Lake Okareka Lodge, New Zealand review: No name-drops please, we're Kiwi

Read our writer's views on this property below

Steve Dow takes the scenic route to a lodge in Rotorua so plush and private, it's a celebrity favourite.

The privately chartered helicopter zigzags leisurely above rugged mountainous countryside dense with ferns. To our left, we see the Pacific Ocean and Tuhua, or Mayor Island, where kiwi birds have been released to breed without disease; to our right, lush looking dairy farms.

Our party of five has been met at the end of our Sydney flight at Auckland Airport and whisked through formalities as priority passengers to board our 55-minute, 230-kilometre chopper tour south to Rotorua.

We are bound for an idyll that's a whisker east of Rotorua township: the luxury Lake Okareka Lodge, which is less than five years old but was renovated to a five-star standard for its official reopening last April.

The lodge's Bangkok-based owner, Lebua Hotels' president Rattawadee Bualert, hails from a Thai family that made its fortune in real estate. The company is marketing its newest resort with the lure of privacy - one person or couple can book the whole place and only one party is accepted at a time - as well as a 24-hour butler, a personal chef, a climate-controlled wine cellar and private massages.

Whether all that's enough to take the edge off the hefty nightly rate probably depends on what degree an affluent holidaymaker values exclusivity. Certainly, in its location on Acacia Road - dubbed the "millionaires' mile" by locals - it would be possible to luxuriate without being seen.

Our pilot, Rupert, tells us of violence that long ago erupted near our destination, prompting another sort of drastic renovation — of the lakes and landscape. In the early hours of June 10, 1886, Mount Tarawera near Rotorua erupted, burying mostly Maori and some local Europeans and visitors. Curiously, there were no lava flows at the time.

Tarawera's eruption also destroyed a world-famous New Zealand attraction, forever burying the natural wonder of the "terraces": thick pink and white silica deposits from geysers that attracted tourists who would bathe in pools formed in the pink ones.

The Lake Okareka, region is home to wetlands filled with trout, ducks and swans, its tranquillity at odds with the area's violent history, though there is a gentle reminder every morning when the sun rises in the east, where Mount Tarawera sits in resplendent view.

Advertisement

I am put at ease as soon as our helicopter arrives at Lake Okareka Lodge's helipad. The view across the lake to Tarawera and the surrounding mountains is breathtaking. Inside, past large limestone sculptures made by Maori Rotorua artist Joe Kemp, we step into the main dining area, which looks out on to the same sweeping view.

Upstairs is the knockout: the 128-square-metre main bedroom suite directly above the dining room has the same expansive views from every angle. It also has a deep spa bath, a shower recess built for two with a large rain head, a walk-in dressing area with wardrobes on three sides, a desk with a computer and internet and an iPod dock. The two other bedroom suites are only about half the size but are still well proportioned.

The lodge's head chef, David Robinson, prepares a welcome dinner that night: for entree, a sashimi of bluefin tuna, seared scampi with blood-orange and ginger vinaigrette accompanied by a Marlborough region sauvignon blanc; for mains, spiced New Zealand venison loin with cauliflower cannelloni, braised red cabbage and shallots, with a Central Otago pinot noir.

At the head of the table, Deepak Ohri holds court about why he thinks Lake Okareka will succeed: exclusivity, he argues, has become too diluted, with big-name brands making luxury goods available to a mass market. To be truly exclusive, he says, requires an edge, such as being able to book out a lodge that offers the privacy of being flown in by helicopter, unobtrusive staff and the opportunity to do nothing more, perhaps, than fish in a lake well stocked with rainbow trout, as is the case here.

The manager of Lake Okareka, Diana Moore, is tight-lipped about the "very wealthy people and very famous names" who have stayed; "discretion and privacy" are paramount, she says. Still, I wonder whether the "famous name" thing is a bit of a marketing ploy. Certainly over dinner, Moore's boss, Ohri, drops some big names - customers of the company's jewel, the Sirocco rooftop restaurant on the 63rd floor of Lebua Hotel at State Tower in Bangkok, Ohri says Mick Jagger wanted to sing ("We said no") and Richard Branson wanted to book the place for a night for $1 million ("We said no").

Maybe it's simply that discretion is a greater priority in the volcanic wetlands of New Zealand. The lodge can organise fishing, trail-bike rides or a massage at the lodge or at the Polynesian Spa in town.

This area is an important cradle of Maori culture. Check out the various local marae, or meeting grounds, and drive through the neighbourhood to see steam rising from the earth in neighbourhood gardens.

Steve Dow travelled courtesy of Lebua Hotels and Resorts

TRIP NOTES

WHERE Lake Okareka Lodge, 103 Acacia Road, Lake Okareka, Rotorua. Phone +64 7 362 8026, see okareka.co.nz.

HOW MUCH Regular nightly rate of $NZ5005 ($3852) plus GST a couple. The lodge can organise helicopter charters from Auckland for an additional cost.

TOP MARKS Impeccable decor meets kick-off-the-shoes comfort.

BLACK MARK The managers could become more conversant with Maori culture and sights.

DON'T MISS The Skyline gondola provides expansive views over Rotorua. See skylineskyrides.co.nz.