Kate Ayrton explores the rugged beauty of New Zealand’s spectacular Southern Alps and discovers an intimate luxury lodge that beckons intrepid travelers with its unique charms and adventurous spirit.
Only an hour’s scenic drive north of Queenstown, or 20 minutes by helicopter (the favored mode of transport for locals), the low-key town of Wanaka is surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Southern Alps and is a breathtaking sight to behold as it comes into view on a clear blue-sky day attracting both foreigners and locals alike. This is where some of the world’s richest people and famous celebrities like John Travolta come to escape the limelight and get back to nature. It’s also a haven for adrenaline junkies… starting with the notoriously bumpy flight into Queenstown. But travelers should not be deterred, as the bracing arrival is just a part of the initiation into a whole range of activities that you won’t want to miss out on and are sure to get your heart pumping – winter, spring, summer or fall.
Whare Kea Lodge
Perched on the far shores of Lake Wanaka sits a very special place: Whare Kea Lodge (pronounced ‘far-eh-kee-ah’ meaning ‘house of the Kea’ in Maori) – named after the world’s only alpine parrot that lives high above the snowline in the surrounding mountains. Originally built by the scion’s of Australia’s leading retail family, Martyn and Louise Myer, as a private home, the Myers soon became so intoxicated and passionate about the area that they decided the best thing to do was to share it with as many people as possible. And so it became a boutique hotel inspired by the hospitality the Myers enjoyed on previous trips to Europe. A few years later the lodge earned a place at the distinguished Relais & Chateaux table as one of the world’s best boutique hotels and restaurants. Not bad for first time innkeepers!
Designed by Australian architect John Mayne, the see-through lodge was designed to maximize the stunning 180-degree views with a glasshouse motif that literally brings the landscape and natural light into every room providing a front row seat to watch the four seasons and constantly changing weather patterns outside. Inside, the décor is part Japanese and part Swedish with a mix of modern furniture and antiques, vivid fabrics, and paintings and prints by New Zealand artists and photographers. Although now run as a hotel, the lodge still feels cozy and intimate, as though you are a weekend guest in the Myer’s private home.
There are six spacious guest suites, several lounge areas with log fires, a family-style dining area, and a home-style kitchen where award-winning Chef James Stapley conjures up gourmet meals made with local produce and flair in an intimate communal setting. (A homegrown baby vegetable salad with goat’s cheese and edible flowers is a work of art, almost too beautiful to eat.) Over dinner, guests get the chance to mingle and swap stories about their day’s adventures and activities. “It’s a dream job,” says James. “I can interact with the guests to find out what they like and what they want to eat. I love creating dishes that guests wouldn’t necessarily cook themselves.” Apricots are in season on my visit and I mention how much I love them. From my lips to God’s ears, James prepares an “Apricot Assiette” with a delicious medley of apricot sorbet, ice cream, panacotta, and a stuffed baked apricot that is like a kiss from the orchard.
Cooking classes will also soon be on the menu following the recent publication of their cookbook, * Wanaka: Earth to Heaven at Whare Kea, which was awarded 4th prize in the 2012 Gourmand World Cookbook Awards. This beautiful book tells a very personal and inspiring story about the region and the people who live here and make it so – a true celebration of Wanaka’s artisans, adventurers and magnificent landscape.
But Whare Kea Lodge is not for flopping and dropping – once you’ve settled in, the staff are keen to get you out the door again, and why not! There is much to see and do, and the staff are excited for you to experience the natural wonders in their backyard. (If the Myers are in residence, you can forget sleeping in. Chances are they will have big plans for you.) It’s all part of the Whare Kea philosophy and the Wanaka experience. What makes it so special is that the Myers and their staff work closely with their own trusted group of personal friends who are experts in their respective fields to share some truly incredible experiences with their guests, opening up a whole new portal for visitors to explore.
