It's the swans at Huka Lodge that stir my thoughts. They float, seemingly serene, on the translucent emerald river that flows beneath weeping willows on the edge of Huka Lodge's immaculate lawns. But the current is swift, and just downstream the river thunders over a waterfall. The swans aren't, I think, as relaxed as they look. Beneath the water, they must paddle frantically to look beautiful for the idly admiring guests.
This is a vignette of luxury hotel life, here at hallowed Huka Lodge near Taupo in New Zealand. It's a place of utmost serenity, of gurgling water and the thunk of croquet mallets, of manicured grass and waiters in long white aprons on stylish terraces. None of it is achieved without considerable effort, but how does it happen?
Few top-end hotels let guests snoop but, unexpectedly, I discover Huka Lodge offers tours with amiable head gardener Elaine Tocker, who has been working here for more than 20 years. It's a rare opportunity to quiz a hotel worker, to part the shrubbery and see what happens behind the scenes. It's a treat for garden-lovers too. Huka Lodge has almost seven hectares of parkland that must seduce its demanding guests from the moment they swing through the gates.
I meet Tocker at the main lodge and soon learn there are six gardeners. One is devoted just to mowing lawns and clipping hedges. There are maintenance staff too, though they don't always appreciate the gardens. They hate the white cherry trees around the swimming pool of Alan Pye Cottage because they drop petals that clog the filters.
The hardest part of the job is having guests around, explains Tocker with a wry smile. She invites me to imagine what might happen when the mower goes over the swan poo deposited on lawns. "We have to learn to work around guests, you can't just do what you want, whenever you want. Plus there's a noise issue, and when we trim trees we have all sorts of equipment getting in the way."
Huka Lodge's gardens resemble an English-style park, but not many plantings are European. Superb Californian redwoods are now close to a century old, and there are plenty of New Zealand natives. Tocker points out the slow-growing rimu tree favoured for furniture making, and the totara that farmers use for fencing posts. The pathway to my room is lined with silver ferns that shimmer in filtered sunlight.
"Nearly all our new plants are now natives, though we do put out 1500 tulips in springtime. And we plant daffodils under this giant linden tree, which guests can see from the restaurant terraces."
Huka Lodge sits on a volcanic plateau with free-draining soil, so gardens must be constantly irrigated. Summer is dry, spring wet, winter dry and cold, autumn beautiful, explains Tocker succinctly. The conditions are great for magnolias, azaleas, rhododendrons and Japanese maples, which provide bursts of colour through the year. Tocker loves the perfumed "Floral Sun" rhododendron variety whose white trumpet-like flowers have yellow interiors.
These grow around the Water Garden, which also features cherry trees and viburnums. Miniature waterfalls tumble over rocks on which damp-loving ferns and bog primulas cling. The latest addition to the grounds is a yoga and meditation track, started in 2012 and only recently opened. Guests can wander in here from the main lodge, past the orchard with its heritage plum and quince trees.
Eventually they find themselves on an enclosed lawn framed in giant trees. Manuka bushes bloom, and clematis climbs up the spokes of old parasols, forming purple canopies. A spot to be serene, while gardeners dig and clip and plant, never disturbing the peace.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Tourism New Zealand and Huka Lodge.
Air New Zealand operates multiple flights between Australia and Auckland. Huka Lodge is a three-hour drive south, or a flight to Taupo Airport. See airnewzealand.com.au
Huka Lodge is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux brand. A one-night Garden Lovers package including meals and one-hour garden tour costs from $NZ1112pp ($1027pp). Phone 02 9377 8444, See hukalodge.co.nz