Blanket coverage

Nov 12, 2008

Blanket coverage

Michelle Rowe mixes creature comforts with occasional bursts of energy at a luxury lodge on New Zealand's South Island | November 01, 2008

Article from:  The Australian

"RUDDER right. Rudder riiiiiiight" comes the anguished cry from my husband as I rudder left and our inflatable kayak maroons itself yet again on rocks lining the Dart River.

Guests enjoy spectacular scenery, food and accommodation at Blanket Bay lodge on Lake Wakatipu near Queenstown.

We're just north of Queenstown, New Zealand's adventure capital, and have embarked on something colloquially known as "funyaking", although the fun part has been conspicuous by its absence for a woman whose idea of stretching herself is breaking into an occasional sprint to hail a taxi.

Our kayak twists and turns against blustery winds as we are led, in a scene reminiscent of Deliverance, down the Dart by an eccentric Kiwi who has cheerily informed us it's the only way back to the tour bus, parked several kilometres downstream.

I curse under my breath as I continue to paddle, wet, fatigued and waiting for that bus to appear, like the holy grail, around the next bend of the river.

HOW different it was just a few hours earlier; we really are on a luxury adventure of a very different kind. The scene is Blanket Bay lodge, 35 minutes by road from Queenstown on Lake Wakatipu, where activities of a strenuous nature are far from the minds of those who've gathered for pre-dinner drinks in the cosy wood-panelled bar.

Our fellow guests -- two New Zealanders from Hawkes Bay in the North Island and an English couple who migrated to Hamilton years earlier -- are engaged in an animated conversation that runs the gamut of the country's possum problem (don't go near one when naked) and the state of world politics (dire) to how best to get to Milford Sound (fly, don't drive).

Meanwhile, I am having a debate with our host, Eric, a Marseillean who is keeping our party well lubricated from his side of the bar, on whether controversial London restaurateur Marco Pierre White is justified in charging pound stg. 80 ($200) for a bowl of French onion soup.

 FOR FRESH-AIR FIENDS WHEN visiting the adventure capital of New Zealand, it would be remiss not to get involved in the action, from fly fishing to horse riding. Blanket Bay guests can pre-arrange actvities, including those below.
      Milford Sound: Two-hour chopper flights from Blanket Bay's helipad take passengers over the Greenstone Valley, Milford Track and the Sutherland Falls. A short stop in Milford is followed by a flight to the mouth of the sound along the west coast and inland over alpine lakes and glaciers. There are also fixed-wing aircraft flights from nearby Glenorchy. www.heliworks.co.nz; www.glenorchy.net.nz; www.airmilford.co.nz.
      Dart River: A jetboat ride can be organised from Blanket Bay's private jetty, or consider funyaking in an inflatable canoe. www.dartriver.co.nz.
      Rafting: Available on the Shotover or Kawarau rivers; guides provide instruction and safety briefings. www.rafting.co.nz.
      Bungy jumps: Bungy jump (or just watch the more intrepid) from the world's first commercial site or at four other locations; jumps range from 42m to 102m. www.bungy.co.nz.
      Mountain biking: Blanket Bay has four Trek 6500 mountain bikes with aluminium frames of varying sizes for guest use. Fat Tyre Adventures specialises in heli-bike rides, daytrips and mountain bike touring. www.fat-tyre.co.nz.
      Pure Adventure: In association with specialist operator Pure Adventure, Blanket Bay offers guided outdoors activities, from quad biking and paragliding to sky-diving and 4WD excursions. www.pureadventurequeenstown.com.

Food is a continuing theme of our visit to Blanket Bay, which was voted Best Hotel for Food in the Australasia and South Pacific region by Conde Nast Traveler magazine readers last year. And it seems Blanket Bay's kitchen team can't stop raking in theawards.

During our visit, chef Mark Sycamore is away at the Culinary Institute of America, having won an international scholarship to study there and to work in the kitchen of Thomas Keller's acclaimed The French Laundry in California's Napa Valley, with stops at Chez Panisse and other luminaries along the way. Sycamore also won the 2008 NZ national final of the international WACS Global Chefs Challenge (the world final will held in Chile in 2010).

After his US travels, Sycamore will take over as Blanket Bay's executive chef, replacing Jason Dell, who leaves at the end of the month to take up a role with a Singaporean restaurant group.

Dell says he'll be sad to leave the job he has held for nearly seven years, but is confident English-born Sycamore will bring new ideas and experience. "I've had a wonderful budget to play with," says Dell, explaining why Blanket Bay is able to offer a daily changing menu offering the best seasonal produce with no worries about skimping on ingredients.

