While the idea of thermal springs as health resorts has waxed and waned, their lure for those intent on relaxation has never really diminished. From the 1920s on, roads improved and increasingly New Zealanders had cars. Remote hot springs became more accessible.
Outdoor pursuits including mixed bathing appealed to family and social groups, and during the 1920s and 1930s some thermal resorts constructed large swimming pools. At Rotorua the Blue and Ward swimming baths became extremely popular from the early 1930s. Mōrere and Te Puia on the North Island’s East Coast, Crystal Springs and Opal Springs near Matamata, Waingaro Hot Springs near Hamilton, the AC Baths at Taupō, Miranda Hot Springs on the Firth of Thames, Parakai and Kamo north of Auckland, and Awakeri in the Bay of Plenty were just some of the well-known swimming destinations in the following four decades.
The less energetic opted to soak in hot pools, particularly those in scenic surroundings such as Ōkoroire near Matamata and Hot Water Beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. Pools deep in the bush or off the beaten track were prized by tired trampers. Welcome Flat hot pools, 17 kilometres up the Copland River in Westland National Park, were a bush walker’s oasis – three shallow pools lined with thick green mud.
Some pools have proved to be dangerous. Between 1901 and 1920 several bathers died at covered baths at Kamo, suffocating when carbon dioxide displaced the oxygen in the confined space. High concentrations of hydrogen sulfide gas have killed a number of people using pools in the Rotorua area. And there were nine fatal cases of amoebic meningitis between 1968 and 2000. The amoeba Naegleria fowleri lives in soil surrounding unlined or natural hot pools and can sometimes be found in the water. Diving into such pools or even immersing the head can force water up the nose, allowing the amoeba to invade the brain. Untreated geothermal water is no longer used in swimming pools, and bathers are warned to keep their heads above water in natural pools.
From the late 19th century, bottling mineral water was big business. Popular brands included Waiwera Seltzer (marketed as ‘a medicinal, invigorating and cooling draught and purifier of the blood’ 1), Puriri Natural Mineral Water, Wai Aroha, and Lemon and Te Aroha. Better known today is Lemon and Paeroa, or L&P, a soft drink. Named after the town where the spring was located, the drink has been a New Zealand favourite since 1907.
The amoebic meningitis scare led to the upgrading of some pools that had become rundown or dangerous. In addition, many were restored through investment by private companies or local bodies. Today some thermal resorts are enjoying a boom. Visitor numbers at Hanmer Springs Thermal Pools and Spa more than doubled between 1991/92 (238,183) and 2003/04 (495,015). Similarly, numbers visiting Waiwera Thermal Resort north of Auckand have risen from 260,000 in 1995 to 350,000 in 2005.
Facilities such as water slides are an added attraction for tourists and holidaymakers. The showcasing of Māori traditional knowledge and history gives unique character to some redeveloped pools such as Hell’s Gate–Wai Ora Spa at Rotorua and Tokaanu Thermal Baths. The spa concept has also been revived – health and beauty treatments are offered at former government spas such as the Polynesian Spa in Rotorua and Hanmer Springs. Once again, hot pools are seen as places of both relaxation and healing.