Perfect pitch at the summit

Peak and troughs... the tented lodges have a hot tub on the deck and sheepskin carpets.
Peak and troughs... the tented lodges have a hot tub on the deck and sheepskin carpets. Photo: Fredrik Larsson

By helicopter to the Southern Alps, Tricia Welsh discovers a soft landing in a luxury tent on a sheep and cattle station.

Matt Wallis puts on a dry-suit and flippers, swings the dive tank over his shoulder and plunges into the cool water in search of crayfish for dinner. A few minutes earlier, his brother, Toby, had landed the helicopter on a rocky outcrop off the west coast of New Zealand's South Island, where we were greeted by a lone fur seal.

We're having the ultimate New Zealand high-country experience, at the country's first luxury tented lodge, which opened in December. It's deep in the jagged peaks of the Southern Alps above Lake Wanaka at Minaret Station and is accessible only by helicopter.

This 20,000-hectare sheep, cattle and deer property has been in the Wallis family since 1995. Stock graze on impossibly steep slopes before being mustered by air to pastures by the lake, for shearing and sending off to market by barge across Lake Wanaka.

The patriarch is Sir Tim Wallis, who pioneered deer harvesting and live deer capture by helicopter in New Zealand and was knighted in 1994.

With his wife, Prue, he raised four sons who play a role in the family business: Toby runs Alpine Helicopters, Jonathan is the general manager of the pastoral side of Minaret Station, Matt is the director of tourism for the station and the brains behind the new tented accommodation, while youngest son, Nick, takes care of the agricultural side of the helicopter business.

In this rugged terrain, the Wallises use helicopters like the family car. They transfer guests from Queenstown and Wanaka and use choppers for excursions around the property and beyond. It is the only way to access some of the most scenic parts of the South Island, such as the 3033-metre Mount Aspiring -- just minutes away from the station's boundary. Imagine being dropped on peaks with virgin snow to ski, fly-fishing where your lure is the only non-insect attracting fish or picnicking by a stream in the wilderness.

But right now, Matt's on a mission to gather crayfish for dinner at the lodge. Fresh fish and paua (abalone) may be added bonuses. Before this stop, we'd enjoyed a quiet picnic lunch in the mountains, then followed the blue glacial waters of Cascade River as it meanders to the sea.

Bubbles rise to the surface as Matt emerges triumphant with a bag full of seafood. Never one to boast, when I ask how many he has caught, he assures: "Enough for dinner."

In James Bond-style, he unzips his dry-suit, which he has put on straight over his shirt and trousers, and once more we are flying over beech forests and zigzagging through narrow valleys, following the Waipara River back up to the snowcapped peaks.

Back at the camp, Botswana-born chef Leungo Lippe is eager to see the haul and devise a menu for dinner. With experience gained in New York, Washington and London restaurants including Marco Pierre White's L'Escargot, Lippe creates modern classic dishes using station-reared beef, lamb and venison, fresh seafood and local produce. There are freshly baked muffins for breakfast and four courses for dinner.

The lodge is at an elevation of 914 metres in classic Lord of the Rings territory. It comprises a mountain kitchen, where guests gather by open fires in comfortable lounges for meals, and four heated and insulated safari tents with en suites. We soak in hot-tubs on starry nights and relax in casual furniture on the wooden deck.

New Zealand is well known for its luxury lodges. Minaret Station is the first under canvas and offers a keen sense of place, with wall-to-wall carpets made from station-grown sheepskins, possum-fur throw rugs and power provided by a simple hydro-electric generator installed in a small waterfall.

The hosts are Jerry and Shirl Rowley, high-country farmers for many years. Shirl was a nanny to the Wallis boys as toddlers, so they are like extended family. Jerry guides guests on walks through the valley, stopping by waterfalls, and is always on the lookout for wild chamois, a type of mountain antelope, or shaggy-coated tahr that can sometimes be seen roaming the hills.

"We want our guests to share all of the aspects of the Southern Alps that meant so much to us growing up in this special environment," Matt says. "Whether that be the change in the pure mountain breezes, waking up along with local wildlife or the sounds of the nearby river entering the boulder-strewn gorge on its way down to the lake. In these tented suites, you experience the magic of the high country."

Tricia Welsh travelled courtesy of Minaret Station.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Jetstar, Air New Zealand, Qantas and Pacific Blue have non-stop flights to Queenstown, some from Sydney and some from Melbourne. On days where there are no non-stop flights you have to fly via Christchurch. Pacific Blue one-way fares from Sydney cost from $289, while Jetstar has a one-way fare from Melbourne for $239.

Staying there

Tented suites for two at Minaret Station are $NZ3500 ($3300) a night, with a minimum two-night stay. This includes helicopter transfers from Wanaka Airport, all meals, drinks and on-site activities, from gentle valley walks to advanced alpine trekking and the services of a camp guide. Helicopters provide transport for optional heli-fishing, hunting, fly-fishing, mountain picnics or sightseeing. See minaretstation.com.

The lure of Wanaka

WANAKA has long played second fiddle to Queenstown but with places such as Minaret Station opening up, well-heeled tourists are being lured to this picturesque lake region. Its population of 6000 swells to more than 15,000 during the summer Christmas and New Year holidays and again in winter for skiing at nearby Treble Cone and Cardrona, with cross-country skiing at Snow Farm.

The town has several museums including the New Zealand Fighter Pilots Museum initiated by Sir Tim Wallis, a Transport and Toy Museum and Puzzling World, full of mazes and illusion rooms for children.

From town, you can take a bike ride to Rippon Vineyard, which produces pinot noir, gewurtztraminer, riesling and rosé. Established about 25 years ago, the biodynamic vineyard has views across neat vines and tall poplars to the lake, with a backdrop of snow-capped peaks.

It has a new cellar door, dining facilities and an interesting Sculpture in Central Otago walk that takes visitors through the undulating vineyard.

The newly completed lakeside Millennium Track that extends 15 kilometres from Glendhu Bay along the Clutha River is popular in all seasons. It can be done in sections or as a full-day excursion.

The three-day Warbirds Over Wanaka air show is held each Easter weekend in even years and attracts more than 100,000 people.

Lake Wanaka is popular for boating in summer with family boat rides and organised cruises and has year-around fishing for rainbow and brown trout.

The historic Cardrona pub near Wanaka is a popular meeting point where diners can lunch on hearty fare at tables and chairs on lawns beneath umbrellas and trees. In winter, skiers descend for warming gluhwein.

See lakewanaka.co.nz.

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