Our trans-Tasman neighbours have established an international reputation for luxury lodges in remote locations. Amanda Woodard visits the latest addition to the collection, while Sarah Maguire returns to the place where it all began.
Balanced on the shores of Lake Wakatipu looking out over the snow-capped mountain ranges of the Remarkables, Matakauri Lodge is in one of the most jaw-dropping locations in the southern hemisphere. A mere seven kilometres outside Queenstown, the hip adventure capital of New Zealand's South Island, the lodge has been reincarnated under the ownership of New York's Robertson family, who also own the luxury golf resorts Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers on the North Island.
A setting this beautiful deserves a lodge as gorgeous as Matakauri and NZ interior designer Virginia Fisher (see profile, right) is largely responsible. A markedly different aesthetic to Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers (both properties also designed by Fisher), the decor is more pared-back, contemporary, luxurious and very tasteful. It's not hard to see where Fisher found her inspiration.
A lakeside walk takes you through lush woodland whose colours of ochre, rust, cinnamon, vibrant yellow and dusky pink are brought together in soft furnishings throughout the buildings. There's a wonderful variety of texture, too, which makes Matakauri irresistible: Italian marble floors, richly woven rugs, iron fireplaces, revealed brickwork and slatted ceilings – it's a combination that just works.
The 11 luxury suites are oriented for maximum seclusion and privacy, with floor-to-ceiling windows and uninterrupted views of the mountains and lake that can be enjoyed from the bed, the sofas or my favourite place, the bath. Although one may try to read or feel obliged to catch up on the news (the TV, thankfully, is concealed behind a painting), it is NZ's second-deepest lake that draws the eye back constantly. The milky jade water has a hypnotic effect; it can appear calm one moment, agitated the next, whisked by winds that rise up from nowhere and disappear just as rapidly.
Down by the lodge jetty are the dark-green, water-smoothed pebbles or "pounamu" as the Maori call them. The powdery sediment from their erosion gives the lake its colour and if you stand by it long enough, you will observe the strange phenomenon – caused by the mountains and changes in wind pressure – that causes the lake to vary its height every six minutes by between eight and 20 centimetres.
The next morning finds me contemplating Matakauri Lodge again, from the top of one of the snow-capped mountains I can see from my room. I'm also holding a glass of warm gluhwein, eating smoked salmon and listening to a vinyl 78 record of You Are My Sunshine being played on a vintage wind-up gramophone. I'm not dreaming – this is the Picnic on a Peak experience offered by the aptly named Over the Top helicopter tour company in Queenstown.
Our pilot and the company's owner, Louisa "Choppy" Patterson, is a local legend, dressed all in black with aviator shades – she could be James Bond's long-lost sister. She steers the helicopter teasingly towards the face of the mountain, all the while talking over her shoulder to those in the back. At the last minute, she lifts us up and over on to the ridge.
It's heart-in-the-mouth stuff and makes you realise how thrilling it must be to heli-ski around here. Over the Top specialises in custom tours and trips to Milford Sound, as well as accessing some of the more remote rivers for fly-fishing trips.
There is so much to do in and around Queenstown, whether it's jet-boat adventures or bungy jumping, and the knowledgeable staff at Matakauri – who have usually done it themselves – will arrange any trips for you. Access to The Hills private golf club, for example, is open to guests of Matakauri and skiing and fishing trips can be booked by the lodge.
Jay Robertson, the owner's eldest son and manager of the New Zealand lodges, recalls one guest returning from a fishing expedition with a 170-kilogram blue marlin. Thankfully, Matakauri's superb chef Dale Gartland (hailing from Shropshire in Britain) wasn't asked to cook it.
It would be easy to dine in at Matakauri all the time as Gartland's changing menu makes the most of fresh New Zealand produce. The tasting menu is a treat ranging from succulent scallops to my favourite, the filet of beef with braised oxtail. If you are tempted further afield, then lunch at the Amisfield winery is worth the half-hour trip. Another great place for breakfast or lunch on a rainy day is Eichardt's Private Hotel in one of Queenstown's oldest buildings, which boasts leather banquettes and open fire.
Nothing quite compares to having your own exclusive views at Matakauri Lodge, however, and dusk is a time when you should seat yourself on the chaise next to the window for a light show that must be seen to be believed.
Amanda Woodard was a guest of Matakauri Lodge.
Dave Wood apologises for the smell of dead duck and wet dog as we climb into his four-wheel-drive. It's bird-shooting season in Taupo and the garrulous outdoors guide has been hunting with his Welsh springer spaniel and single-barrel shotgun.
I can't discern anything particularly noxious, neither the dog nor any ducks being in the car today, but the rough-and-ready cabin is a contrast to the luxury we're leaving behind as we pull out of the driveway. We're staying at Huka Lodge, the granddaddy of New Zealand lodges, the prototype for all the paeans to elegant opulence that have come since. The list of awards placing it among the world's best hotels is pages long; among its more recent gongs is the 2010 Tatler Enduring Excellence Award, presented to Huka's owner Alex van Heeren at the Ritz Hotel in London.
