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Few lodgings in Aotearoa match the heritage, the grace or the gravitas of Chateau Tongariro Hotel, and this year marks the 90th birthday of the multi-award-winning Kiwi institution that’s simply known as ‘The Chateau’ to its friends.
“The whole establishment conveyed an impression of luxury and spaciousness that is found in few hotels built in more recent decades,” mused Harry Wigley of The Chateau, in The Mount Cook Way – The First Fifty Years of the Mount Cook Company, while Lonely Planet labels it “undeniably romantic”.
Set in the shadow Mount Ruapehu and its surrounding, snowy horizon, the majestic classical architecture of this grand ol’ 1920s construction wouldn’t appear out of place on the pages of The Great Gatsby, or the set of The Sound of Music. Indeed, upon its founding The Chateau was famed not only for its cinematic alpine scenery framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, but for its soirees that attracted VIPs from around the world—including the Queen. Some say the crowning glory of the Central Plateau is laced with secret passageways and is possibly even haunted. So, a backstory befitting a Hollywood classic, too.
Tongariro National Park is New Zealand’s (and one of the world’s) oldest, comprising land gifted to the nation by Horonuku Te Heu Heu Tukino, chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa, in 1887 (the hotel’s most prestigious suite is now named after him). An especially significant gesture considering it houses the tapu peaks of Ruapehu, Tongariro and Ngauruhoe, it was the chief’s hope that these mountain gods would serve as protectors for all the people of Aotearoa for all of time.
Come the 1920s, Prime Minister Gordon Coates yearned to build a globally-revered retreat to truly put the national park—and the nation—on the map, so sought the advice of the pioneering Mount Cook Tourist Company founder Rudolph Wigley. It led to the formation of the Tongariro Park Tourist Company Limited, who enlisted legendary architect Herbert Hall of Timaru to envisage a Georgian masterpiece like no other in the whole of Aotearoa.
Rising alongside the original Whakapapa ski huts, astonishingly, the grand opening took place just eight months after the foundation stone was laid in March 1929. It soon gained a reputation among the most discerning of local and international adventurers and entrepreneurs as the most tasteful of destinations, offering the finest foods, wines and spirits all accompanied by roaring laughter and log fires. Skiers and mountaineers would don their most dapper of dinner wear to dine on oysters that had arrived by steam train from Bluff. To think way back then, its hand basins with running hot and cold water were considered state-of-the-art!
Today, much of the original old world character is retained thanks to iconic features such as chandeliers dangling above the 460-square-metre Ruapehu Lounge, lashings of dark polished timbers, a grand piano, billiards table, fireplaces, and the grand-arched Ngauruhoe picture window that overlooks Middle-earth’s ‘Mount Doom’.
The Chateau was famed not only for its cinematic alpine scenery framed by floor-to-ceiling windows, but for its soirees that attracted VIPs from around the world—including the Queen.
A series of eruptions from those neighbouring volcanoes in the 1940s forced the closure of The Chateau for three years. It had already been struggling owing to the outbreak of the second world war that saw many of its skiing clientele head to battle, and tourist numbers tumble. Its misfortune continued well into the next decade, even serving as an asylum following an earthquake that damaged a hospital in the Hutt Valley.
However, The Chateau’s fortunes changed when purchased by New Zealand’s Tourist Hotel Corporation in 1957, and the following regeneration of the surrounding ski fields. Ownership has altered a handful of times more since as it continued to flourish further still. For its 75th anniversary in 2005, a new wing added 39 more rooms.
In 1993, Tongariro National Park became the first location in the world to be granted dual Unesco World Heritage Site status owing to both its cultural significance and visual magnificence. So how fitting that the region’s premier hotel boasts Category One Historic Listed Building status, blending the best of today with the beauty of yesteryear. Where better to bask in the glow of a crackling log fire overlooking such world-recognised wonder, as a glass of mulled wine warms your cupped hands? Or to sip on a cooling cocktail following a trek among Aotearoa’s most sacred peaks? There is high tea, there is fine dining, there are tennis courts, a pool, a sauna, and a beauty therapy spa. There are world-class snow fields on the doorstep and there are life-affirming trails.
So as The Chateau welcomes its 90th birthday, it welcomes you into another world.