Getting Out & About
Right outside the front door is the Millennium Track, which runs around the shores of the lake, perfect for mountain biking or hiking. For water lovers the lake and nearby rivers beckon: spring through to autumn is the time for trout and salmon fishing and local guides are on standby to take anglers to the optimum spots. Only a one-hour boat cruise from the beach in front of the lodge (courtesy of Eco-Wanaka – a local adventure outfit), is Mou Waho Island in the middle of Lake Wanaka where guests can enjoy a gentle climb up to the beautiful Arethusa Pool – a small alpine lake within a lake – a remnant of the last ice age. Here you can listen to Chris Riley (owner of Eco-Wanaka) spout off with much enthusiasm, knowledge and charm about the endangered flora and fauna, especially the sociable resident Weka birds that like to gather for high tea.
For land lovers, local equestrian Carol Armstrong will not only make you a delicious breakfast at the lodge, but also take you out on a memorable horse riding trip through the historical Cardrona Valley and Central Otago vineyards with wine tastings along the way – think of it as Sideways on horseback. In the 1860’s there was a gold rush in the region and just along the Kawaru Gorge on the banks of the Kawaru River between Cromwell and Queenstown are the remnants of the original Goldfields known as Gee’s Flat where visitors can see the old tunnels, mine shafts and tiny stone cottages of Chinatown where the early miners lived. Visitors can even try their hand at gold panning and are allowed to keep whatever gold they find. Quintin Quider, founder of Wild Earth Wines, runs the restaurant there: Wild Earth Outdoor Kitchen and Cellar Door, where he creatively pairs beautiful flights of his wines with local lamb, venison, chicken, mussels, salmon or eggplant – all slow cooked to perfection and smoked in retired Pinot Noir Wine Barrels in a picturesque garden setting by the river. Like many of the local characters, Quintin is happy to share his passions and stories with visitors so give yourself plenty of time for a long lunch and designate a driver.
For golfers, there is an 18-hole golf course overlooking the lake in Wanaka, as well as high country station tours to nearby farms and lodges like Minaret Station, which is popular with hunters. (There is no road access and the station covers 23,000 hectares.) Hunting season in NZ usually lasts between April and June – wild red deer, chamois and Himalayan tahr, as well as duck, quail and Canadian geese are typical casualties. (Hunting qualms aside, the Wild Fiordland venison that James served up one night with truffled cauliflower, local chestnut mushrooms and porcini emulsion – was one of the most beautiful and tender pieces of meat I have ever tasted! Not to be missed.)
Scenic flights to the Milford Sounds are also high up on the list of things to do, as is jet boating or kayaking on the Matukituki River. Brent Pihama runs Wanaka River Journeys. Part Pakeha and part Maori, Brent has a reputation as a raconteur as well as a skilled bushman and boatman – not surprisingly as a former member of the SAS’s anti-terrorist team! “When I take people for a ride it is a journey,” he says. “The jetboat is the means of transport, but it’s the mythology, the history, the legends, the geology that transport you to another place.”
Wanaka is also the home base for many of New Zealand’s UIAGM qualified mountain guides, famous for their guided ascents of some of the highest mountains in the world, so if you want to give alpine mountaineering a crack, this is the place to do it. Mt Aspiring (the ‘Matterhorn of the South’) will let you test your mettle ice and rock climbing. Guy Cotter runs Adventure Consultants, which he took over from his partners Gary Ball and Rob Hall (of “Into Thin Air” fame) after they tragically died on Everest in 1996. For Guy, the pleasure of the adventure business lies in helping clients achieve their dreams. “It’s the look of elation and seeing them evolve as personalities through the mental challenge of mountaineering that gets me. And the people who do well are not necessarily the most athletic – it’s the mental attitude and a good work ethic that make the best adventurers.” Other heart-stopping thrills to be relished in the area are heli-hiking, heli-kayaking, gliding, tandem parachuting, tandem paragliding, bungy jumping or canyon swinging for hardcore adrenaline junkies.
