Chateau Tongariro

Having passed Chateau Tongariro as we arrived at Whakapapa village, we were eager for a peek inside. The neo-Georgian structure was completed in 1929, constructed of reinforced concrete but designed to resemble a traditional Georgian brick building. With the onset of the Depression, the anticipated tourism boom failed to arrive and in 1932, ownership was transferred to the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts which ran the hotel for the next 26 years. When the numbers of skiing tourists declined during World War II, the Chateau was commandeered as an asylum in 1942 until, three years later, Mount Ruapehu erupted and the patients were evacuated to Auckland. It then served as a rest and recuperation centre for returning Air Force personnel and eventually reopened to tourists in 1948.

The resort now has a nine hole golf course, fitness centre and spa as well as magnificent mountain views.

Despite extensive refurbishment over the years, the 1930’s style had been retained.

We settled into the comfortable chairs in the Ruapehu Lounge and ordered coffee, marvelling at the impeccable décor and wishing we were having cocktails instead.

Had we planned ahead, we could have indulged in High Tea in the adjoining  Ngauruhoe Room with another spectacular perspective of Mount Ngauruhoe.

Florence Falls

We had worked up an appetite with our morning explorations of Litchfield Park and found a secluded spot for a picnic lunch alongside Florence Creek.

The spring fed watercourse bubbles along, tumbling over a series of cascades until it reaches the escarpment at Florence Falls.

A stunning panorama from the viewing platform takes in the lush monsoon forest surrounding the falls.

The multi-tiered falls drop around 40 metres in total while the main cascade is around 20 metres.

There are 160 steps to the swimming hole at the base of the falls. Tempting though it was to cool off in the pristine water, the return climb would have been a step too far.

Tamar Valley

I recently spent a couple of nights in Launceston, catching up with a special friend from W.A. who was travelling around Tasmania with another two friends. They had booked accommodation at Armalong Chalets and fortunately, there was room for me. I arrived on a very inclement afternoon and we wasted no time seeking a beverage at Stillwater Restaurant, overlooking the Tamar Basin. Across the water, four large grain silos from the 1960s are now Peppers Silo Hotel. Deserted for decades, the Kings Wharf grain silos were rescued and transformed into a stunning $25 million hotel with many of the facilities constructed inside the original barrels. (A weekend stay is still on the bucket list).

After a fabulous meal at The Grain of the Silos Restaurant and a good night’s sleep, I awoke to a glorious sunny day and the most spectacular view through the floor to ceiling windows.

The chalets are situated at Tamar Ridge Cellar Door, perched high in the trees overlooking vineyards and the ever changing Tamar River.

We set off for a day discovering the Tamar Valley and a short drive down the West Tamar Highway, stopped at Brady’s Lookout, once the hideout for bushranger Mathew Brady. A gentleman’s servant in England, he was convicted of stealing a basket with some butter, bacon, sugar and rice and received a seven-year sentence of transportation to Australia. Arriving in December 1820, he wasn’t the most exemplary prisoner and escaped with a group of fifteen in June 1824, spending the next two years on the run before being captured and hanged on 4th May 1826.

The Tamar River isn’t actually a river, it is a tidal estuary into which the North and South Esk Rivers empty, that stretches 70km from Launceston to Bass Strait.

After investigating a couple of wineries and the former gold mining town of Beaconsfield, we arrived at Beauty Point to enjoy a relaxing lunch by the water.

The first deep-water port on the Tamar River was established to service the nearby gold mine and then, after the gold rush, it became the centre for the export of apples. It is now home to the Australian Maritime College training ship, Stephen Brown, a permanently moored neighbour of the Tamar Yacht Club.

We wended our way back to Tamar Ridge where, not only is there a cellar door on site but also a gin distillery, Turner Stillhouse. Arriving within a few minutes of closing time, we were treated to a tasting session of the award-winning Three Cuts Gin with distiller, Brett Coulsen. The unusual name refers to the three cuts of Tasmanian rose that are added to the gin, including some grown near the distillery.

