Urewera Treks (picture, below right) to learn Maori tribal uses of plants for food and medicine; soaking in the local hot springs to sooth some back pain; exploring a museum and ruins of Buried Village (picture below left), which was covered by the volcanic eruption of Mount Tarawera on June 10, 1886.
My visit was a revealing and learning experience unlike anywhere else in the world – a rewarding pre-trip, for instance, for a cruise out of Auckland. Contact rotoruanz.com for tour ideas and lodging suggestions.
Rotorua also is accessible as a day trip from the New Zealand port of Tauranga, about a 90 minute-drive. Many ships cruising New Zealand stop at Tauranga, including Celebrity, Princess and P&O. Rotorua day tours, which cost about $250, usually include a Maori cultural experience and spouting geyser at the Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve.
David Molyneaux writes a monthly column about cruising for newspapers around the United States. This column appeared in fall, 2011. Molyneaux is editor of TheTravelMavens.com