New Zealand's secret volcano pool: The bath of a lifetime

Lake Tarawera is still in the dawn light, with the Maori's sacred Mount Tarawera mirrored in its glassy surface as we glide towards our pre-breakfast soak at Tarawera thermal springs.    

Mooring at a hidden bay, we pick our way down a path to the secretive thermal pool steaming between native kanuka, manuka and tree ferns to join some early rising locals in the clear hot water.  

But there's nothing humdrum about this particular bath time, one of the optional adventures for guests at the lovely Solitaire Lodge built on a private lake peninsula, 30 minutes from Rotorua. 

A combination of steaming cliffs, slumbering volcano, black swans sailing from the mist, legends of phantom war canoes and the tiny threat of amoebic meningitis means our bath comes with a shiver of trepidation.    

In 1886, the mountain beneath which we now soak exploded, ripping a 17-kilometre rift, killing an estimated 150 people, burying villages and destroying the eighth wonder of the world – the Pink and White Terraces. So violent was the three-hour-long eruption, the good folk of Auckland believed the Russians were invading.    

There's also the slightly troubling skull-and-crossbones sign: "Danger. Do not put head in water. Amoebic meningitis is fatal and caused by water entering nasal passages." One of the lobster-hued ladies is splashing her face somewhat immoderately.    

Fertile imaginations aside, the 38-degree water, the reverent tones of fellow soakers and the sweet sounds of fantails, tui and kereru in the surrounding trees is having the desired effect.     

Plus the promise of a sumptuous lodge breakfast – fresh-baked croissants, lodge-made ciabatta and wholegrain bread, homemade rhubarb and plum jams and grapefruit marmalade, fresh fruit, truffled field mushrooms, organic eggs and bacon, lodge-made herbed potato cake, excellent coffee.

This is all served to the accompaniment of magical views to the lake across a sculpture-scattered garden, full of happy native plants and exotics such as pink and white oriental lilies, roses, irises, lemons and agapanthus.    

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Solitaire Lodge, one of New Zealand's first luxury lodges after Huka Lodge at Taupo on the Waikato River, has had a long time to get things right – and they've done this spectacularly well.    

Built in 1980 as a fishing lodge, Solitaire blends sympathetically into its striking environment, inviting nature inside through its semi-circular shape and grand picture windows that exploit every aspect of its peninsula position.     

The lake, the bay, the mountain, the surrounding richly vegetated green hills all give a strong hint at the multitudinous activities offered. Guests can simply take a lodge kayak or dinghy onto the lake, swim from the jetty, walk the lake edge, borrow a lodge bike or choose Solitaire's massage/spa therapy.

Or they can sign up for organised activities, which include our thermal hot spring excursion, mountain and waterfall hiking, rainbow trout, fly or heli-fishing, helicopter excursions to the active Mount White volcano or the dormant craters of Tarawera, horse trekking, mountain biking or skiing.

There's even something called "biscuiting", though the only biscuiting I'll be doing will be eating them until they're gone (the buttery beauties in our suite).    

Managers Pip and Nick Goodhew, who rotate hosting duties with owners Wayne Tomlinson and his wife Ingrid Jaques, provide a nice balance of laid-back sophistication. And there's a heart-warming desire to please.

Pip greets us and at once divines that we are suffering travel-overload. We're speedily installed in our beautiful suite, with its newly refurbished cream, pale grey and earth tones, its magnificent bath with lovely Molton Brown toiletries and extravagant mountain and lake views.    

How relaxing it is to recline on our king bed with its down duvet and pillows, quaffing the complimentary Lindauer cuvee brut and gazing through floor-to-ceiling windows at the aquamarine lake and attendant mountain.

Keeping a weather eye out naturally for that portent of doom, the Maori phantom war canoe. Tourists and local Maori witnessed this apparition and the canoe's reappearance will apparently herald a future eruption. 

Solitaire has 10 suites with panoramic water views and some with Mount Tarawera vistas. All have picture windows, private verandahs, king beds, sitting areas, airconditioning, excellent Wi-Fi, well-stocked fridge and homemade snacks.

Look out for the lodge artwork, which references local history. A fine Charles Blomfield oil painting hangs above the main fireplace. It's from a series he painted of the Pink and White Terraces just before the eruption, 14 of which were displayed at London's Colonial and Indian Exhibition. 

There are also originals from one of the world's most admired wildlife artists, Raymond Ching, including an elegant black swan.

On top of tranquillity, comfort and beauty, there is fine dining. Chefs David Robinson and Mirai Sato, both from Rotorua, use seasonal, local products in their New Zealand contemporary cuisine. The piece de resistance is the five-course evening meal with eclectic wine suggestions. You can also select regional varieties from the lodge cellar.

A nice part of lodge life arrives when evening falls over lake and mountain and guests gather in the main lounge for aperitifs, canapes and conversation.

The canapes provide a taste of what is to come – baby red pepper and goat's cheese, profiterole and smoked salmon mousse, sweetcorn fritter and chipotle dressing and crispy onion and beef croquette. 

Rotorua-born maître d'hotel, Graham Wilcox, is knowledgeable about New Zealand wines and how they work with the courses.

These include red pepper and coconut soup, cured Aoraki/Mt Cook salmon, avocado, fennel and citrus salad, lime granita, Southern ocean blue cod, mussels, cauliflower, pinenuts, baby leek and beurre noisette or duck leg confit and finally Belgian chocolate souffle, salted caramel gelato, vanilla tuille.

After which time, 100 phantom war canoes can appear for all I care.

Which takes me back to the morning's thermal pool. Once the protective locals have finished admonishing pool inhabitants (us) to "keep this place secret" (sorry), they repeat a conversation that took place between some recent pool visitors.

"Wonder what the rich people are doing?" wonders one. "Same as you," the other replies, "Only we flew in by helicopter." 

TRIP NOTES

MORE 

traveller.com.au/new-zealand 

newzealand.com/  

rotoruanz.com/  

FLY

Air New Zealand flies daily from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane to Auckland. See airnewzealand.com.au 

STAY

Solitaire Lodge has doubles from $NZ1450. Full board includes complimentary mini bar (alcoholic, non-alcoholic drinks and snacks), pre-dinner drinks and canapes, five-course dinner, full breakfast, light lunch. Use of lodge bicycles, dinghies and kayaks. See solitairelodge.co.nz 

Alison Stewart was a guest of Tourism New Zealand, Destination Rotorua and Solitaire Lodge    

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