A STARK CONTRAST IN NEW ZEALAND'S NORTH: THE CENTRAL NORTH ISLAND, TAUPO AND MOUNT RUAPEHU - MUST SEE SIGHTS
Mount Ruapehu, in the middle of New Zealand's North Island, is somewhere that I have been coming since I was a kid. It is the highest point in the North Island and the only place for mountainside skiing in the North (do check out the South Island for plenty of other slopes though). Its also the largest active volcano and has some truly dramatic scenery from its slopes, including out across to Mount Ngauruhoe - also known as Lord of the Rings', "Mount Doom". Our visit, in summer, meant that the rugged landscape, ordinarily covered in snow come winter, was all the more dramatic.
The mountain has two ski fields: Whakapapa and Turoa, on opposing sides of the mountain. Those skiing on, or visiting the Turoa side, will usually make Taumarunui or Ohakune their base. We visited the Whakapapa side on this occasion (generally my preference). When visiting Whakapapa in the past, we have either stayed at National Park Village (about twenty minutes from Whakapapa), or at "The Chateau", at the base of the mountain...
On Whakapapa, even in summer, the chair lift operates all the way up to the Knoll Ridge Cafe - New Zealand's highest cafe and a great coffee stop, with some incredible views. Many use this as the starting point for a hike to the summit too. I've done this a couple of times. The return trip is about 5 hours (7 from the bottom of the chairlifts). A good level of fitness is needed. The first half, as you'd expect, is all uphill, so a fair bit of stamina is definitely required. Always check the weather, as it changes quickly up here; many an adventurer has been caught out, even in summer.
The most commonly used route follows the left-hand side of the Knoll Ridge T-bar line, and continues up the valley above the last T-bar pylon. At the head of the valley, climb up onto the ridge behind Glacier Knob. From this point, follow the narrow foot track, zigzagging up the side of and along Dome Ridge. The crater lake lookout point is at 2672m and is simply magic! Unfortunately, we had a toddler in tow and couldn't make it up there this trip. My fitness, ahem, might have needed some work too. Otherwise, I'd have loved to have posted some fab pics from the tops. Another time though!
Heading back down the mountain, there is a wealth of great hiking opportunities. Check out the Whakapapa walking tracks on the DOC page. Particular ones to recommend are the Tama Lakes and the Tongiroro Crossing. The Tama Lakes is just a short 2.5 hour, medium grade walk, with gorgeous turquoise waters amongst the rocky outcrop and stunning views back out to Mount Ruapehu. The Tongiroro Crossing is a little longer at 19.4km / 6 to 8 hours. The climbs can be steep and the weather unpredictable, so come prepared! Even in summer, it can get cold quickly. Seriously worthwhile if you're after stunning views of the area and a serious challenge. More info here.
The Grand Chateau sits at the base of Mount Ruapehu, it was opened in 1925, in the 'opulent glory days of the roaring 20's'. The hotel today, continues to work hard to 'preserve the atmosphere of that glorious era'. It has a very large, very beautiful lounge, directly past the reception, with a grand piano, full bar, and an extraordinary window that frames the ever impressive Mount Ngauruhoe. Its large dining room, just off the lounge, also offers some truly divine foodie delights too. Downstairs, there is a full cinema, games room and underground thermal spa. The rooms upstairs can be a little dated (my last stay was in 2016), but they are clean and comfortable and are in keeping with the era of the rest of the hotel. We don't always stay here when we're in the area (its not generally horrifically expensive, but its not for anyone on a budget either), but its always first on my list when I go looking for accommodation. I'm a little nostalgic on this though - my father took us here a couple of times as kids (happy memories!) and I was matron of honour at a close friends wedding here, many years ago. Best rates can be found by booking directly on The Chateau website.