There was a hair floating in the water. Not just any hair…that type of hair. The kind that is short and black and curly. And it wasn’t alone. To top it off, the water and air wafting about it smelled of egg, rotten egg. We were soaking in the hot springs of Rotorua in New Zealand…and despite what I just mentioned, I loved it. Apparently my mother has told me that I’m not very good at making people want to visit the travel destinations that I write about, I wonder where she gets this idea.
Based on a recent trip to Calistoga, an hour north of my hometown, I’m going to focus my next few posts on all things hot springs and massage, a world tour of relaxation destinations and my awkward experiences with them, so sit back and enjoy as I dip my toe back into this sulfur-infused hot tub of memories.
The year was 2008 and I was on my first and only Contiki tour visiting the north and south islands of New Zealand before I returned home to start my teaching credential program. Contiki Tours claim to fame is that it is only offered to people between the ages of 18-35 but it has a tendency to slant towards the younger end with more people averaging 21 than say 32. I was smack in the middle at 25. It also has a tendency to skew Australian as they are one of the largest demographics to travel with an expendable income and four weeks of vacation travel a year. Contiki also has a fixed method to help people bond swiftly and tightly. The method is mainly alcohol with planned theme-dress parties and reservations made at large bars with high tolerances. They also start each morning with the same song when you get on the bus. This seems obnoxious at first but feels like magic when that song invariably comes on in whichever bar you’re at that night and your entire group of 30-50 people scream out in one mass cheer, “That’s our song!” It’s calculated but it works.
Basically, it didn’t take long for me to have a crew of Australians of somewhat varying ages that I hung with on the reg (I was 25 at the time, let me talk like I’m young and cool). We had most dinners together, planned our extra excursions together and planned to share a room at each hotel that we moved to like we were college roommates on the first day of school. So why not soak in a warm tub full of pubes together too.
When coach touring, almost every day has an excursion planned or a destination that you are moving towards. It is very similar to a cruise ship but on land. Every once in awhile, you are given a chance to explore. Most likely, you will ask your tour guide what you should do and they will give you a suggestion from their list. It is probably a place that they have a partnership with to help that tourist attraction get visitors. Our free day in Rotorua was no exception.
We were off to the Polynesian Spa for a soak in their natural hot springs. We had been at a hāngi the night before and needed to relax after all those “traditional” cocktails and stretched facial muscles from trying to impersonate the warriors pūkana, or facial expressions, which they perform during a haka. Rotorua is part of a volcanic plateau in the North Island and all that volcanic activity makes for a lot of thermal activity. The town is actually known for it’s putrid smell as the gas escapes constantly from the thin layer of crust and there is no avoiding it. Rotorua is also one of the Maori’s original habitats and home to the Te Arawa tribe. All together this makes the city home to a number of different hot spring choices as well as visits to traditional Maori cultural experiences.
At our chosen hot spring, four of us rented a “Deluxe Private Spa” and were ushered down a corridor to our very own numbered door. At first you feel like you are inside any regular resort spa but when the door opens wide you have suddenly stepped through a wardrobe into a different version of Narnia. On the other side of your door is the outside. There is an artificial rock pool but real thermal hot springs water pumped in and on the other side of that rock pool is the real thing, the actual gurgling water escaping from the ground into a large lagoon filled with real rocks and real birds. Our private “room” is separated from other rooms by wood screens on either side but with the back open wide to take in the scenery. It took all my willpower to not hop over the rock ledge and go running after the birds, rubbing the natural mud over my face and chest and performing my own version of a warrior dance.
Instead, I sat down and stayed in the water and after a short amount of time started to notice what floated around me. How were these natural pools cleaned out? What did private mean when renting a private pool? Was it implied that most people did the nasty when soaking in these tubs? Maybe the pubes were the least of my concerns. Can you get impregnated by a hot tub? These are not the questions one should ask while vacationing. So I didn’t. I sat back, I relaxed. I tried to ignore the smell and take in the view. My new Australian friends and I joked a little and talked about some of the excursions we’d like to do during the rest of the trip. I learned about their histories and our shared interest. Three of us were teachers. I stopped and appreciated the moment. I stopped to smell the sulfur.
Featured Image from Morguefile user kconnors