We opted for the more genteel drive along the lake to the Matukituki River to the start of the Rob Roy Glacier walk where we climbed for 2 hours to 780m with our delightful and knowledgeable guide, Graeme Oxley, to the base of the glacier. Sitting in the most beautiful alpine meadow we enjoyed a delicious picnic beneath the waterfall looking up at the melting glacier – a magnificent sight that would have rendered even Wordsworth mute. Not to be outdone by nature however, man and his magnificent machine (courtesy of Aspiring Helicopters) soon appeared to whisk us off in a bug-eyed chopper for a bird’s eye view of the glacier and to check out Whare Kea Lodge’s sister property – where man and nature have morphed into a heavenly peak on top of a mountain.
Whare Kea Chalet
Whare Kea Chalet is a unique high altitude escape, exclusive to guests of Whare Kea Lodge. Located high in the Southern Alps on the edge of Mt. Aspiring National Park at Dragonfly Peak on the Albert Burns Saddle – accessible only by helicopter – it is a rich man’s folly but fortunately one that Whare Kea guests can enjoy at their leisure. The private chalet offers luxury where you would least expect to find it – at 5700ft (1750m) – and is designed to maximize the breathtaking alpine views without impacting on the environment by using environmentally conscious power and water systems. The lodge can sleep 6 guests and 2 staff and is able to withstand 300km/hr winds, earthquakes and a 2-meter deep snow pack on the roof, as well as the destructive antics of the highly intelligent and cheeky Kea birds that love to wreak havoc. High above the clouds, guests can enjoy a guided walk followed by a gourmet picnic surrounded by high rocky mountain peaks, glaciers, residual snowfields and alpine meadows before taking a scenic 20-minute helicopter ride back down to the lodge over white and blue glaciers and turquoise alpine tarns in the Buchanan Range.
In the winter months, the Southern Alps offer fabulous skiing locations. Whare Kea is conveniently located between two of New Zealand’s best ski resorts: Cardrona and Treble Cone as well as the Waiorau Nordic Ski Area, perfect for cross country skiers. For serious skiers, Harris Mountains Heli-Skiing have been running unique ski trips for over 25 years. Runs vary between 2000 to 4000 vertical feet of treeless skiing in sheltered basins, bowls and wide rolling mountain flanks through to steep and gnarly chutes. And the best part is the door-to-door service when you get collected from the front lawn at Whare Kea.
Having acclimatized to all this high-octane activity, I could not resist the lure of the Tiger Moths on my last day. Every 2 years in April, Wanaka hosts the largest international airshow in the southern hemisphere: Warbirds Over Wanaka, which attracts over 65,000 spectators. Mustangs, Spitfires, Kittyhawks, Avengers, and Tiger Moths are just a few of the incredible vintage planes that take to the air for 2 days in a spectacular display of aviation pageantry. Peter Hendriks, who runs Classic Flights (with a 100% safety record over 30 years), offers flightseeing tours in vintage planes complete with old-style leather flying helmets, goggles and silk scarf! I was hooked on the anticipation of being taken back in time to the romance of this by-gone era. To hell with my fear of flying! The exhilaration of the open cockpit and the wind in my face was too tempting for my newfound sense of adventure. Alas, as so often happens in nature, the winds did not favor me that day and I could not take to the skies as hoped.
Instead, I beat a retreat to perhaps what turned out to be my favorite spot on the lake – the hidden hot tub at Whare Kea Lodge. In pole position overlooking the lodge and the lake, it’s perfect for soaking in under the setting sun after a long day on the go, quietly contemplating one of the great wonders of the world while sitting in the lap of luxury. (Ah, be still my beating heart!)
Rates: Start at approx. US$1,150 p/night for double occupancy and include full use of the lodge facilities, pre dinner drinks, canapés, five-course degustation dinner, and á la carte breakfast. (Note: the hotel closes for a month in June.)
* Wanaka: Earth to Heaven at Whare Kea, written by Michal McKay and with photography by Kieran Scott, is published by Godwit – an imprint of Random House, New Zealand – and is available for purchase (NZ$65) at leading bookstores and select Myer stores in Sydney or Melbourne or online here.
For more information, visit: www.wharekealodge.com or ph: +64 3 443 1400
Photography courtesy of Whare Kea Lodge, Eco-Wanaka & Kate Ayrton.