• Rotorua’s Geothermal History

Rotorua is part of the Taupo Volcanic Zone, a geothermal field extending from White Island off the Bay of Plenty Coast to Mt Ruapehu far to the south.

Geothermal features include volcanic crater lakes, spouting geysers, bubbling mud pools, hissing fumaroles, colourful sinter terraces, hot waters and much more which are sure to impress

Rotorua’s volcanic activity has drawn visitors to the geothermal wonders since the 1800s.

Maori geothermal legends

There are few places in the world where geothermal phenomena of such intensity, is as extensive and easily seen as here in Rotorua. To those in the past who had none of the science or technology that we have today, this bounty of nature must indeed have been regarded as a gift from the gods.

  • The earliest legends speak of a man named Ngatoroirangi, a tohunga (priest) who guided the Te Arawa canoe to this country. Exploring the area, he climbed one of the central North Island’s mountains Tongariro.  At its snowy peak, he nearly died – so he called on his sisters in far off in Hawaiki who sent the fire demons to go to their brother’s aid. In every place the fire demons surfaced on the way, they left a steaming, bubbling trail of thermal activity in their wake, till they reached and revived him. He named the mountain Tongariro to commemorate the cold south wind that almost killed him. And so it is that volcanic and thermal activity came to the region and Rotorua’s Te Arawa tribe became its guardian. Source: Te Whakarewarewa by Don Stafford.
  • The Maori people consider themselves guardians of the geothermal resource. Every one of the hot mineral springs that bubble up in Rotorua is known and named by Maori.
  • The waters are known as Waiariki, itself a term of high honour. It means water of the gods although it is interpreted as hot spring. These waters are also regarded by Maori as treasures – taonga.

A Rich Geothermal History at Polynesian Spa

Polynesian Spa has been an icon of the Rotorua tourism industry since it was established in 1972. The world-leading natural hot mineral bathing and spa treatment facility was built on the site of historic bath houses for which the city first became world famous in the 1800s.

Starting out with 13 pools, Polynesian Pools (former name), was immediately a famous destination, drawing people from all over the world. As the new millennium approached, demand for a more deluxe product experience increased which led to the introduction of our relaxation therapies and the rebranding to today’s Polynesian Spa in 1996

The Spa continues to evolve and focus on health and wellness, introducing passive and active bathing experiences for increased immunity and greater energy levels.

At Polynesian Spa, elements of early buildings and baths have been carefully retained and the site is registered by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

A bit about our story

Since the mid-1800’s – where Father Mahoney, a rheumatic priest from Tauranga was “cured” after bathing in the springs over three months (and who inspired the name of our historic Priest’s Pool we have on site today) – Rotorua has been home to a thermal bathing experience like no other.

It’s safe to say a few upgrades have been made since these early days, when locals hand-dug holes and make-shift ‘pools’ in the ground to make the most of the healing mineral properties of the thermal springs. Today, we have a world-class, world-renowned geothermal spa complex – and here’s a few highlights from the journey to where we are today:

1882: The Pavilion Bath – the first Government-run bath house – opens, attracting bathers from near and far to cure their ailments, and in 1888 is re-named as the Priest Bath

1901: The Duchess Bath opens to provide an upscale bathhouse, coincided with a royal visit from the Duchess of Cornwall and York

1903: The government’s Department of Tourist and Health Resorts agrees that a new building should be developed, with a vision to be ‘The Spa of the South Seas’

1930’s: Named after the first Minister of Health Resorts, the Ward Baths open, alongside an upgrade of the Priest and Duchess Baths and revolutionary spa treatments such as water spray massages and warm-air rooms

1972: Rotorua’s Ward Baths re-opens in an exciting new chapter, as ‘Polynesian Pools’ – a world-class amenity with two large pools featuring the famous Rachel Spring’s soft alkaline mineral water, eight pools fed by the Priest and Radium springs with their soothing and stimulating sulphuric waters and an additional 14 private pools.

This modern development is a far cry from the dilapidated prior facility, and ushers in a new era of bathing, complete with a coffee lounge, souvenir shop, and facilities for coach groups, and is where our current history begins.

1996: The complex rebrands as Polynesian Spa to coincide with the opening of a luxurious Lake Spa Retreat featuring 10 therapy rooms, offering a variety of mineral water and mud therapies, massage, and beauty treatments.

1999: Family Pools area has a major upgrade with two new geothermal pools and hydroslide.

2004: Three new Priest Pools are built, and in 2016, a new Lakeside Rachel Pool was added to the Pavilion Pools area to maximise absolute lakeside views for guests.

2017: Our revamped and rebranded 88Ra café and spa entrance opens.

2022: Polynesian Spa celebrates our 50th year – and we look forward to what’s ahead!


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Polynesian Spa works with a range of community groups and organisations around Rotorua and New Zealand. Check out what we have been up to lately.

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World Luxury Spa Awards: 2023 Winner of Best Luxury Hot Springs, Best Luxury Lakeside

World Luxury Spa Awards: 2023 Winner of Best Luxury Hot Springs, Best Luxury Lakeside

Spa, Best Luxury Mineral Springs Spa for Australsia & Oceania

Spa, Best Luxury Mineral Springs Spa for Australsia & Oceania

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Lux Life Winner for Most Relaxing Hot Springs Experience 2023 Australasia

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Top10 Geothermal and Medical Spa Awards: Winner four times

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Luxury Travel Guides Spa of the Year: Winner two times