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Weathering the Storm

Weathering the Storm

Travel
By Martin Forstenzer
posted: 01/12/2004

Mount Ruapehu on New Zealand's North Island is notorious for its bad weather. The slopes at the Whakapapa ski area, on the mountain's north side, tend toward ice sheets, with snow and fog frequently cutting visibility to a few feet. When facing those conditions, it's crucial to be able to head to a place like the Grand Chateau.

In one of the more unlikely sights in ski country, the luxury hotel is stuck in the middle of wilderness, as if it had dropped out of the sky in a scene from The Wizard of Oz. The imposing structure rises out of a broad plain at the foot of the mountain in Tongariro National Park. The Chateau—listed in the New Zealand Historic Places Trust—evokes grand U.S. national park lodges. But instead of rustic ambience, the Chateau offers old-world elegance. From its classic, columned exterior to the formal, chandelier-adorned dining room (where jacket and tie were long required), the hotel recalls an era of high society. Built in 1929 to pamper early skiers, the Chateau has provided stylish lodging ever since.

Ice, snow or fog is not the worst-case scenario for Whakapapa skiers. Mount Ruapehu, which means "exploding hole in the native Maori, is an active volcano. During most seasons, when the mountain began belching smoke, ash and mud, Kiwis paused to watch, then continued skiing. But in the mid-'90s, when the volcano frequently spewed lava and filled the sky with hot ash, the ski area was closed for two consecutive seasons.

For locals, an après Steinlager at the Chateau is a must. And maybe afterward, ostrich carpaccio, rack of lamb and a bottle of New Zealand cabernet in the dining room. If you stay here at the right (or wrong) time, you can even watch Ruapehu erupt from your room's windows.

Outside, Tongariro's landscape is wild and strange: 2,930 square miles of snowy volcanoes, boiling hot springs, beech forest and pebbly desert. When the makers of The Lord of the Rings movies were searching for unspoiled, dramatic locations, they came here. Naturally, they made the stately Chateau their home.

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