Time travel with historic holidays

Elisabeth Easther takes an affectionate look at some stalwarts of colonial tourism that still stand tall today.
The Waitomo Caves became a focal point for intrepid travellers in the late 1880s.
The Waitomo Caves became a focal point for intrepid travellers in the late 1880s.

For many holiday-makers, New Zealand tourism is synonymous with bungy jumping, jet boating and anything to do with The Lord of the Rings. But, way, way before AJ Hackett tied one on and well before Sir Peter covered local actors' feet with fur, New Zealand was the classic destination for pioneering pleasure-seekers.

Intrepid tourists first came to New Zealand to take the waters, marvel at geysers and have their photos taken with indigenous local guides. This year, as Waitomo Caves celebrates its 125th birthday, many of those quaint sights from the past are still enjoyed.

Waitomo Caves Hotel

Then: Waitomo (Maori for water coming out of the ground) became a focal point for intrepid travellers in the late 1880s after the caves were discovered by chief Tane Tinorau and Fred Mace, an English surveyor. By 1889 the stunning caverns were open to the public and Waitomo was well and truly on the tourist map. The magnificent Waitomo Caves Hotel was built in 1908 to house the eager spelunkers and was renovated 20 years later due to a sharp increase in popularity.

It is said to be the fourth most haunted hotel in New Zealand and even hosted Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 (the doors still sport the specially crafted knobs to prove it).

Now: After 125 years, the old-fashioned glowworm trips are still very popular. More modern adventures now involve abseiling, rubber rings and wetsuits, but I can particularly recommend the Aranui Cave Tour, with its high caverns, impressive acoustics and limestone formations. This easy one-hour adventure harks back to the more traditional cave trips. The Waitomo Caves Hotel is still delightful, with good old-fashioned hospitality from the welcoming new owners and staff going that extra mile for guests. The grand old building, with its sparkling crystal chandeliers, ballroom and roaring fire, sits majestically above Waitomo village with impressive views across the hilly King Country. The building looks every bit as haunted as legend relates, but, disappointingly, I didn't hear anything go bump in the night. And, you'd be hard pressed to find better food than the grub at Huhu Cafe, a short walk from the hotel.

Tourists at Waitomo early last century.

The Duke of Marlborough - Russell

Then: Established in 1827, The Duke of Marlborough was originally called "Johnny Johnston's Grog Shop" after the owner, an entrepreneurial ex-con who turned his life around. Charles Darwin was shocked at the "very refuse of society" that he saw in Russell, or Kororareka, where up to 500 men would roll up for entertainment at one time following long periods at sea - the town was known as the helhole of the Pacific. Johnny wanted to lend his joint an air of respectability so changed the name to the Duke of Marlborough, after the richest man in the world at that time. The current building was built in 1875.

The Duke of Marlborough in its early days.

Today: You'd be hard pressed to find a more elegant seaside hotel: the grand old Duke retains all its olde worlde character but has had a total refresh. The seaside rooms would be quite at home in the pages of an interior decorating magazine, while the smaller ones are all clean and comfortable and make an excellent base for exploring the Bay of Islands. The harbourside restaurant and bar transport you in time with chandeliers bedazzling the ceilings and harpoons hanging from the wall, a roaring fire. Best of all, staff make families and romantics - and everyone in between - feel right at home. Russell still revels in its rowdy history and has colourful historical re-enactments through the summer. It is serene and beautiful today but townsfolk haven't forgotten their past.

Tourists on the veranda of the Duke of Marlborough as it is today.

Te Aroha

Then: Te Aroha, in the Waikato, was once one the go-to town for Edwardian tourists with a hankering to take the waters, earning itself a reputation for having been the birthplace of tourism in New Zealand. In 1898 the government made its first serious foray into the spa industry, opening the Cadman Bathhouse Sanatorium. It's probably the least famous of all these historical hideaways today, but Te Aroha used to teem with tourists soaking away their worries in the multitude of natural soda springs.

Te Aroha's Cadman Bathhouse in its heyday. It now houses the Te Aroha and District Museum.

Now: Today's visitors can still enjoy a good soak at Te Aroha Mineral Spas where private pools delight more mature visitors, and the facility retains a lot of its historic charm. For something more playful, Te Aroha Leisure Pools offers three outdoor pools - a big one for playing, a hotter, shallower one for lounging and a super-toasty one for soaking. And if you care to know a bit more about the history of spa culture, Te Aroha and District Museum can be found in the lovingly restored Cadman Bathhouse.

Te Aroha is still a wonderful place to take the waters.

Rotorua Bath House and Princes Gate Hotel

Then: Rotorua is often referred to as the birthplace of colonial tourism, thanks to the exquisite Bath House. This delightful Tudor-style building was opened in 1908 as part of the government's grand plan, under Prime Minster Sir Joseph Ward, to establish the area as a South Seas spa. It quickly became the place to take the waters with 60,000 to 80,000 baths being enjoyed each year in its heyday. One treatment famously involved an electric current being run through the water.

The Tudor-style Rotorua Bathhouse is one of the Bay of Plenty's most recognisable buildings.

Now: Today the building, still sitting prettily in the floral Government Gardens, houses the Rotorua Museum. Bathhouse history is kept intact with permanent displays and exhibitions.

If you fancy staying the night in an historic establishment, the area's oldest hotel is The Princes Gate, which looks across the Government Gardens to the old Bath House. She's not a local though, having been built 150km away in 1897 in the gold-mining town of Waihi. Called The New Central, this hotel was famous for its fancy trappings and grand entertainment but, by 1917 the owners decided to move the hotel somewhere more profitable. Dismantled, verandahs and all, and transported by bullock cart and train to Rotorua, it was then reassembled and opened for business four years later. Its new name, Princes Gate, commemorated a visit the year before by the Prince of Wales. It is still one of Rotorua's finest hotels thanks to its chandeliers, wraparound balcony, superb service and stunning location.

The Chateau Tongariro

Then: The sacred peaks of Ruapehu, Ngauruhoe and Tongariro were gifted to the people of New Zealand by the Paramount Chief of Ngati Tuwharetoa in 1887. The Tongariro Park Tourist Company was formed decades later, to build a grand hotel for the increasing tourist population passing through. Built in just nine months and costing a mere £78,000, the neo-Georgian Chateau was open for business in 1929. From then on, Ruapehu was on the map, impressing guests with natural beauty that could be enjoyed through the floor-to-ceiling Ngauruhoe Window.

The opening of The Chateau Tongariro in 1929 put Mt Ruapehu on the tourist map.

Now: She's 85 years old now but The Chateau is still just as imposing as ever in her livery of French vanilla, brick and blue and she provides a luxurious base for ski bunnies and summer trail blazers alike. With a basement pool, old school cinema and more modern coin-operated fun in the games room, this is still the perfect place to base yourself while exploring the region. And the window provides a view of Mt Ngauruhoe pretty much identical to that which the first guests would have gazed upon back in the day.

Elisabeth Easther was a guest of Waitomo Caves and The Duke of Marlborough.

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