I'm staying in Huka's latest addition, Alan Pye Cottage, named in honour of the Irishman who founded Huka Lodge in the 1920s. Then, it was a series of wood-framed canvas tents to which royalty and other wealthy guests came for the trout fishing in the Waikato River. A plaque on the fireplace in the library pays tribute to Pye: for 40 years at "his beloved Huka Lodge", he "represented the finest traditions of the gentleman angler, friend and host to people the world over". It is where the Queen dined and where we follow suit one rainy lunchtime, the rich flavours of the wild rabbit bolognaise lingering strongest among a memorable two days of fine dining.
They say Pye was charming, easy to believe given his clientele, and a bit of a rogue: "I think there was a reason he was in New Zealand," says acting lodge manager Louis de Bievre as we look at photographs of Pye and Huka's rustic beginnings.
"In those days, it was a real fly-fishing place with no creature comforts," de Bievre says. "Fly-fishing was a sport of kings, landed gentry and wealthy gentlemen. They were high-born guests who slept in tents and didn't mind." Dave Wood, tall, handsome and outgoing, has his own easy charm, more than a touch of the Alan Pye in him, I suspect, as he travels the world providing company and guidance for wealthy clients whose passion is fly-fishing for trout in wild, remote places.
On the way to the Waitahanui River, he chats about hunting partridges, deer and bird, and his recipe for duck confit; the partridges, he tells us, are hung by the neck; when the bodies eventually fall off, the meat is ready to eat. He stands by patiently as we giggle our way into waders, throws an arm around our shoulders as we pose, ankle-deep in the pristine water, rods held aloft, for photographs.
Wood has three students today to introduce to the esoteric art of fly-fishing and we give it our best, our focus on learning how to cast – a skill that, like golf, is all about subtlety. The result is nil fish but we pose again for photographs with trout we didn't catch, borrowing them from a passing fisherman with a handlebar moustache and a tattoo on his forearm.
These days at Huka, canvas tents are supplanted by 18 riverfront lodge rooms, no doubt bypassed by the royalty who still stay at the Owner's Cottage which, at 364 square metres with four bedrooms, four bathrooms and separate accommodation for "accompanying staff", is far bigger than its name would suggest.
At 342 square metres, including an outdoor pavilion, Alan Pye Cottage is smaller, with two en suite bedrooms, but still worthy of royalty and any one of the numerous celebrities who come to stay at Huka, be they John Cleese, Bill Gates or Barbra Streisand.
On our second night, a three-course meal is cooked for us in the Alan Pye Cottage kitchen. Propped on plush dining chairs around a long wooden table, surrounded by stylish, symmetrically arranged ornaments that are one of the signatures of interior designer Fisher, we talk and drink local wine as waitress Mercedes delivers entrees of pork belly and Akaroa salmon and mains of fresh pasta and Canterbury lamb.
Dinner the night before was in the main lodge; guests mingled in the Lodge Room, where greyhound statues guard the fireplace and a tartan palette of blue, red and green evokes a grand Scottish estate, before sitting down to a winemakers dinner – one of several events held during the year at Huka.
On this occasion, wines from the Ata Rangi vineyard in Martinborough, north of Wellington, are paired with a five-course menu by executive chef Michel Louws, formerly of several Michelin-starred restaurants in the Netherlands.
Winemakers Clive and Phyll Patton are on hand to talk about their family business, their wine and the temperamental qualities of pinot noir grapes, from which they produce their most famous drops.
The food is flavoursome and inventive, the Pattons utterly charming and the bonhomie among friends and strangers flows as fast as any trout-laden New Zealand river. Just as Alan Pye would have liked it.
Sarah Maguire was a guest of Huka Lodge.
Trip notes - Matakauri Lodge
Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney to Queenstown three times a week during ski season, otherwise via Christchurch. Pacific Blue flies direct on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
Lodge rooms from $NZ595 ($454) a person a night, twin share, suites from $NZ620, deluxe suites from $NZ720. Prices include pre-dinner drinks, dinner, breakfast and minibar. +64 3 441 1008, matakauri.co.nz.
See + do
The Picnic on a Peak trip costs $NZ695 a person for two or $NZ495 for three or more people. +64 3 442 2233, flynz.co.nz.
Eichardt's Hotel, Marine Parade, Queenstown. +64 3 441 0450, eichardtshotel.co.nz.
Amisfield Winery, 10 Lake Hayes Road, Queenstown. +64 3 442 0556, amisfield.co.nz.
Trip notes - Huka Lodge
Air New Zealand flies direct from Sydney to Rotorua on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Huka Lodge is a one-hour drive away.
Low-season double rates from $NZ795 ($606) a person a night, high-season from $NZ1375; Alan Pye Cottage from $NZ3365 for two a night, $NZ5055 for four. Rates include pre-dinner drinks and five-course dinner. +64 7 378 5791, hukalodge.co.nz.
See + do
Huka Lodge will organise a range of activities, from fishing and golf to white-water rafting and scenic helicopter rides. A four-hour fly-fishing safari is $NZ539 for two people.