ROTORUA, NEW ZEALAND — Why is it that the less money we spend, the more fun we have?

After two nights at the posh Chateau Tongariro, we drove through Taupo to the Rotorua area and a campsite on Lake Terawera that Beth reserved because Taupo was booked solid that Saturday night.

The best-known Hot Water Beach in New Zealand is on the Coromandel Peninsula, where tourists rent shovels and dig holes in the sand two hours before or after low tide to make little hot tubs. We were there three hours after low tide, and there were a lot of people but not much else.

The less-known Hot Water Beach is near Rotorua, and it proves the rule we first learned walking to Seerenbach Falls, Switzerland’s tallest but barely known waterfall: If tourists can’t drive to it, it doesn’t really exist.

You have to hike the 15-kilometer Terawera Trail, reserve a water taxi or use private boat to get to Hot Water Beach, across the lake from Mount Terawera. It’s a still-active volcano that erupted in 1886 and obliterated New Zealand’s most famous tourist attraction at the time, the Pink and White Terrace hot springs, as well as Maori villages along the lake.

We took the water taxi and found ourselves at the base of a jungly sandstone cliff, with the campsite closest to a lake spa created by rocks that walled in most of the hot water from a stream. Kids were lounging in the spa and didn’t seem to be boiling like lobsters, so Beth — not seeing the “Caution, Hot Water Burns” signs — dipped her toe into the stream. Ouch!

Turns out the rock wall was just low enough to allow the cold lake water to cool it down. We hung out next to it and a bit farther long the shore, where steam was rising where another hot stream entered the lake. We felt like Goldilocks, looking for spots that were not too hot, not too cold, but just right.

One family was hard-boiling eggs in the pool where hot water emerged from the cliff, and another had buried oven bags full of lamb shanks and potatoes in the sand, using it like a crockpot. Our new friend Peter came over to cook sweet corn in the husk, and later he came over and shared it with us.

peter-corn
Our friend Peter cooking corn in a hot spring.

It was easy to make friends on the beach, where nearly everyone was a Kiwi who had arrived by private boat and set up big tent camps with friends and family. Three couples were sitting in chairs just above our tent; two had lived 10 years in Austin, Texas, and one had grown up in Belgium. For the world-traveling Kiwis, par for the course.

Peter had lived in London and Australia and traveled around the U.S. for year. We met him when a pair of German hikers arrived at the beach, expecting to take the water taxi back but not knowing it was reservation-only. They were in trouble – it was 5:30 p.m., it’s a four-hour hike back, and they were out of water and food.

We gave them the liter of water the ferry captain had sent to us, which they gratefully drank, and some trail mix. Then Peter, overhearing their consultations with Jason the campground host, came to the rescue and took the Germans back to the landing in his boat.

And early the next morning, he showed up to take us to Champagne Spa, where Jason had created an even nicer spot to lounge next to a hot-water vent, in water that seemed always just-right.

It was pure luxury sitting in the “spa,” lined with boulders, and also swimming in the cold, calm water of the bay in early-morning solitude.

After 40 minutes, Peter came to pick us up and dropped off his 11-year-old son and two friends, who promptly climbed halfway up the cliff and jumped into the water. Then we motored around the bay to look at yet another Jason-built spa just inland.

Back at the beach, we sat outside our tent, eating muffins and watching boaters coming and going and the water taxi dropping off day-trippers. We’d planned to hike back with our packs, but instead we put them on the water taxi – a bargain at $10 – and took off, with water bottles refilled by our beach neighbors, to hike 15 up-and-down kilometers through “bush” as Kiwis call it.

campsite
Our campsite (No.4) on Hot Water Beach. Our site was away from the center of camp and closest to the hot springs.

We’d call it jungle, full of silver fern, which grows like a palm tree but sprouts umbrella-like fronds of ferns that are a national icon and also the symbol of the All Blacks, the beloved national rugby team. Incongruously, there were also dozens of clumps of pink foxglove, a garden flower.

We arrived at the landing nearly four hours later, hot, sweaty and  happy. At the landing cafe,  a big cup of cappuccino and a fat slice of Black Forest torte took care of Beth’s caffeine deprivation  — Torsten had apple cake and orange-pineapple juice — and we lingered on the shaded deck, watching the holiday-weekend activity.

Finally, we drove back to Taupo. “I’m so relaxed that I don’t even want to drive fast,” Torsten remarked – and friends, that’s really saying something!

Our hotel in Taupo had a spa, too – the fiberglass kind with jets – and a little deck with a view of Lake Taupo, one of the best-known resort areas in New Zealand. But already we were missing our rustic little spot on Hot Water Beach.