Worlds collide at Waitomo

By Paul Rush

Paul Rush takes a nostalgic journey back in time - at one of the country's first of tourism.

The Waitomo Caves Hotel exudes charm with a mix of Victorian, Colonial, Spanish Mission and Cape Dutch architecture. Photo / Supplied
The Waitomo Caves Hotel exudes charm with a mix of Victorian, Colonial, Spanish Mission and Cape Dutch architecture. Photo / Supplied

Where have the charming old hotels that ushered in New Zealand's grand age of travel and tourism gone? The fine old buildings, with their timeless elegance, simple good taste and just a hint of opulence, have all but disappeared.

The Waitomo Caves Hotel, secluded among tall trees on a hilltop above Waitomo Village, is one of the few remaining early 20th-century tourist accommodation spots.

On a recent weekend stay at the hotel, I took a nostalgic look at the way things used to be. The classic sweeping staircases are there, the architectural detailing, ornate furniture, Bulgarian chandeliers, large open fireplaces, roomy lounge and bar (now with big screen TV) and warm, inviting bedrooms with double-hung windows open to the fresh country air.

My long sojourn in the bright, airy breakfast room in the company of overseas travellers is a very pleasant experience. Wall-to-ceiling windows overlook native bush and birdsong drifts into the room.

I walk down the hill to the village on a quiet bush track, browse through the tourism outlets and enjoy a cappuccino in the modern cafe. I then venture further afield on the Waitomo Walkway, finding a wonderful natural bridge and passing scenic spots along the river that give a deep sense of peace and serenity.

Back at the hotel I admire the manicured lawn, where high society once gathered in well-ordered, decoratively attired groups to deftly guide croquet balls. Today the circular lawn and its attendant rose beds serve to guide traffic around to the grand hotel entranceway.

The venerable old lady is well preserved and still looks impressive with a facade that is an intriguing mix of Victorian, Colonial, Spanish Mission and Cape Dutch architecture. The turreted tower, ornate balustrades and high entrance canopy are particularly striking at dusk when rows of lights outline the building's majestic shape; a silhouette against the glowing night sky.

The Waitomo Caves saga began in 1887, when surveyor Fred Mace and local chief Tane Hinerau discovered the glow-worm caves. The government quickly saw the tourism potential and took the land under the Scenic Preservation Act. A house was built in 1901 for Tane on the hotel site but was soon converted to tourist accommodation. The concrete wing was added in 1928 and the hotel became the flagship of the Tourist Hotel Corporation.

In its heyday, royalty, movie moguls and superstars stayed here. At that time it was a serious mission to reach remote tourist destinations like this. Part of the essential "Grand Waitomo Experience" was enduring several days of arduous travel, negotiating the rough gravel roads by horse and carriage.

The Queen and Prince Phillip stayed here during their 1953/54 state visit and waved to a crowd from their balcony. In that era, affluent travellers would arrive by train from Auckland in time for an afternoon tea of salmon and cucumber sandwiches. They would rest for an hour and then reappear for cocktails and dinner in the Fred Mace room, accompanied by soothing orchestral music from the resident band.

The chequered past of romance and extravagance has faded into history but Waitomo Caves Hotel still remains a pleasant place to spend the night. Ownership passed to a Maori trust in the 1980s under the Treaty's land settlement legislation and the hotel is now leased by a management company.

The owners are keen to retain the hotel's special character and olde worlde charm. Today many of the overseas guests are from "the Old Country", and they easily succumb to the ambience of the hotel and the weird karst landscape of Waitomo. Musical soirees are held and the age-old tradition of jazz weekends has been re-established.

Sightings of a tragic little figure have often been recorded in the Fred Mace room in the dead of night. Many years ago, the 4-year-old daughter of would regularly visit the hotel. One night she wandered into the kitchen and pulled a pot of hot cooking oil over herself. She staggered into the dining room where she died.

Later, after hearing staff reports of a ghostly figure, the hotel brought in a medium. She saw a vision of dining tables and a little girl running up and down looking for her mother. The saga continues today with periodic sightings of the ghostly apparition.

The Waitomo area has fascinated me for many years. It is a combination of two different worlds. One is the dark hidden world of the Waitomo, Aranui and Ruakuri caves with their silent mysterious streams and crystal galleries. The other is the distinctive karst landscape of pancake-layered limestone outcrops, disappearing rivers and soaring natural bridges.

Thanks to those little bright sparks, the glow-worms, it is possible to lie back and view star-studded skies above and below ground. You can choose to remain in the timeless world on the surface or descend into the depths to see "what lies beneath".

Waitomo's two worlds mean twice the fun. Adventure operators now offer around 20 caving trips catering for all levels of fitness and exploration; from a gentle walk through Ruakuri Cave to a precipitous abseiling descent into the labyrinth of the "Lost World". Topside activities now cover an equally diverse range.

Above all, Waitomo is an unspoiled environment, which offers real down-to-earth Kiwi experiences and a chance to relax in the pampered luxury and privacy of a charming olde worlde hotel.

FACT FILE

Accommodation: Waitomo Caves Hotel in the Waitomo Village has 33 en suite rooms, four family en suite rooms, lounge and bar, two restaurants, two conference rooms and a tour desk.

For further info, email reservations@waitomocaveshotel.co.nz.

Other contacts:

* Visitor Centre, email waitomoinfo@xtra.co.nz.

* Museum of Caves, email waitomomuseum@xtra.co.nz

- Herald on Sunday

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