Museum of Rotorua
A ten minute walk from our hotel along Lake Rotorua was the landmark Rotorua Museum, an impressive 19th century structure with a fascinating history. We walked by the museum to a path along the lake, admiring the gardens, lawn bowling, and impressive classical architecture. Our last morning we booked a tour to see the exhibits promoted in local travel literature as one of the ‘must see’s in Rotorua. They were right.
Shortly after Europeans began settling around Lake Rotorua, the New Zealand government recognized its potential for tourism. In the 1890’s, a railroad was laid from Auckland to Rotorua to attract international with a resort and spa, common in Europe during the Edwardian era before World War I. The government funded the expensive project, building a modern hotel with gardens, restaurants, and spa. The project attracted well-to-do Europeans and Americans who sailed to New Zealand then boarded an overland train to Rotorua to ‘take the cure’ and soak in mud baths. It was, after all, the Gilded Age.
But the resort had a brief life, opening in 1908 just a few years before calamities that shook the world — WW I, the 1929 stock market crash, the 1930’s worldwide depression, and WW II. The government was forced to take over the hotel when it failed as a business venture. It was leased as a jazz nightclub until the 1960’s when it was eventually shuttered. It was renovated and became the Rotorua Museum in 1969.
The museum has several exhibits about the history and natural wonders around Lake Rotorua. One is about the Arawa tribe of the Maori who first settled there about 600 years ago. The exhibit had photos, drawings, and recreations of Arawa life before the Europeans arrived.
Bath House exhibit
The Bath House tour told the early history of the hotel as an international spa with somewhat garish relics — old bathtubs, tiled ‘private’ rooms, and posters promoting the healthful benefits of mud baths. One exhibit was down a narrow stairwell into a dark basement where rusted pipes and tanks showed the ‘plumbing.’ Water in the Rotorua is contaminated with minerals and salts from the geothermal activity which stained and corroded the plumbing. Workmen had to replace it frequently adding to the cost.
Mt. Tarawera eruption
Another exhibit featured a natural wonder, pink and white silica terraces in a remote area near Lake Rotorua destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1886. The pink and white terraces were world-famous for their beauty and popular with international tourists for the spa in geothermal warmed pools.
But nearby Mt. Tarawera erupted in 1886 and wiped out the terraces, nearby Maori villages, and killed 150 people. It was New Zealand’s largest natural disaster in the 19th century. The museum had a film about Mt. Tarawera with black and white photos of the pink and white before it was destroyed. The terraces looked beautiful and unique, like a smooth stone staircase leading down to a lake surrounded by rainforest.
Rooftop view platform
After touring the museum, we climbed stairs through the attic to a viewing platform overlooking the Museum grounds, gardens, lawn bowling fields, and a distant view of Lake Rotorua.
Rotorua is a popular area for retired Kiwis. We watched them lawn bowling on neatly groomed fields, sporting in crisp white uniforms and bowler hats. So dignified — and English!
We enjoyed walking through the grounds, admiring the gardens, and following a path through the woods along Lake Rotorua that led to a park with playgrounds, a marina, and steamboat for taking tourists around the lake. The park was filled with families and children enjoying the beautiful setting and recreational attractions. Kiwis live well in Rotorua!
Next: Wellington Walkabout
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