Travelling via New Zealand’s luxury lodges is slow travel at its very best. At each fascinating stop, guests delve into the personalities and histories of the property’s owners and hosts, kick their heels off amid lavish accommodation, sample the best of local produce, and do so against some of the country’s most stunning landscapes.
It’s an increasingly popular way to travel for a new generation of travellers who, like my wife Maggie and I, are eager to get under the skin of one of the world’s most sought-after destinations, especially in the cooler months of May to October, when the South Island, decked out in vibrant autumnal colours, offers a brilliant respite from the heat of the Middle East.
Our driving holiday starts at Otahuna Lodge (224 Rhodes Rd., Tai Tapu; +64 3 329 6333; www.otahuna.co.nz) on the outskirts of Christchurch, the largest city in the South Island. A historic Queen Anne-style home lovingly reborn, wreathed by 12 hectares of stunning gardens and staffed by hospitality innovators, Otahuna is one of a handful of regal retreats that epitomises the Kiwi luxury-lodge experience. This picture-perfect, heritage-listed mansion was bought by Americans Hall Canon and Miles Refo in 2007.
With the help of Kiwi manager and executive chef Jimmy McIntyre, they have created a property that welcomes visitors from across the globe. Its five sumptuous guest rooms, replete with ancient wood, bespoke furnishings and subtle yet cutting-edge technology, are fitted with fireplaces, balconies, hidden nooks and snugs, and the intimate touches of personality that sets lodges apart from hotels.
Our Rhodes Suite, named after Sir Heaton and Jessie Rhodes who built Otahuna, not only features a spacious bedroom with roaring Victorian hearth and a balcony with views to the Southern Alps, but also an octagonal sitting room, ideal for private dinners, and a bathroom clad in all-white hues, complete with a spa bath and double shower.
But accommodation is just one element of the lodge experience; chef McIntyre is renowned for his simplistic yet elegant approach to fine dining, a philosophy that places locally sourced ingredients, including 130 varieties of vegetables, fruit and nuts from the lodge’s own gardens, front and centre. He also makes all of the lodge’s bread, chutneys and jams, offers cooking classes for guests looking to delve into the local culinary scene, and even has his own smoke and curing hut in Otahuna’s grounds.
McIntyre, with his Austrian sous chef Thomas, serves canapés and glasses of chilled Central Otago wine in the lodge’s leather-clad lounge, followed by chipotle prawns; locally caught monk fish with saffron risotto; and Canterbury duck breast with quince jus in the main dining room, a space filled with an imposing dark timber dining table that looks like it should be in a castle.
After our Otahuna stay, we continue into the deep valleys and hidden bays of the Banks Peninsula, descending down the narrow road into Pigeon Bay, home to a school house, a boat club, stunning rural landscapes and New Zealand’s newest lodge property. Annandale (Pigeon Bay; +64 3 304 6841; www.annandale.com) isn’t really one property but a collection of four, each vastly different from the next, and each spaced a good 30-minute drive across a working farm from each other, ensuring the ultimate in privacy.
Envisioned by New Zealand-born real-estate tycoon Mark Palmer and his wife Jacqui, Annandale features the historic and beautifully restored Homestead, with its five guest rooms, landscaped gardens and additional Stables accommodation, made up of the elegant simplicity of Shepard’s Cottage, a rustic one-bedroom retreat; the open-plan, family-friendly Scrubby Bay, with its ocean-facing Jacuzzi and swimming pool; and the design-savvy, glass-encased modernity of Seascape.
We arrive at Seascape after a 45-minute drive in the farm’s 4x4 along spectacular clifftops that plummet to the mussel beds of Pigeon Bay far below, the farm’s black Angus cattle watching our progress. A simple farm track leads steeply down into a remote bay wreathed by a stony beach and rocky headlands. Nestled into the hillside, Seascape is stunning from the first glance. A spacious, unashamedly modern one-bedroom space, the villa has a glass façade that makes the most of its natural surroundings.
There are two gas fireplaces: one in the living room and one set outside on a patio that also boasts a Jacuzzi. The simple kitchen has modern appliances while the bathroom’s deep-soak tub looks out across the secluded bay. There is nothing marring the view between the king-sized bed and the expanse of the Pacific.
Modern architecture at Seascape allows for a total immersion into the nature
If enjoying the silence of your villa isn’t your idea of a holiday, Annandale offers a host of activities, from hiking and biking across the property to farm experiences, cooking classes, deep-sea fishing, helicopter flights and much more. In fact, many guests arrive by helicopter from Christchurch Airport, opting for the fascinating farm drive one way and the dramatic arrival by air on the other.
While not a traditional lodge, Seascape and its sibling retreats offer a similar experience: the chance to become a part of the landscape, to slow down, sleep in and leave the rest of the world behind. Executive chef Paul Jobin pre-prepares gourmet meals that are vacuum-packed and delivered before check-in, needing minimal preparation.
All ingredients either come from Annandale’s farm and extensive gardens, or from producers within 50 kilometres of the property. After dinner, Maggie and I curl up on day beds beside the outdoor fireplace, the waters of the bay before us bathed in the lingering light of a startling canopy of stars, the inky landscape unmarred by manmade light. It’s nothing short of magical.
