This beautifully peaceful lake has a violent history. One of several large volcanoes in the Rotorua region, its underlying magma chamber collapsed after a massive eruption around 200,000 years ago. The collapse created a circular caldera about 16 kilometres wide, which filled with water to form the North Island's second largest lake.
Geothermal activity continues below and around Lake Rotorua. Clouds of steam drift around the shore and the water has a high sulphur content, resulting in a magical green-blue colouration.
Mokoia Island, in the centre of the lake, is a rhyolite dome formed by slowly oozing lava. This island was the setting for one of New Zealand's greatest love stories - the tale of Hinemoa and Tutanekai.
The beautiful maiden Hinemoa was the daughter of an influential chief. She lived on the eastern shores of Lake Rotorua and was regarded puhi (sacred), which meant that her tribe would choose her husband. Many suitors came seeking her hand, but none met the approval of her tribe.
On Mokoia Island lived a family of several brothers including Tutanekai, the youngest. At a tribal gathering, where young warriors practiced their fighting skills, Tutanekai saw Hinemoa and fell in love. Tutanekai's weaponry prowess and good looks caught Hinemoa's eye, and she too was smitten. However, neither could see a future together - Tutanekai was considered too lowly born to wed Hinemoa.
Poor, sad Tutanekai would sit on the shores of the island playing sorrowful music on his flute. The music would waft across the lake to where Hinemoa waited forlornly. Aware of what was going on, Hinemoa's people made a practice of pulling the tribe's heavy canoes all the way up the beach. But they didn't count on Hinemoa's ingenuity.
One night Hinemoa fashioned a life-belt from empty gourds and swam towards the sound of Tutanekai's flute. She finally made it to Mokoia Island and headed straight for the island's hot pool, Waikimihia, to recover from her cold swim.
While she was warming herself, Tutanekai's slave came down to the pool to fetch water. In a gruff voice, Hinemoa called ‘Mo wai te wai?’ (For whom is the water?). The slave answered ‘Mo Tutanekai’ (For Tutanekai). Hinemoa grabbed the calabash he was carrying and smashed it on the side of the pool.
When the slave returned to Tutanekai and told him what had happened, Tutanekai went to investigate. The two lovers were at last united, and Hinemoa's tribe accepted Tutanekai as her husband. A very happy ending.
Today the history and natural beauty of Mokoia Island can be explored on a guided tour. Visitors can also enjoy a soak in Waikimihia (now known as Hinemoa's Pool), on the south eastern side of the island.