Fifty Years of Rich History – Polynesian Rotorua Spa Celebrates Milestone This Month

Outside the hall baths. Photo / Provided

Members of the Polynesian Spa team say they are “beyond delighted” to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the tourist destination of Rotorua this month.

The geothermal spa marks its milestone with a recap of its journey from natural healing springs to today’s geothermal hot springs and spa therapy destination.

Managing Director Gert Taljaard said: “I am beyond delighted to celebrate with everyone 50 years of Polynesian Spa”.

He says it’s gratifying to know that 50 years ago, the founders of this company had a vision – and were willing to invest in that vision – that turned a then dilapidated facility into an internationally recognized spa.

“We operate in Rotorua and employ local people first, as well as providing excellent opportunities for our Rotorua customers to profit from the product.

“We hope telling our story will further encourage our local community to continue enjoying our variety of products and appreciating the fact that they have a world-class facility right here in their city.”

Gert says that as international travel returns, Polynesian Spa will continue to deliver its product and find ways to improve the experience for all of its customers.

“We also hope our business can employ more local people as the market recovers.”

He says: “We are grateful for the continued support of the Rotorua community.”

The Polynesian Spa’s celebrations include a limited edition Mud and Manuka gelato, which will be available for its anniversary year.

This hand-churned ice cream was developed for the spa by Hannah Wood, of Little Lato, and is a cheeky play on the spa’s signature mud treatments and products, as well as the geographic elements found on its site.

Manuka gelato is topped with pieces of brownie rocks in a dark waffle cone with gold flakes to celebrate its golden anniversary.

The celebrations also include an exclusive open house for annual passholders today, a Facebook giveaway for a wellness group getaway worth $1,550, and 50 gold tickets for monthly sign-ups in May that will give bonus entry to luxury spas.

History of the shipyard

Before the geothermal wonders of Rotorua brought tourism to the city, the local Te Arawa iwi recognized the healing properties of the waters. For centuries they have used the mud rich in iron oxide to treat wounds and the healing waters to relieve aches and pains.

Geothermal waters are sacred taonga (treasures) for the Maori which must be protected and preserved by the kaitiaki (guardians).

In 1878, Father James Mahoney, an Irish Catholic priest who suffered from rheumatism, was flown from Tauranga to Rotorua to soak in the waters of Te Pupūnitanga hot spring.

After a few months of spring soaking, Father Mahoney reported that the discomfort of his condition was gone.

News of the spring’s healing properties caused settlers to flock to Rotorua, seeking the miracle of the water for themselves.

Te Pupūnitanga’s spring later became known as the Priest’s Bath.

Rotorua in 1970, showing the art deco interior of the Ward Baths.  Photo / Provided
Rotorua in 1970, showing the art deco interior of the Ward Baths. Photo / Provided

The first baths

The first bathhouse on the site of the Priest’s Bath, and later the Polynesian Spa, was the Pavilion Bathhouse opened in 1882.

Development continued, with the opening of the Duchess Bath in honor of the Duchess of Cornwall and York who visited in 1901.

The Pavilion and Duchess Baths later closed due to their state of decay and were replaced by the Ward Baths in 1931, named after New Zealand Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward, who had a passion for geothermal waters.

Business development begins

Polynesian Pools Ltd was officially founded in 1968 by Neville Lobb, who left his position as chief executive of the New Zealand National Travel Association for 19 years to take over swimming pools.

The Lobb family and their investment partners, Rangatira Ltd, have converted the dilapidated Ward Baths, ending 90 years of government involvement in bathhouses.

Renovation plans included 20 private pools, a coffee lounge, gift shop and group facilities.

The plans introduced a new era of public baths open to both men and women to enjoy simultaneously and an AIX therapy space.

The New Polynesian Pools officially opened at Easter 1972 and saw 2,000 visitors a day in its first weekend.

Polynesian Pools was renamed Polynesian Spa in 1996, coinciding with the opening of the Lake Spa Retreat featuring 10 therapy rooms offering a variety of mineral water and AIX mud therapies, massages and beauty treatments .

Additionally, five shallow lakeside thermal pools have opened up among lush vegetation, rocks, and mini waterfalls, all overlooking Sulfur Bay.

Over the past 25 years, investments and development of geothermal and hydrotherapy services have continued. For example, installing recliners heated by geothermal energy and a plunge pool with cold water.

Two springs supply the pools of the Polynesian Spa, the Priest Spring and the Rachel Spring. The slightly acidic waters of the Priest spring soothe tired muscles, aches and pains, while the alkaline waters of the Rachel spring nourish the skin.

The Priest and Radium Pools closed for swimming in 2003. However, due to their cultural significance, the pools remain in place and are protected by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, with their water supplying the current pools, maintaining the important historic link .

Following Neville Lobb’s retirement as Managing Director in 1986, his son Martin Lobb returned from overseas and took over the role until 2012 when he stepped down.
He remains one of four directors of the company.

Gert Taljaard became Managing Director of Polynesian Spa in 2015, bringing his tourism expertise acquired in the hotel sector.

Polynesian spa today.  Photo / Provided
Polynesian spa today. Photo / Provided

The Polynesian Spa today

Despite Covid-19 and global shutdowns, Polynesian Spa has persevered and withstood operational and travel challenges.

Gert says it is an honor to lead Polynesian Spa through one of the most difficult times in New Zealand tourism.

“Ensuring the survival of the spa and carrying on its legacy has been essential for us to continue its important history and to respect the importance of the spa to the local Rotorua community.”

Today, Polynesian Spa continues to be recognized as one of the top 10 spas in the world.

Richard F. Gandhi