Only in New Zealand at Pen-y-Bryn
From Annandale we drive west and then south towards Oamaru. By late afternoon, the shadows of this historic little town, which was recently named “New Zealand’s Coolest”, are already growing long. Many travellers time their arrival in Oamaru to coincide with the nightly arrival of the resident blue- and yellow-eyed penguin colonies; the blues can be seen at the Blue Penguin Colony in town, the yellows at the Department of Conservation-run reserves at Bushy Beach and Katiki Point.
But we skip the birds and head for the hills to Pen-y-bryn Lodge (41 Towey St., Holmes Hill; +64 3 434 7939; www.penybryn.co.nz), a category-one historic home nestled in dazzling gardens overlooking the township. Built in 1889, Pen-y-bryn was bought in 2010 by Americans James Glucksman, a former World Bank economist, and dentist James Boussy. The historic Victorian home has five cosy guest rooms, three of which are suites.
Unlike Seascape, with its modern lines and dramatic location, Pen-y-bryn features a near-endless line of beautifully preserved living rooms, dens, lounges and snugs (including one featuring a full-sized billiards table commissioned by the New Zealand houses of parliament). Filled with beautiful art and artefacts from “the Jameses’” many years spent in Asia, Pen-y-bryn is a more traditional lodge, where the lines between private home and accommodation option are blissfully blurred, and where the old-world hospitality of the owners, married with fantastic local fare, are the major drawcards.
Endless colour at Blanket Bay
While rooms might be a little reminiscent of visits to your great aunt’s, the communal atmosphere and the warm welcome from our hosts is second to none; evenings commence with cocktails and canapés by the fire, followed by a five-course dinner in the grand old dining hall that includes locally sourced salmon tartare and seasonal Bluff oysters with baby carrots, green peas and shaved fennel from the gardens.
Slow-food lover James Glucksman is an officier maître hôtelier in the Confrérie de la Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, the Paris-based gourmet society, and serves up dishes that are not only inventive and delicious, but are almost entirely sourced from the lodge’s own gardens, homemade in its kitchens or brought from local suppliers. Their years spent travelling the world is evident in both the lodge’s décor, its objets d’art and its cuisine, making a visit to Pen-y-bryn a sensory journey as well as a night at a homely inn.
We leave Oamaru early the next morning, descending into Central Otago’s wine belt as we approach Queenstown, an all-year alpine playground that’s also home to an international airport. At the end of a stretch of road regularly listed among the top ten in the world, is Blanket Bay (Rapid 4191, Glenorchy; +64 3 441 0115; www.blanketbay.com), the grande dame of New Zealand’s modern luxury-lodge era since its launch in 1999.
Anandale properties are all about the details
Unlike Otahuna or Pen-y-bryn, Blanket Bay was built as a luxury lodge, one designed to attract the well-heeled from America and Europe, although today you’re as likely to hear Arabic or Chinese.spoken in its great room. The lodge, flanked by the expanses of Lake Wakatipu on one side, and by imposing peaks on the other, is a destination in itself. Designed by American architect Jim McLaughlin and built using locally sourced schist rock and recycled timber from old rail and road bridges, piers and wharfs, Blanket Bay has just 12 luxurious guest rooms and suites, including four lavishly appointed, stand-alone Chalet Suites.
In addition, there are great living rooms with double-height picture windows and towering fireplaces, intimate bars and snugs, a modern games room, wine caves (yes, plural), its own fitness centre, an outdoor pool and an indoor spa that looks through French windows to the western tip of the lake. The lodge is the perfect jumping-off point for travellers looking to explore Milford Sound and Fiordland National Park by helicopter, the Dart River by high-powered speedboat, or the ancient rainforests and towering peaks of Middle Earth with a hike in Mount Aspiring National Park.
Here the fly-fishing is phenomenal, the heli-skiing the best in the southern hemisphere, the horse riding sensational, and when guests return to the lodge, dinner cooked by executive chef Corey Hume is waiting in the elegant Lake View Dining Room. His culinary creations range from Canterbury quail with celeriac purée and chorizo, through to Port Nicholson crayfish tail with coral and miso emulsion, and seared scallop and roasted vegetables from the lodge gardens.
Fresh appetisers at Otahuna Lodge
The last stop on our itinerary is located just down the road, closer to Queenstown and fittingly more modern. Matakauri Lodge (569 Glenorchy-Queenstown Rd., Queenstown; +64 3 441 1008; www.matakaurilodge.com) is the five-year-old sibling of the acclaimed North Island golf destination lodges Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers, and brings a more contemporary feel to the South Island scene. Positioned overlooking Lake Wakatipu and the towering Tooth Peaks that form the border with the province of Southland, Matakauri features 12 guest rooms, four classically located within the main lodge building, and the rest stand-alone apartments with stunning views.
The clean, modern décor takes its cues from autumn in Otago, with gas fireplaces, private balconies, flat-screen televisions hidden behind artwork, and quite possibility the world’s best views from the bathtubs. The Owner’s Cottage, the lodge’s penthouse, accommodates eight in absolute luxury. The warm colours of the suites are continued in the main lodge, where breakfast and dinner is served in the intimate dining room, on the outdoor patio, or in the private library in a nook above.
Head chef Jonathan Roger’s menus are inspired by the produce of the deep south and his à la carte menus change daily, but include the likes of roasted scallops with black pudding and beurre noisette; North Island tarakihi with mussels and dill; and smoked Otago duck with beetroot, goat’s curd and blood orange. Dotted with intimate lodges brimming with exceptional local cuisine, convivial hospitality and breathtaking scenery well matched to these delights, the roads of New Zealand’s South Island are ones worth taking the time to get to know very well indeed.