There aren’t too many countries where you could quite safely and without too much debate name the absolute most famous hotel. Which is not to say there wouldn’t be some serious contenders. Perhaps the Ritz in London, maybe something like the Chateau Marmont in LA and certainly the Raffles in Singapore. But for every Ritz and Chateau Marmont is usually a Savoy or a Beverly Hills Hotel and the task of emphatically naming the fame numero uno is no easy done thing.
Except, that is, when it comes to New Zealand. In a country where tourism is the biggest industry and new luxury lodges are popping up and out 5-starring each other with each passing year, there’s something quietly reassuring about the continued presence of the Chateau Tongariro Hotel.
And what a presence. Located on the lower slopes of Mt Ruapehu in the central North Island’s consistently jaw-dropping Tongariro National Park, the 90-year old Chateau Tongariro Hotel – still referred by most Kiwis as simply being “The Chateau” – is a safe bet as this nation of five-million’s most famous hotel. And it’s been that way near continuously since 1929.
“Near continuously” because the hiccups in the timeline of the Chateau are indeed so much a part of its intrigue. Built as the country’s first large-scale luxury hotel and set in what wasn’t merely New Zealand’s first national park but indeed just the fourth in the entire world, the 5-storied, Georgian-styled, Canadian-inspired Chateau opened its doors right as the effects of the Depression were starting to be felt.
Then 10-years later World War 2 struck and this most grand of properties found itself commandeered by the government as a recuperation building for returned air force personnel. During this period was also a time spent as an infirmary for the mentally ill after an earthquake damaged a Wellington hospital, before finally in 1948 the Chateau was returned to its original use as a hotel.
But from tales of the Maori chief who first gifted the land to the people of New Zealand, to the jailed architect who designed the golf course, to visits from the Queen, to volcanic eruptions, to secret passageways and even some gentle rumours of hauntings, the Chateau has never been just another hotel. Indeed, this is a place full of atmosphere and full of stories to be told.
Located at an altitude of 1100-metres, the ski-fields of Mt Ruapehu are minutes away and for almost a century the breathtaking ballroom and lobby of the Chateau – complete with floor-to-ceiling alpine views, chandeliers, fireplaces and endless drapes of curtains – have played host to fans of both adventure and luxury from right across the globe.
And don’t think of the Chateau as purely a winter destination or a place only to be enjoyed if you love skiing or snowboarding. Indeed one of the reasons I keep plotting yet more trips back to the Chateau is to get my fill of the genuinely stunning short walks you can do from the property.
Intimidated by the thought of the 8-hour, 19.4-kilometre Tongariro Crossing? See much of the same dramatic scenery on the 2-hour, 6-kilometre Taranaki Falls walk. This walk is one of my favourites anywhere in the world because in such a short space of time you’ll see everything from multi-coloured tundra and tussock, fairytale-like beech rainforests, lush mosses and thundering waterfalls and rivers. Oh, and if the weather is good, the snowcapped volcanoes of Mt Ruapehu (2797-metres) and a certain Mt Doom (Mt Ngauruhoe – 2291-metres) from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy.
The fact the weather is so changeable in this part of the country means the Tongariro Crossing – one of the major jewels in the crown of great New Zealand walks – isn’t always safe in bad weather, but the Taranaki Falls walk often is. I’ve done this walk in brilliant sunshine and been blown away by the views to the mountain peaks and across the descending slopes that surround you. Likewise, I’ve also found myself striding through the thick mist with thermals on, beanie in place and weather-proof jacket fighting the elements and still thinking there are few places more spellbinding.
Speaking of which, in weather good or inclement, when you emerge from the forest and spot the unmistakable blue, red and yellow of the Chateau at the end of your winding, land of Oz like path through the tussock, you really do feel like you’re in some kind of a wonderland.
No question, if there’s only one walk you have time for while staying at the Chateau, make it the Taranaki Falls. But if you’ve got a bit more time, I’d also strongly recommend walks like Whakapapanui (2-hours / 6-kilometres), Silica Rapids (2.5-hours / 7-kilometres), or if you’re feeling especially rambunctious, Tama Lakes (6-hours / 17-kilometres). All these walks have a huge variety of landscapes but if that’s still not enough, there are countless expeditions to be had with the benefit of a car while still using the Chateau as your base. Indeed the outer reaches of the national park that border the town of Turangi have some of the most wild jungle-looking forest in New Zealand.
All that exercise needs to be rewarded with some first class relaxing and during this most recent Chateau experience we made time for high tea (my wife can’t pass up a good high tea and certainly not one at the Chateau!) as well as for drinks by the fireplace in the chandelier, velvet and drape-bedazzled Ruapehu Lounge.
Our dinners in the adjoining Ruapehu Room were an opportunity to dress up a little and imagine we’d time travelled back for a bit of 1930s glam. The Pacific Rim inspired cuisine – including New Zealand beef, lamb and salmon – was excellent, as was the breakfast buffet.
But truth be told, given we were staying in the Te Heu Heu Suite – named after the Maori chief Horonuku Te Heu Heu Tukino who’d gifted this land in 1887 complete with the sacred mountains of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro – we made sure we didn’t do all our relaxing downstairs.
Located on the Chateau’s top-floor, the 100-square-metre Te Heu Heu Suite has to be seen to believed. Luckily I made a video! Complete with my voiceover commentary too. As you’ll see in the one-minute clip below, this enormous suite is befitting of the hotel it presides over. With the option of an extra bedroom immediately next door if you choose, there are three marble bathrooms in total, a lobby, a kitchen, a separate living area, two chaise lounges, a fireplace, a work-station, a full dining-room table, and by my count, seating – including the bed in the master bedroom – for no less than 22 people.
And what a soiree for 22 it would be! Though we opted instead for me, my pregnant wife Aimee and our good friend Richard. With all the mini-bar food and drinks in the Te Heu Heu Suite included with the room, the non-pregnant members of the trio treated ourselves to champagne, Aimee had sparkling water, snacks were had, music played and as we sat by the fire, it didn’t matter one bit that fog was obscuring the mountains.
- The Chateau is approximately 4.5 to 5 hours drive from both Auckland and Wellington.
- Alongside the Te Heu Heu Suite is the McLaren Suite, three Accessible Rooms, four Executive Spa Suites, three Superior Rooms, four Economy Rooms, 29 Tongariro Rooms, 48 Heritage Rooms, 13 Family Style Rooms, five Two Bedroom Motel Units and four One Bedroom Motel Units.
- The hotel was expanded with a new 39-bedroom wing (including the Te Heu Heu Suite) in 2005 that matched the building’s original Georgian architecture.
- The dining options are the Ruapehu Restaurant (semi-formal), the Lounge Bar, the Conservatory (functions only), the Pihanga Cafe, Fergusson’s Cafe and the Tussock Bar & Restaurant.
- The trippiest indoor pool I’ve swum in is found in the basement, alongside welcome sauna facilities, a small gym and a cute little cinema.
Phone: +64 7 892 3809