It may have a shocker of a name, but Dead Horse Lake – altitude 1850 metres – scores big in the view stakes. Standing on the shore of the pocket-sized lake on a frosty morning, we look down on a spectacular panorama of snow-capped peaks, verdant valleys and clouds draped over rocky ridges like gauzy shawls.
Two things are remarkable about this view, apart from its beauty. The first is that it took us just five minutes to get here, thanks to a helicopter that landed on the lodge's front lawn and whisked us straight up here. The second? We have the view all to ourselves. You would expect a spot this scenic to be packed with visitors – but as we are on private property, we don't have to share the experience with anyone.
This is one of the biggest selling points of Mahu Whenua, New Zealand's newest luxury lodge, which opened last year. Getting here is easy – the lodge lies 20 minutes outside Wanaka, which in turn is just an hour away from Queenstown – but once you are ensconced on the property, you are master of your domain. There are 55,000 hectares of spectacular scenery to explore on foot, on an e-bike or on one of the lodge's horses, which enjoy deluxe lodgings just a short stroll from the homestead. Alternatively, you can get the helicopter to drop you in a particularly pretty spot and then, depending on the season, hike or ski home.
Nature is at the heart of Mahu Whenua, which is as much an eco-sanctuary as it is a luxury retreat. Owner Mutt Lange – a legendary record producer who has worked with everyone from AC/DC to Lady Gaga, Bryan Adams to Def Leppard – has spent well over a decade regenerating these former sheep stations. (The name Mahu Whenua means Healing the Land.) He has planted more than 1 million trees, shrubs and grasses, launched preservation programs for endangered birds such as the weka and the pukeko, and has gifted more than 90 per cent of it back to New Zealand through the Queen Elizabeth II Trust, to ensure its ongoing preservation.
Magnificent as the landscape is, the lodge is an attraction in its own right. The sprawling farmhouse-style home, with its stone walls and weathered beams of reclaimed timber, was originally built as a home for Lange and his ex-wife, singer Shania Twain, and it retains a distinctly domestic feel.
With just four suites – two in the main building, two just a short walk away – this is perhaps New Zealand's smallest luxury lodge. Each room is different. The imposing Tui master suite, for instance, has a magnificent copper bathtub that enjoys a view across Lake Wanaka and the mountains. The Cottage suites, by contrast, are cosier but offer absolute seclusion.
Most guests, however, will find themselves gravitating to the main lodge, a sprawling space with plenty of cosy nooks in which to curl up and soak up the sensational surrounds. I spend much of my time sprawled in the magnificent living room, with its oversized lounges and mesmerising views, or curled up in an armchair in front of the kitchen fire, where the staff keep me supplied with coffee and from where it is easy to stage a quick raid on one of the cookie jars.
A word to the wise: don't raid those jars too often. You will want to leave room for the dinners, three courses of spectacularly executed comfort food. From whitebait omelette with a zingy ginger sauce to the best French onion soup this side of the Champs Elysees, each dish is an absolute winner. There are plenty of private corners for tete-a-tete dinners but general manager Fiona Stevens says that friendships form quickly over the nightly cocktails. "More often than not, guests will come and say, 'Can we eat together?'" Stevens says. The answer is yes – just head for the dining room where a banquet-style table awaits.
If you are looking for a double dose of Kiwi luxury, Mahu Whenua has teamed with Queenstown's Matakauri Lodge for a week-long package. Located just outside Queenstown on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, Matakauri offers a high-style contrast to Mahu Whenua, with interiors courtesy of uber-designer Virginia Fisher, immaculate service and a menu of indulgent activities. Gourmands will lean towards a tour of the area's superb wineries, while adrenalin junkies may choose to enjoy a spot of jetboating. Alternatively, you might want to soothe your stressed body with a relaxing massage at Matakauri's spa.
How ever you spend your days, Matakauri's superb degustation dinners are a nightly highlight. Chef Jonathan Rogers builds his ever-changing menus around the best New Zealand ingredients, with dishes ranging from Southland beef tartare with shiitake, quail egg and mustard dressing, and Northland snapper in a citrus dressing.
Virgin Australia operates four direct flights a week between Sydney and Queenstown, with more in peak periods. In October, it will introduce three direct Melbourne-Queenstown flights per week. See virginaustralia.com
The Tried and True and Something New Package includes four nights at Matakauri Lodge and three nights at Mahu Whenua, most meals, and a range of activities including a private half-day wine tour, a helicopter tour and a massage. The seven-night package costs $NZ13,590 for two, twin share. See robertsonlodges.com or mahuwhenua.co.nz
Ute Junker travelled courtesy of Mahu Whenua, Matakauri Lodge and Virgin Australia.