The Southern Alps have been forming for 45 million years and Maori named the tallest peak "cloud piercer". In 1884 the Hermitage was built within what would become Aoraki Mount Cook National Park. Fires and floods destroyed that hotel, and the next one, but in 1958 the Hermitage Aoraki Mount Cook rose and remains.
In 1990, Te Wahipounamu South West New Zealand, encompassing the national park, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. That same year the woman who is the hotel's current executive housekeeper, Linda Taylor, was first employed as a room attendant. Back then, the main hotel had 104 rooms and its best suites sported floral wallpaper in a baby-poo-palate that exactly matched the bedspreads and curtains. The lounge where guests wrote their postcards had gold-coloured drapes and emerald green carpet and wallpaper. It still does and a section of the space is now Taylor's office.
Having worked at the Hermitage in two stints for nearly 15 years, Taylor recognises that housekeeping is "the guts of it, we're the backbone". She adores her gaudy office – loves that the history is still there in such a contemporary hotel – while her favourite guest spaces are the Wakefield rooms. "Not as big as Aoraki rooms, but they have larger balconies with glass across the front."
All but 22 of the main hotel's 164 rooms have a direct view of Aoraki Mount Cook. The others face the Tasman Valley or Mount Sefton, which is sometimes mistaken for Aoraki.
It is late autumn when I arrive on a Scenic coach. Most passengers head to Sir Edmund Hillary Alpine Centre cafe, souvenir shop and museum for 3D movies and planetarium shows. It's perfect outside, however, so others leave through the glass-fronted foyer and walk straight onto the Kea Point Lookout track.
Less than an hour later, I'm at Mueller Lake and far closer to the country's highest mountain. I finally understand why I keep meeting people – even ones living near the Alps in Europe or the Rockies in North America – just hanging to come here and work in hospitality so they can play in this glaciated alpine landscape.
A premium plus room at The Hermitage Aoraki Mount Cook.
Taylor recommends at least two nights at the Hermitage because "the weather is a bit iffy up here". For shorter stays, she suggests Hooker Valley track, a Glacier Explorers tour and Big Sky Stargazing. For meals, she suggests the buffet in the Alpine Restaurant on the first night, a la carte in the Panorama Room on the second and the cafe by day. Picnic lunches can also be arranged.
Come "once in summer, once in winter", she says, because in November the Mount Cook lily flowers and, although leaves in the park don't change colour much, the place looks completely different under snow. And "the air is sharper in winter".
Taylor never tires of her commute alongside Lake Pukaki to and from a hotel independently owned by a Queenstown-based New Zealand family, though she does often find it heart-wrenching to say goodbye to staff. She has physically run after people who have accidentally left something in their room and posted a pair of wedding-day knickers back to a bride who had not intended to part with them.
That evening, over fireside wine, the Australian Scenic tour director tells me some of her best memories are as a room attendant here in the 1990s. Turns out she and Taylor are still friends.
Elspeth Callender travelled as a guest of Scenic.
Air New Zealand operates daily direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Christchurch. See airnewzealand.com.au
The Hermitage Aoraki Mount Cook offers a wide selection of accommodation including one-bedroom penthouse suites, self-contained A-frame chalets, motel rooms. See hermitage.co.nz
A night at the Hermitage in a room with a view and entry to the "Sir Ed" centre are part of Scenic's 12-day Southern Spectacular (Christchurch to Christchurch) tour. See scenic.com.au