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The best things in life are free

If you’re looking for a great summer escape but the budget is tighter than your waistband after Christmas dinner, Rotorua is the answer. There are loads of free things to do, plus it’s a relatively short drive to get there. So pack the bags, throw the family in the car and head over for some holiday fun.

Beautiful lakes

If you love being in or on the water, 16 of the Rotorua region's 18 sparkling lakes are open to public use, and all without spending a single cent. Lakes Tikitapu (aka Blue Lake), Okareka and Tarawera are a few of the locals' favourites.

The lakes are great for cruising by boat, kayak, canoe, packraft or stand-up paddleboard to see the beautiful tree-lined shores, family baches, and lots of water fowl.

Many of the lakes can be enjoyed via free trails and walkways, too.

The boardwalk at Lake Okareka takes you through native vegetation, farmland, lake and wetland scenery, and features expansive views and wildlife, including our much-loved dabchicks.

The wood boardwalk is flat and wide, easily accessible for pushchairs.

The Blue Lake Track at Lake Tikitapu encircles the lake on undulating terrain, mostly in the bush with a couple of beaches thrown in.

Dogs are welcome on a leash.

A tranquil forest

The beautiful Whakarewarewa Forest is arguably one of the best assets in Rotorua. Walk, run or mountain bike among thousands of giant Californian redwoods, take in the natural beauty, admire the flora and fauna, and enjoy the cool, fresh air.

Wide, sweeping, pushchair-friendly and well-signed tracks of varying lengths allow you to spend half an hour or half a day there and it won't cost you a thing.

Picture-perfect parks

Government Gardens is another great place to get some fresh air while stretching your legs. Rotorua Museum, the Blue Baths, the Klamath Falls Rose Gardens, historic Te Runanga Tearooms and the Band Rotunda are all located here.

Klamath Falls Rose Gardens on Queens Drive are named after Klamath Falls in Oregon, USA — a sister city to Rotorua. Beautiful roses are in bloom from mid-November to June.

Near the centre of town you can explore Kuirau Park, New Zealand's only public geothermal park. Natural hot springs, bubbling mud pools, stunning gardens and even a crater lake are set among beautifully curated grounds. Take time to soak your feet in the recently renovated geothermal foot baths, a lovely way to relax.

More commonly known by locals as the Tree Trust, Centennial Park offers 20 hectares of beautiful, grassy, tree-dotted rolling hills and gullies. Sheep are the eco-friendly groundskeepers here, so be sure to close any gates you go through.

Mighty mountains

Rainbow Mountain can be tackled by mountain bike or on foot. It takes the average person on foot about an hour and a half to reach the summit. At the summit, of this amazing geothermal mountain, with crater lakes and coloured, steaming earth, 360-degree views reveal Mount Tarawera, three lakes, forests, ranges and even the volcanic peaks of Mount Tongariro to the south.

The first part of the Mount Ngongotahā Nature Loop Track to Jubilee Track follows an easy grade through native bush that features one of the largest rata trees (40 metres tall) in the Bay of Plenty, plus a viewing platform. The track then becomes moderately steep as you near the summit. Once you reach Mountain Road, keep going — it's just a short walk from there to the summit.

Before you leave home

If possible, load up your family's bikes — even the balance bikes. Apart from Whakarewarewa Forest, Rotorua is mostly flat. Bike lanes and shared-use paths and sidewalks through town make it easy to see the city via pedal power.

If you don't have your own bikes, several shops hire out nearly every type and size of bicycle, including electric bikes.

To see the beautiful countryside, four key geothermal areas and the 51km Te Ara Ahi national cycle trail, which is almost entirely off-road, bikes are your best mode of transport.

If it's chilled and meandering paths through the forest you'd like to try, or if you're a shredder from way back, nearly 200km of purpose-built, gold-status mountain bike trails await you in Whakarewarewa Forest, including a Kid's Loop.

There are trails for every level of rider, there's never a fee to ride, and the trails are always open.

Check first

All of these public facilities offer plenty of free parking, playgrounds, picnic areas with BBQs, and public toilets, but it pays to check ahead to ensure you're prepared.

Te Ara Ahi — Pathway of fire cycling trail. Picture above by Adrian Hodge, all other pictures in this gallery supplied by Destination Rotorua
Family fun . . . mountain biking in the Redwoods.
Rainbow Mountain features crater lakes and magically-coloured, steaming earth.
Rotorua Museum in Government Gardens.
Beautiful, tranquil Whakarewarewa Forest.
An aerial shot of Kuirau Park, New Zealand's only public geothermal park.
Family fun . . . mountain biking in the Redwoods.
An aerial shot of Kuirau Park, New Zealand's only public geothermal park.
Rotorua Museum in Government Gardens.