Even underwater, I can feel my butt wobbling. Like a fire hose, the jet pressure is clearing a wake of everything in its path, which right now happens to be my Gluteus Maximus. Whilst I do appreciate the nozzles body contouring attempts at hydrotherapy, I decide to move a little to the right to allow the stream of water to dig into my thigh. “Ahhh, that’s better.”
Onsen, hot springs, mineral streams or healing waters – what ever you like to call them, the benefits of underground mineral waters have been recorded on every continent for centuries. Before the days of high-tech spa treatments; wellness seekers, the disease ridden and even royalty visited thermal pools for their therapeutic benefits which are said to originate from volcanic geothermal hot spots or fault lines in the earths surface that seep minerals from deep in the core.
The mineral compounds in hot springs vary from location to location and so too are the healing properties. Spring water high in Lithium is said to relieve depression and aid digestion; waters rich in iron help to benefit the blood and immune system, while sulphur and sulphate rich waters address skin infections, inflammation and respiratory problems. Saline hot springs rich in sodium chloride are considered by some to be beneficial for rheumatic conditions, central nervous system disorders or postoperative procedures, while Bicarbonate water assists with hypertension and opens blood vessels to improve circulation.
My global dips in medicinal waters have entailed visits to Pamukale in Turkey, the Black Forest in Germany, San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, Bath in England, Kobe in Japan, Ecotermales in Costa Rica and even natural hot springs in outback Australia. One place said to have many natural hot pools, thanks to its geographic history is New Zealand. So here I am on a super-soak journey uncovering the best geothermal retreats for modern-day soakers on the South Island.
The Māori call the springs and pools of New Zealand ‘waiariki’ and use them for warmth as well as natural healing properties. Long ago, the Māori also used many boiling springs (Ngāwhā) for cooking and cleaning – although I wont be boiling any eggs on my hot pool travels this trip.
Hanmar Springs Thermal Pools
One of the most popular hot springs of the country, Hanmer Springs is an easy day trip from the city of Christchurch, taking just under two hours through beautiful countryside to get here. From a meager bathing pool in 1850 to today’s 2015 thermal pool theme park, Hanmer has certainly grown in size and popularity to become a mineral-based modern day tourist attraction.
Early Māori used the springs known as Te Whakatakataka O te Ngearehu O Ahi Tamatea – “where the ashes of Tamatea’s fire lay,” to warm themselves and rest whilst travelling overland between the east and west coasts. In Māori legend the springs were created when Māori traveller, Tamatea asked the northern volcanoes to save their travel party. A ball of flames appeared from the volcanoes and travelled from the river to the sea with pieces flying through the sky and turning to ash. It’s at one of these spots where the ash fell to the earth that formed Hanmer Springs.
Kicking back, alpine style in a region known as a relaxation destination for thousands of years is certainly a nice way to unwind. Thanks to an enormous alpine fault that created the Southern Alps, this hot spring resort with a backdrop of tree clad mountain escarpments offers three types of thermal pools – sulphur, mineral and freshwater.
Drawn from a ground bore, the mineral rich waters are kept as natural as possible and are said to contain a variety of minerals including calcium, sulfur, sodium chloride, carbonates, potassium and magnesium to relive the pain from arthritis. The mineral waters are then mixed with freshwater to create a variety of pools with different temperatures.
Aside from the many public pools, there are also private indoor pools and other mineral themed activities for kids and families including water slides, a fresh water lap pool and the ‘lazy river’. Today the facility is busy so I decide to avoid the queue for the slide and wallow in the popular hexagon shaped concrete-lined pools at a balmy 38 degrees.
Indoors there are spa themed experiences of a different kind with massages, facials, scrubs and body treatments on offer, although, as forest trails weave their way skywards, I decide to finish my afternoon outdoors stewing in three of the 12 open-air mineral pools. At 40 degrees, the sulphur pool is a knockout with a smell that starts wrinkling not just my toes but also my nose. It’s great, so I decide to linger for longer and I’m well rewarded all afternoon with silky smooth skin.
Glacier Hot Pools
I journey via the TransAlpine railway across the breadth of the island to the West Coast where 39 degree day temperatures are replaced by wet, grey and stormy skies. Loaded up in my winter woolies I make my way south to Franz Josef, a small town in the middle of glacier country.
I have come to hike the ancient ice rivers that cut their way through the valleys. The spectacular sight is a bucket list highlight of my trip to New Zealand. Due to global warming the glaciers are fast receding and a crampon-strapped walk through their blue-tinged crevasses are now only accessible by helicopter. Unfortunately, the grey soaked skies and misty covered mountains mean that all glacier walks are cancelled today. Instead, I take the three hour round trip along the valley floor to sight the face of the 7000-year-old, 12 km long ice block carving its way through the rainforest.
