Historic Chateau Tongariro – sleeping on a volcano

On our recent trip to Tongariro National Park, we treated ourselves to a night at an historic New Zealand hotel, as a celebration of a successful final year at school and making it through 2020.

The Chateau Tongariro is New Zealand’s only 4-star hotel located in a World Heritage area, tucked at the base of one active volcano and within ash-spitting distance of two others. The following history of the hotel is mainly based on a booklet available at the hotel: Legends & Stories of Bayview Chateau Tongariro (www.chateau.co.nz). All historic images were sourced from the endlessly-fascinating collections at our National Library (https://natlib.govt.nz).

Tongariro National Park is the fourth oldest national park in the world, established in 1894. The Chateau dates back to the 1920s, which shows in some of the décor elements, though the overall Georgian-style channels ‘European alpine resort’ more than art-deco. It must have been a challenge to build, sitting in the middle of the wilderness on a high plateau with winter snow and poor roads.

Credits: (1) New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch. New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch: Chateau Tongariro National Park; best reached by rail. Issued by the Publicity Branch, N.Z. Railways. N.Z. Railways Studios. [Printed by] C.S.W. Ltd, N.Z. [ca 1932]. Ref: Eph-E-TOURISM-ca-1932-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23083829. (2) Chateau Tongariro, and Mount Ruapehu erupting behind. Davis, Bruce Valentine, 1913-2003 :Photographs and negatives. Ref: 35mm-00702-a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22757948

The first skiing on the mountain was recorded in 1913. Presumably most of the early guests travelled on the main trunk railway, which passes near the park. After two decades of hard grind and engineering feats, the ‘last spike’, of polished silver, was driven nearby by the Prime Minister in 1908. The rail journey can still be done today, in much greater comfort, and is well worth the time. We took the train to National Park in winter a few years ago; a relaxing way to get to the ski-field. www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz

The war years were an interesting period in the Chateau’s history. With travel for pleasure no longer possible, the hotel was requisitioned for the patients of the psychiatric hospital at Porirua, which had been damaged in the 1942 earthquake. The fresh air and splendid surroundings must have done wonders for the mental health of the patients. Unfortunately, the 1945 eruption of Mt Ruapehu put an end to what must surely have been the most luxurious hospital in New Zealand.

The hotel is fixed in my own memory as a place of fairy-tale splendour, after staying there as a child. All my other childhood holidays involved sharing an ancient canvas tent with family at various beach and lakeside campgrounds, so the elegant décor, grand lounges, chandeliers and high ceilings of the Chateau really made an impression. I don’t think I’d ever eaten in a restaurant before, let alone stayed in an hotel.

Going back after so long risked disappointment, but it was just as magnificent as I remembered. The room even had a ‘pillow menu’, so one could select the optimum comfort for a good night’s rest after an active day.

With overseas tourists shut out of New Zealand, the rooms were reasonably priced and the number of visitors sparse enough that we scored the prime dining table by the ‘Ngauruhoe Window”, a huge 3m by 3m picture window framing the volcano of ‘Mt Doom’ (Lord of the Rings movie) fame. What a view it would be during one of Ngauruhoe’s occasional eruptions!

Credit: People in a lounge at Chateau Tongariro with Mount Ngauruhoe visible through the window – Photograph taken by Leslie Hinge. New Zealand Railways: Photographs. Ref: 1/1-003889-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23154729

All-in-all a special trip and a great way to end the year.

Whatever you are up to this holiday season, I wish you all the best for the New Year. My thoughts go out particularly to those who cannot be with loved ones or enjoy the delights of travel. Fingers crossed for a successful vaccine rollout. And finally, thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog in 2020.

Happy reading, Rose

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