Ask and you shall receive

At a luxury lodge near Rotorua, Max Anderson discovers no request is unreasonable for the resident butler.

'Any time you're hungry," says Homer Simpson's billionaire half-brother, Herb. "Any time, day or night, Cook will make you anything you want."

"Even pork chops?" asks Homer incredulously.

(Cut to a darkened bedroom where Homer is whispering into the phone: "Hello, Cook? Sorry to bother you so late but I got a hankering for some ... That's right! Don't forget the apple sauce!")

Just how do you test a place that caters to your every desire?

Lake Okareka Lodge, near Rotorua, is one of many luxury retreats springing up like mushrooms across the rich, black soils of New Zealand. But ignore the overused "lodge" moniker, for these six-star holiday homes have little to do with the $NZ1500-a-night ($1165) luxury lodges made famous by Huka, Cape Kidnappers and Blanket Bay. For a start, places like Okareka are more expensive. They're also appealing to people who want a literal interpretation of the word "exclusive" - that is, with everyone else excluded.

For $NZ4025 a night, a couple can have the run of Lake Okareka Lodge and the undivided attention of its staff, including chef David Robinson and butler Graham Willcox. (If you can get two more couples to holiday with you, the price increases to $NZ7475 a night but the per-couple cost reduces nicely.)

So I'm sitting in an outdoor jacuzzi, peering over a glass of obligatory bubbles at the lake fringed by a volcanic crater, jotting some half-hearted words in my notebook. A light rain sweeps over the baby-blue sky, obscuring the view of dormant Mount Tarawera, and before I can write "blimey, look at that rainbow" Graham the butler emerges with an umbrella to keep my notes dry.

And yes, he reassures me, he's perfectly happy to clean my shoes should I wish. But as a local of 50 years he's equally happy to suggest places to visit. "Some guests want me to engage and interact," he says, adjusting the brolly. "I might be their only contact with a New Zealander. But if they want me solely to wait on them, that's fine too and I make sure I stay in the background."

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The jacuzzi is a good place to adjust to the curious sensation that all this is yours: the lake house built with schist pillars, copper shingles and Kiwi hardwoods; the forest-clad knob of land with its small cusp of beach; and the views across the lake to a steep rim of pohutukawa trees and punga ferns. It's for busy executives who want to stop being busy and spend some time with their family.

When Steven Spielberg was here some years ago, he took over all six suites of Lake Okareka. No one's saying what the director thought of the experience but in 2008 the new Thai owner, Lebua, thought it could be improved upon and transformed six suites into three.

Thus, my suite on the top floor is a penthouse-sized 120 square metres. Like the rest of the lodge, it's filled with light and lake views and appointed to evoke a comfortable opulence. There are some touches that smack of Cowardesque pastiche (exhibit A: the baby grand piano in the drawing room) but manager Diana Moore's contemporary style has seen the installation of fine contemporary Kiwi art, some terrific brassy wallpapers and a remote-console entertainment system that can pipe music wherever you go. Work-spaces, a gym and a private massage room are at your disposal, likewise a helipad and boathouse.

But just what is it that I want to do?

Well, actually, I'd like to try fly-fishing for trout. Shall we say tomorrow?

As the sun breasts the crater's eastern rim, the lake is mercury and the temperature hovers above perishing - but housekeeper Lenore is ready with a rod, tied flies and a licence with my name on it. She also brings a flask of fresh coffee while I cast for trout that leap obligingly close to the private jetty.

When the lake turns inky blue, the fish have gone deeper, so I'm supplied with - what else - a jet-ski. I use this to plough a watery furrow towards the furthermost amphitheatres of rock and forest, from where the lodge appears as one of a number of discreet yet wealthy structures hugging the shore. I'd stay and admire if I wasn't so hungry.