Whist the non-glacier experience was a little disappointing; my spirits are warmed as I sink my cold and wet feet into the steamy mineral waters at Franz Josef Glacier Hot Pools. Just one-block from the village centre, the hot pool complex offers a tranquil setting against a backdrop of giant ferns and boulders within the UNESCO World Heritage Westland National Park. The drifting mist and light rain only adding to the afternoons’ ambiance.
With a choice of three outdoor pools from 36-40 degree temperatures, I settle in 38-degrees to defrost my bones. While it might occasionally be hard to find your own little thermal pool corner, it is a nice way to get to know other fellow travellers – a couple from Malaysia, a French man cycling the length of the country, a group of hikers here to soak their tired legs and a couple from Holland on a romantic getaway.
I find a peaceful spot alongside the rainforest where I can lean on the ledge and take deep breaths of fresh air before turning again toward the rising steamy waters. I am particularly interested in viewing the three private pools that were titled by the local Te Runanga o Makaawhoi Māori tribe. With fabulous names like ‘the reviving waters’ (Te Wai Whakahaumanu), ‘the easing waters’ (Te Wai Whakawai) and ‘the tending waters’ (Te Wai Taurima) I am intrigued as to their therapeutic benefits. The site, however, is currently under construction and ‘receiving a facelift,’ the receptionist informs me, so the private pools and massage room are not available.
Unlike Hanmar Springs, the Glacier Hot Pools it turns out are not natural thermal springs. Instead, the water comes from the glaciers known by local Maori as Kã Roimata o Hinehukukatere (frozen tears of Hinehukuatere’s lost love) and go through a heating process before entering the three zones. This means that visitors can, in fact, put their head under the water if they so choose to. I decide not to give it a go, given the soggy Band-Aid that has just floated past me.
Research shows that hot pools even without high mineral content are still therapeutic. Immersion in hot water raises the body temperature and causes the blood vessels to dilate, resulting in increased circulation. Together with the buoyancy of water reducing body weight by up to 85% to help relieve the pressure on joints and the energised stream of pressure released by jet nozzles to relax muscles, the result is a release of endorphins, the bodies natural pain relief.
There is no pain relief required here, my cheeks are flushed and I’m sufficiently cooked, so it’s time for me to step back out into the cool air. My relaxing and warming glacier hot pool experience is just what I needed tonight.
Onsen Hot Pools
Heading south along the rough and wild western coast I spend some time in the lovely lakeside village of Wanaka before arriving into the adventure capital of Queenstown.
A shuttle transfer picks us up for the 10 min ride out of the city, hugging the Shotover River. We pass by remnants of gold prospecting days where fragments of tin shacks shake in the breaze and pulley systems that previously transported food and supplies are now used for fishing and small time gold seeking, before arriving at Arthurs Point.
Perched on the edge of a cliff face looking over the Shotover Valley with it’s jetboat and rafting trips below is the stunning setting of the Onsen Hot Pools. Six private rooms, each with a cedar lined Japanese-styled hot tub centerpiece take up to four people and have been purpose built to provide a luxury soak.
A press-of–a-button and the enormous window retracts back into the ceiling to reveal nothing between me and the great outdoors. The postcard panorama is breathtaking. Another touch of a button and the jets are on, pushing forth a mixture of mountain spring water, rain and lake water. But where are the hot minerals? To ensure its pristine quality, I’m told, the water is charged with pure Oxygen, ensuring our baths are crystal clear, chemical and contaminant free.
The hot tubs are very popular with couples – if the Onsen brochure is any indication. Unfortunately, I do not meet my ‘lord of the springs’, but for our fun group of four, the soothing soak is a chance to release the tension in our weary muscles while looking back over our week of south island antics.
The Onsen Hot Pools may not be natural hot springs, however, the facilities, private rooms and customer service are first class, to be matched only by the striking scene before us. After two full days of paragliding, canyoning, mountain hikes, cable car rides, downhill luge races and exploring the city of Queenstown – I think everyone deserves a hot soak with a million dollar view.
My 5 Hot Spring Tips
- Don’t pee in the pool!
- Don’t put your head under the water
- Drink freshwater to rehydrate rather than the mineral waters.
- Take care, with many remote natural springs in New Zealand, some are boiling pools that can burn or contain dissolved minerals that are highly acidic.
- Sit back and enjoy your super soak