Getting to a hotel is seldom part of its appeal, but Treetops Lodge isn't just any hotel. You get there on a winding country road from Rotorua that soon has you swallowed up in crumpled hills. You turn onto a side road past a tiny white clapboard church, then onto a dirt road marked with a yellow school-bus sign, then up a long avenue of Oriental plane trees.
Here you're buzzed through estate gates, but don't imagine you've arrived. You still have to corkscrew upwards through fern-filled forest that looks like it has been there since the age of dinosaurs. This is a true getaway. Rotorua might only be 20 kilometres behind you, but when you finally arrive at Treetops Lodge, it feels as if you've arrived at the Last Homely House.
The main lodge sits amid gushing streams, spongy pathways and mossy trees with unfamiliar names. Some are five centuries old, standing like monuments to nature's wonder. A few have been used to create the giant roof beams that hold up the cathedral ceiling of the main lodge, where everything is built on a huge scale. You could roast an ox in the fireplace. The library is large enough to host a convention of trolls.
The effect is theatrical. It's Game of Thrones, although Treetops Lodge was built before anyone had heard of Westeros. The baronial-style dining room has great wooden slabs of table surrounded by high-backed, studded leather chairs. The chandelier is made from a tangle of twigs like a jackdaw's giant nest. Dinner is served by candlelight. Expect game such as venison and pheasant, sprinkled with native herbs and accompanied by foraged plants.
Meals are superb, their gamey-ness lightened with South American influences such as chimichurri or by choices such as warm quinoa salad with poached salmon. Such contemporary influences pull Treetops Lodge back from being a medieval-Edwardian pastiche.
The baronial is abandoned entirely in the separate accommodation lodges, and the estate's eco-enthusiasms are right up to date. Owner John Sax calls trees "breathing giants of the forest" and suggests guests should listen to the scurrying of insects on pathways.
You can follow a forest food trail and learn about ingredients traditionally used by Maori such as horopito (pepper bush) and pikopiko (fern fronds). Or take a 4WD "estate to plate" safari that visits a pesticide-free kitchen garden and Manuka honey hives, before heading out into Treetops' 1000 hecatres, where elk and deer roam. You can fly fish for trout or enjoy 70 kilometres of mountain-biking, horse riding and walking tracks.
This is also a hunting lodge, which explains the elk and several species of deer, plus buffalo, pheasant and ducks. It's mostly American guests who set off with guns and trackers in the early morning. The game ends up in the kitchen as steaks, salami and breakfast bacon. The estate aims at being sustainable. It raises pigs and lamb and the chef even plucks watercress and the artichoke-like crowns of cabbage trees from the banks of its waterways.
You'll eat well here. You'll relax, chat to estate workers and chefs, gather for evening drinks with your fellow guests in the main lodge and go for long walks. The dense hardwood forest is lush and green with tree ferns and towering rimu and tawa trees. Birdlife is abundant.
The best walk is up to beautiful Bridal Veil Falls. Sax owned the property for three years before realising the waterfall was even there. Treetops Lodge is that kind of place. A lost world and a true hideaway, where you can sit in a forest and marvel anew at New Zealand's beauty.
Brian Johnston travelled courtesy Tourism New Zealand and Treetops Lodge.
Air New Zealand operates multiple flights between Australia and Auckland, with connections to Rotorua. See airnewzealand.com.au
Treetops Lodge and Estate has rooms, villas, an excellent restaurant and experiences such as hunting, fishing and wellness. Rooms from $NZ995 a night. See treetops.co.nz