ROTORUA, NEW ZEALAND – A crazy mountain bike event with more flips and mid-air whirls than a Donald Trump-Ted Cruz debate. Deep forests radiant with redwoods shimmering in filtered sunlight. And a wonderful lakeside spa.
The Rotorua region of this wonderful country offers an embarrassing number of fun and entertaining things to do, as I discovered during a recent visit.
I was there in part because of a mountain bike event called Crankworx, which began in Whistler a few years ago and draws thousands and thousands of dedicated cyclists and adrenaline junkies. It’s a fantastic event with smart and dedicated fans who follow their favourite athletes but seem to root just as hard for the other folks taking part.
The event was held at Skyline Rotorua, a small mountain that was hosting the event for the second year in a row. There are a series of races during Crankworx, including a savage downhill run with huge jumps and bumps and logs and rolls and dips and a wild cross-country style event where racers leap off platforms high in the air and fire up towering slopes so they can do pirouettes and somersaults and flying moves in mid-air.
It’s not unlike some of the new X-Games style events at the Olympics, including the aerial freestyle events. But it seems more dangerous to me somehow, perhaps because the bike is involved.
Whatever the dangers, the athletes seem to take it all in stride. A flat tire at the wrong moment or a busted wrist seems to be met with an attitude of “Bummer, man.” Not that I mean these guys and girls are slackers. They talk the language of California mellow speak pretty well, but they’re competitive and dedicated and incredibly brave people. They know the risks they take. And they know things can go wrong in the blink of a mud-splattered eye.
The winner of the slopestyle race, which has some unbelievable jumps, was Brandon Semenuk of Whistler. The bronze medallist was Brett Rheeder of Toronto. Canadian Casey Brown of Revelsoke B.C. won the women’s “whip off” event.
The event runs in Whistler this year from Aug. 10-21. And there’s an event in France at Les Gets from June 15-19.
I didn’t partake in the downhill bike race in Rotorua, but I did try the Skyline luge run, where you slide down various runs on a plastic sled. You can get up a pretty good head of steam, even on the introductory run (they have three levels, and first-timers have to use the easiest one), but it’s also easy to slow yourself as you glide down Mt. Ngongotaha.
Rotorua is the centre for a lot of tourist activities, including bungee and zorbing, where folks (I have no idea why) roll down hills inside of giant plastic balls. It’s also an area riddled with steam vents and geysers, including the Pohutu Geyser, located at the Te Puia Maori centre.
I loved the music and the explanations of Maori culture the locals put on. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but at the end they had audience members come up and stick out their tongues and imitate the famous Maori haka dance/ceremony. You’ll also find an arts and crafts centre where they’ll explain their work and a wood-carving centre, where they were working on a massive World War I fixture when I visited.The mountains or hills in around Rotorua are famous for thick forests of California redwoods, which grow much faster here than in the U.S. and subsequently aren’t good for timber/building purposes. They recently finished filming an update of the movie Pete’s Dragon in the region (with Ron Howard directing and a group of stars that include Robert Redford). I got to check out the area two ways; on a bike ride through the woods and on a relatively new attraction called the Redwoods Treewalk, which features 21 suspension bridges situated up to 12 metres above the ground. I don’t like heights but I wasn’t bothered at all by the slight sway. The ferns below and the towering redwoods are gorgeous.
For more active types, the Mountain Bike Rotorua centre is truly wondrous; acres and acres of land with some 160 kilometres of trails for all levels. They have some really fun routes, including some with big dips and jumps if that’s your thing, and others that are much more gentle and easy.
The scenery is lovely and soft and the scent of pine and redwood a great way to wake up in the morning, or to regain your senses after a tough day at the office.
I was also lucky enough to get a couple hours at the Polynesian Spa, located on the shores of Lake Rotorua. They have several outdoor pools of various temperatures, all heated by natural hot springs in the region. I also had a fantastic massage with a mud wrap that was caked all over my body with a bit of local honey thrown in. I haven’t had anything like it before, and it left my skin feeling wonderfully soft and smooth. Sadly, I was on my own on the trip with nobody to show off to.
The spa is a short walk from my hotel for the Crankworx Event, the Sudima. It’s a nice property that’s right on the lake and less than a one minute walk to downtown shops and restaurants. I had a great lamb burger with beetroot and some fine local beer at a pub called the Pig and Whistle and got to sample a magnificent buffet at Stratosfare Restaurant, located at the top of the mountain at Skyline. They had massive beef ribs that looked like Fred Flintstone would have in the opening credits of the cartoon show.
Towering redwoods. Mountain bikes. Killer spas. Spouting geysers. Maori culture. And good food. There’s a reason the Rotorua area is so popular with visitors to New Zealand.
Thanks again to Air New Zealand for getting me there in back in style.