Returning to the chalet as the shadows lengthened, we settled on the deck with a beverage and platter to absorb the breathtaking vista over vineyards and river.

Sadly, the next morning we went our separate ways but not before another magnificent sunrise.

Mead’s Wall

Having returned to the base of Mount Ruapehu on Sky Waka, we followed the signs to explore Mead’s Wall, named for William Perrett Mead, the first to reconnoitre the Whakapapa valley and subsequently form the Ruapehu Ski Club in 1913. The wall didn’t look particularly impressive from a distance but the 25 metre high west face has eight rock climbing routes for those who wish to indulge.

We walked the easy trail to the side of the wall, wondering how (or why) anyone would climb it.

Looking back across the ski field, chalets dotted the barren landscape that becomes the beginners run, Happy Valley, when covered in snow.

The east face of the wall presents a sheer drop of 45 metres, a little more challenging for those thrill-seekers with ropes, helmets and jelly legs

We were more excited to be standing in the vicinity of memorable Mordor scenes from The Lord of the Rings. These volcanic rocks, cliffs and ash were the location of Emyn Muil, the mountainous area where Frodo and Sam become lost on their way to the Black Gates of Mordor and first meet Gollum.

Beyond Mead’s Wall, the river valley wends its way through the Whakapapa Gorge, toward the conical shape of Mount Doom, I mean Mount Ngauruhoe.

Back to reality, as we were leaving a solo rock climbing lesson was just beginning, I couldn’t bear to watch.

Ponte Vecchio

A visit to Florence would not be complete without experiencing the Ponte Vecchio. We strolled a little further west to the Ponte Santa Trinita for a mid-river view of Ponte alla Carraia. Originally built from wood in 1218, the bridge was the second in Florence and was then called Ponte Nuovo, being renamed when it was widened to allow carts to pass. Succumbing to numerous floods over the centuries, the rebuilding has resulted in a few different versions, the current structure was completed in 1948 after the retreating German Army destroyed it in 1944.

Cafes and designer shops occupy the beautiful buildings along Lungarno Corsini on the north bank of the river.

To the east, the magnificent Ponte Vecchio spans the Arno at its narrowest point

and stunning apartments defy gravity at the water’s edge of the south bank.

The Ponte Vecchio dates back to 994AD but became another victim of floodwaters. The present bridge has endured since 1345 and was the only bridge spared bombing during the German retreat.

The Ponte Santa Trinita is best viewed from the Ponte Vecchio.

Similarly assailed by floods, the original wooden structure if 1252 was replaced seven years later with stone. This, too, was lost in 1333, rebuilt with five arches, destroyed by floods in 1557 and reconstructed with the three arches seen today. In 1608, statues of the four seasons were added to greet pedestrians at each end of the bridge. Another casualty of the retreating Germans, the bridge was rebuilt and opened in 1958 with original material salvaged from the river.

East of the Ponte Vecchio is Ponte alle Grazie, originally constructed in 1227 it suffered the same wartime fate in 1944. After the war, a competition was held to create a new design and the modern, reinforced concrete structure was completed in 1953.

In 1565, Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici commissioned a secret passageway to connect his residence, the Palazzo Pitti on the south side of the river, with the seat of government, the Palazzo Vecchio on the north side. Designed by Giorgio Vasari, the one kilometre long Vasari Corridor (the square windows above the arches) follows the river to the Uffizi Gallery.

The Vasari Corridor crosses the river above the shops on the Ponte Vecchio.

Initially, butchers, fishmongers and tanners plied their wares along the bridge but the stench was so bad in the Corridor, in 1593 the Medici heir, Ferdinando I, decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers be allowed to own these shops.

A bronze bust of 16th century goldsmith, sculptor and author, Benvenuto Cellini, has pride of place in the centre of the bridge. His most famous work, Perseus with the Head of Medusa, stands in the Loggia dei Lanzi in the Piazza della Signoria.

From the bridge, we noticed an enticing spot to partake of a riverside beverage.

On further investigation, we found ourselves with Prosecco in hand at Osteria del Ponte Vecchio from where we enjoyed a different perspective of the bridge.