Eating is integral to the experience. Chef David's spreads are a performance and he puts heart, soul and local ingredients into five-course evening blowouts starring the likes of pistachio-crusted rack of lamb with parsnip puree. At breakfast, there's another menu of fresh local options and while his eggs benny is a standout, it's the homemade marmalade that scores points. But as he's always keen to point out, if there's anything I want, anything at all, I only have to ask.

And I do have a request for tomorrow morning - I want to watch an extra-special European football game that isn't showing on rugby-obsessed Kiwi television. Again no problem: I'm ferried at 5.45am to a cool little pub in Rotorua called Hennessy's, where backpackers of all hue are quaffing Guinness. Ah yes - the locals. How does local colour fit into a picture that's been touched up to be ostensibly note-perfect?

Well, truth be told, it doesn't. At least not easily. Rotorua, like geothermal destinations the world over, is a trifle overcooked and a little bit overvisited but no less fizzing with life and bubbling with eccentricity. Personally, I love the jolly geothermal parks such as Hell's Gate, where you can immerse in stinking grey ooze; the mineral baths at the Polynesian Spa; and the bizarre Victorian folly that is the town's faux-Tudor centrepiece (housing a fine museum).

I'm a sucker also for the contemporary madness: the hyper-adrenal attractions of Agroventure, home to the Ultimate Freefall (flying in the updraft of a horizontally mounted DC3 propeller), the Shweeb (pedal-powered pods slung beneath a monorail) and the original 120km/h jetboat ride.

But quite what the $NZ4025-a-night captains of industry make of this is hard to know, which is exactly why the Lake Okareka distractions are mixed in with some more upmarket options. These include private fishing guides who can take you to Lake Tarawera, where the big trout are caught and where you can bury your catch to cook in the hot black sands of the shoreline.

Then there's the Volcanic Air floatplane, which will idle up to the Okareka jetty and whisk you away for geothermal flight-seeing; or a helicopter to take you for an intimate encounter with the smoking crater of White Island.

I thoroughly enjoy my private culinary adventure with Maori chef Charles Royal, harvesting the likes of pico-pico ferns, huhu grubs and ear fungus among 1000-year-old forest giants.

Later, sitting in a magical garden of ferns and Maori sculpture, Royal uses these ingredients in an eight-course meal that is true gastronomy - a rare experience of flavour, history and culture.

But just because this and other exclusive retreats are expensive, they're no less accountable when it comes to summing up. Yes, there are things wrong with Okareka. I'm disappointed to see the natural skincare products that the Kiwis do so well have been passed over for Bulgari amenities; the bathrooms are big enough to sleep 30 backpackers and are equipped with a plasma television but are rather charmless; and if you're the third couple in the equation you get precious little lake view from your back-of-house suite.

But this retreat makes good on what it offers, properly catering to whatever you need or want in peaceful surroundings of great beauty.

How do I know? Well it's midnight on my last night and even though I'm stuffed to the gunnels with dinner, I feel somewhat obliged to put them to a proper test.

"Hello, Graham? Sorry to bother you so late, but I got a hankering for some ... That's right! Don't forget the apple sauce!"

Max Anderson travelled courtesy of Lake Okareka Lodge, Tourism Rotorua and Air New Zealand.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Air New Zealand has a fare to Auckland for about $NZ470 ($364) from Melbourne (3hr 30min), then Rotorua (40min). From Sydney, there are two flights a week to Rotorua (3hr 15min) for about $400, otherwise via Auckland.

Staying there

Exclusive hire of Lake Okareka costs from $NZ4025 a couple a night. This includes all meals, pre-dinner drinks, butler service, tax and transfers. Suites can be taken on a non-exclusive basis from about $1800 a couple for the garden suite. See lebua.com/en/lake-okareka-lodge/.

Half-day private fishing tours cost from $NZ600 a person; Charles Royal's tours cost from NZ$150 a person, maorifood.com. Volcanic Air Safaris run 30-minute flight-seeing from $NZ260 a person, volcanicair.co.nz. White Island half-day trips cost $NZ810 a person.

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