Our first stop was Rotorua, which is one of the country’s main centers of Maori culture, as well as an active geothermal area—so active, in fact, that sulfur is the first thing you smell when exiting the airport, and wisps of steam float up from behind hills as you drive through the lush, green countryside.
Greeting: We didn’t get the usual conference meet-and-greet at Te Puia, the country’s main Maori cultural center and home to the Maori National Carving and Weaving Schools, where the most promising young artists come to hone their crafts. Instead Maori warriors challenged the lone male in our group as is their tradition before joining the women in greeting us with nose-and-forehead presses that, instead of feeling awkward, felt to be true, from-the-heart welcomes. We then got to see the young weavers and carvers at work, and learn about the materials they use and the heritage behind their work.
Te Puia is also home to amazing geological action in the Te Whakarewarewa Thermal Reserve, from boiling pools of mud to steam-spewing geysers you can get much closer to than in the U.S. We were on a tight schedule and so did a bit of a mad rush through, but the center offers an in-depth tour that includes stories of the Maori people and culture and information about the local flora. The Pohutu geyser, which thoughtfully erupted as we drew near, is jaw-dropping by day. I can only imagine how magical it would be at night, spotlit, as a backdrop to an evening event held at the nearby tented area.
Eating: Another must-do while in Te Puia is a traditional Maori meal cooked in a geothermal cooking pool. Our lunch, served family-style on a giant Lazy Susan-type wheel while a talented young singer and guitar-player serenaded us with traditional music, was something I will revisit often in memory, particularly the giant prawns and kiwi juice.
After that spectacular lunch, I wasn’t even remotely hungry, and yet somehow managed to fully enjoy an incredible multi-course meal at the Solitaire Lodge, where we spent the night. This ridiculously luxurious, 10-suite lakeside oasis would be a good choice for a very high-end retreat for those who appreciate good trout-fishing, soaking in natural geothermal baths, and basking before a roaring fire in the common room.
Adventuring: You would think we’d had enough of air travel for the day, but nice as the ANZ flights were, they were fairly unexciting—as you would hope for on a commercial airline. That’s not the case for our next conveyance, HELiPRO’s helicopters that are headquartered at the Agrodome Park and Skyline Rides at Te Puia. We weighed in, hopped on, and cruised above the beautiful lakes that dot the region before landing atop Mount Tarawera for a walk around the crater of the defunct volcano that in 1886 blew its top in the country’s largest dome volcano eruption, killing more than 100 people and rearranging the landscape to its current form.
Then, feeling a bit James Bondish, we choppered down to the edge of the Lake Rotoiti to meet our next mode of travel: The Tiua, a 53-foot catamaran operated by Pure Cruise New Zealand. The Tiua is built for entertaining and for groups of up to 50 people, and offers everything from trout-fishing and cave-swimming to soaks in lakeside hot pools that are accessible only by boat. Since we were there in winter, it was a bit chilly on deck, but the crew was quick to hand out blankets and hot tea, coffee, or other beverages to those who wanted to take advantage of the views from the beanbag chairs on the bow of the boat, while the rest of the group hung out in the warm, elegant salon below.
Meeting: In downtown Rotorua, the Millennium Hotel Rotorua, which is a five-minute walk from the Rotorua Energy Events Centre and the Rotorua Convention Centre, has eight conference rooms that can accommodate groups of 12 to 400. Each room is Wi-Fi enabled, and the Mokoia Room features a full stage, projection room, and feature lighting for special events. The Energy Events Centre has a total of 8,255 square meters of meeting space, and the Rotorua Convention Centre can hold up to 800 theater-style.