New Zealand's Chateau Tongariro Hotel: Afternoon tea in the shadow of Mount Doom

I don't know which is more remarkable – the mountain I can see through the window, or the hotel I'm standing in. Mount Ngauruhoe is impressive – high, dark, forbidding, and one of three volcanoes clustered together in Tongariro National Park, in the centre of New Zealand's North Island. Conical in shape, it appeared in The Lord of the Rings films as the grim Mount Doom, which Frodo had to climb to dispose of the cursed ring. 

It's currently dormant, its most recent eruption beings in the mid-'70s. Having said all that, this hotel is also a marvel. The Chateau Tongariro Hotel opened in 1929, a neo-Georgian relic of a golden age of travel in which well-heeled urbanites headed into nature to escape the grime of cities. 

As a spectacularly located grand hotel which feels a little rundown, it has more than a whiff of another movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. To me it's perfect, full of character. At ground level there's a large lounge area filled with comfortable old armchairs between heavy drapes and beneath a chandelier, the fabrics bearing a faded crimson shade that hints at a glamorous past.

There are plenty of outdoor activities, with hikers heading out to walk the famed Tongariro Alpine Crossing, which winds its way through the craggy landscape, while the Sky Waka cable car hauls visitors up Mount Ruapehu for sweeping views.

However, I'm here to relax. On my first afternoon I chill in the lounge, order surprisingly affordable food from the bar menu, then take a stroll around the building at sunset to capture photos with the soft light playing on the facade and surrounding peaks.The next morning I enjoy an old-school buffet breakfast, then stroll up the road to the national park's visitor centre, packed with slightly unnerving exhibits about volcanic activity. 

There are a number of marked walks from this point, one of which – the 1.2-kilometre Ridge Walk – promises views of mountains but appears too steep for my ability. Instead I take the low-impact Whakapapa Nature Walk, a level 15-minute loop with signage explaining the local vegetation. The grass by the track is overgrown, so my Aussie wariness of snakes kicks in … until I remember that New Zealand doesn't have any! Easy.

Over the next few hours I do some freeform strolling – which is very relaxing given the serenity, the plentiful trees, and the dramatic mountains looming beyond – before ending up for an afternoon drink at the Tussock, a down-to-earth country pub owned and operated by the hotel.

I'm basically killing time, waiting for the event that I hope will be the high point of my stay: high tea. The Chateau makes a big deal about its version of this popular pampering meal, though I'm a little dubious – I've experienced many hotel afternoon teas over the years that proved less exciting than their marketing.

This, however, delivers. Served in a raised section of the lounge with mountain views through large windows, it's as elegant and well-organised as you could hope for. The staff first bring out my choice of tea, Earl Grey, brewed with loose leaves and poured into a delicate cup with a floral design.

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Then, just as I'm starting to sip my tea and take in the contours of Mount Ngauruhoe, the waiter returns with a three-tier stand featuring a marvellous array of cakes and savouries. Highlights include a smoked salmon blini, venison loin with plum tamarillo chutney on wholemeal, a chocolate ganache truffle lollipop, and opera cake layered with buttercream ganache. On the lowest level are two perfect scones served with berry jam and clotted cream.

I can't help but be impressed. The food is creative, the flavours are excellent, the tea is good quality, and the service is impeccable. And the volcano I can see through the window is complimentary.

STAY

Chateau Tongariro Hotel (chateau.co.nz) is 4½ hours' drive from both Auckland and Wellington, or 5½ hours by rail on the Northern Explorer train (see greatjourneysofnz.co.nz). It has a range of rooms, from external cabins to luxurious suites, and its high tea starts at $NZ45 per person.

The writer travelled with assistance from Visit Ruapehu and The Great Journeys of New Zealand.

This article appears in Sunday Life magazine within the Sun-Herald and the Sunday Age on sale July 4. To read more from Sunday Life, visit The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.

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