Te Aroha: Top spot for a spring fling

By Sarah Ell

Te Aroha Domain's No 7 Bathhouse, in which Maori were segregated from Pakeha bathers.
Te Aroha Domain's No 7 Bathhouse, in which Maori were segregated from Pakeha bathers.

After getting married in Italy and honeymooning in Turkey and Egypt, it was inevitable that our expectations would have to be adjusted. We celebrated our first wedding anniversary with a week's skiing in Central Otago, but another year on it was looking like takeaways in front of the telly.

However, we decided we could probably afford one night away, as long as it was within easy driving distance of Auckland, ideally a place neither of us had been to, which might offer a decent dinner out and something to do other than worry about the mortgage.

Ticking all the boxes was Te Aroha, in the northeastern Waikato. Its name means "love", it's just over 100km from Auckland, and it has the added bonus of natural hot springs - perfect for a romantic getaway.

One hundred and thirty years ago, it must have taken a massive stretch of the imagination to establish a spa town on a soggy, flax-strewn hillside in the middle of nowhere.

Yet in 1881 the government acquired the Te Aroha Hot Springs Reserve from its Maori owners and set about attempting to transform it into the Bath of the South - albeit with less Georgian architecture and more mud.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries it was quite the place to go to take in the waters, either by drinking or bathing in them.

Te Aroha is tucked away on the road between Paeroa and Morrinsville, tight up against the bulk of the mountain which gives the town its name.

Our accommodation for the night is the Aroha Mountain Lodge, a B&B run by Greg and Linda Marshall in a converted villa backing on to the historic Te Aroha Domain, said to be the best-preserved Edwardian public park in the country. (They also rent out an old gold-miner's cottage and rooms in another villa nearby which used to be the town's maternity hospital.)

The centrepiece of the domain is the lordly Cadman Building, once a grand bathhouse opened in 1898 which accommodated 13 individual bathrooms.

Closed in the 1960s after the decline of the spa, the building was restored in the 1990s and converted into the town's museum.

The domain itself is a living museum, with buildings, springs and artistically rustic landscape features dotted around its grassy slopes.

A handful of original buildings remain, including the No7 Bathhouse, its carved bargeboards signalling its original role as the segregated Maori bathhouse, and the No2 Bathhouse, the oldest original structure in the domain. The open-air leisure pools next to it - filled with heated town-supply water - are open to all.

You can also still taste the famous waters (very minerally, like sucking on a salty rock) in an octagonal pavilion housing the No8 spring - a replica built by volunteers on the 90s TV show April's Angels after the original blew over in a storm.

At the top of the domain, a whiff of sulphur signals the presence of the No1 Spring, known since the 1930s as the Mokena Geyser after Maori chief Te Mokena Hou, who granted the domain land to the government. A sign states that it plays between midday and 2pm; for us it can only muster enough energy for the occasional spit.

A plaque nearby records that on this spot in August 1935, Albert Orsborn - "a poet of merit and later world leader of the Salvation Army" - wrote the words to the hymn When Shall I Come Unto the Healing Waters.

In fact, he had already come unto them: the healthful waters of the country's only soda water geyser are tapped off to feed the Mokena Spa. We take a soak for half an hour in a private, kauri-slatted tub, the timber blued with age and minerals. The steaming hot water has a slightly gelatinous quality, like clear oil.

Boiled pink like crayfish and with silky smooth skin, we can barely rouse ourselves to saunter down into the town for dinner at Berlusconi bar and restaurant, touted as "a touch of Tuscany in Te Aroha".

Our expectations are exceeded: the European-influenced food is fantastic and, after a nice bottle of Chianti, we can almost imagine we are back in Italy again.

We strike it lucky on the food front again the next morning: after a deep and peaceful sleep, we wander downtown again and find Banco, a bright red-painted former bank which now houses an eclectic combination of cafe, homewares store and craft workshop.

Fortified with a delicious breakfast, we decide to go for a walk in the nearby Waiorongomai Valley before heading back to reality.

Waiorongomai, about 5km south of Te Aroha, was once also a bustling boom town. Unfortunately, its mine was ultimately unprofitable, and by the 1900s the whole town had vanished, many of its buildings carted back to Te Aroha.

However, the trails leading up into the hills are full of relics of the gold-mining days, including the Piako County Tramway and Butler's Incline, a 400m long, 25-degree self-acting rail incline - both impressively restored by the Department of Conservation.

Well-fed, exercised and unwound, we are nearly ready to head back to the big smoke, but we make one small detour back to the domain. On the bushline is the No22 spring, also known as the Lovers' Spring, into which it was traditional for newlyweds to dip their wedding rings to ensure a long and happy marriage.

We decide it's not too late to give it a try, even though the water in the crumbling concrete shrine looks more likely to give you giardia than good luck.

After all, who couldn't do with a little extra blessing from the town of love?

CHECKLIST

Further information: Aroha Mountain Lodge, ph (07) 884 8134.

Te Aroha Mineral Spa and Leisure Pools, ph (07) 884 8717.

Te Aroha Museum, ph (07) 884 4427.

Waiorongomai Valley

- NZ Herald

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