Nor do guests have to worry about scrambling to get ready for a strictly observed meal time. Blanket Bay offers diners the flexibility of eating at whatever hour of evening they choose, and there is no insistence on communal dining, although lodge staff are more than happy to reset a group table should guests want to continue their bar-room discussions.

As we sip our pre-dinner drinks, barman Eric offers each guest a copy of the evening's five-course menu and tells us we can move through to the dining room whenever we wish. I choose the forest mushroom soup with croutons and creme fraiche, followed by honey-glazed Canterbury quail. A salade compose with grapes and toasted almonds provides a refreshing break before the duo of Hawkes Bay lamb with cracked wheat salad arrives, then the chocolate hazelnut brownie with Swiss chocolate mousse and crystal ginger.

Dinner is taken in a softly lit dining room with a roaring open fire. Blanket Bay's staff are attentive but discreet, putting more wood on the fire as the convivial evening progresses. No stone is left unturned in the quest to provide the perfect luxury escape from city life.

Indeed, Blanket Bay's beginnings were all about the perfect escape: at first, however, luxury was not part of the equation. Tom Tusher, an American and a former president of jeans company Levi Strauss, and his wife, Pauline, were dispatched in the early 1970s to Sydney to spruik the now famous denims in the antipodes. He was invited to New Zealand on a fishing trip and fell in love with what is now the Blanket Bay estate, snapping up 24ha of lakefront land for the then hefty sum of $NZ50,000. The site had spectacular scenery, but not a skerrick of infrastructure.

"His wife had a fit and nearly divorced him," reveals Eric, who is proving a font of knowledge as well as a dab hand at refilling those champagne glasses. "There were no sealed roads. It started out as just a hut (for the Tushers) to stay in sometimes. Then over time it became a holiday home, then a B&B. Eventually, it became a lodge, and (the Tushers) decided they wanted to make it the best in New Zealand."

Several decades, and several million dollars, later, Blanket Bay is considered not just one of the best lodges in NZ, but the world. For the Tushers, their "holiday shack" has morphed into something perhaps neither could have imagined, and they retain close links, visiting regularly and staying in their own grand quarters a few metres from the main building.

"Tom is always here for the first day of the fishing season," says general manager Philip Jenkins, adding that the majority of guests are from North America, followed by Europeans. Australians make up about 10 per cent of visitors, a number that Jenkins says is increasing, as are the number of New Zealanders choosing to take a short break in their own back yard.

The lodge is just far enough away from Queenstown to escape the ski crowds but sufficiently close to take in the best of the central Otago wine region and surrounds. Tusher is a part owner of the Amisfield Wine Company, which is certainly worth a stop for a tasting and lunch in its terrific bistro. There is also the historic gold-mining village of Arrowtown, near Queenstown, to explore. Far from being kitsch, it has excellent restaurants, a gorgeous boutique cinema and its Patagonia chocolate shop is alone worth the visit. Then there's Glenorchy, a sleepy village just a few minutes' drive to the north of Blanket Bay, one of the settings for the first The Lord of the Rings film.

It is possible, however, not to leave the inviting surrounds of Blanket Bay for the duration of any stay. The focal point of this luxury home away from home is the Great Room where a huge fireplace of local schist stone rises dramatically to the vaulted ceilings with exposed beams.

Comfy sofas and armchairs are dotted around and floorboards retrieved from old woolsheds are so highly polished they glisten. There's all your typical lodge decor: a set of antlers here, some duck sculptures there ... all in good taste, all in the right context.

It's hard to think of anything I'd rather do than sink into an armchair by the fire with a book and stay in the Great Room for days. But other guests choose to use the adjoining games room, with its pool table and plasma television or simply retire to the comfort of their luxury suites; there is also a spa and sauna room.

Of the 12 guestrooms -- lodge rooms, lodge suites or two chalets -- ours is a corner suite, aptly named Paradise. Like most parts of the building, it offers spectacular views of the lake and mountains. A king-sized bed, private balcony and a bathroom with a shower that turns into a steam-room are just some of the highlights.

It would be hard to drag ourselves away from its comforts each morning, were it not for Blanket Bay's cooked breakfasts: a huge selection of cereals, muffins, fruits and nuts, yoghurt and more on the continental buffet. Hot breakfasts include pancakes with maple syrup and bacon, pork sausages, porridge and eggs cooked to order.

As I gaze out over the lake, sipping my first coffee of the day, memories of that inglorious paddle down the Dart River just a couple of days earlier have almost faded. My husband and I are talking again. The sandfly bites have calmed down and I've regained most of the feeling in my paddling arm. Life is good, I think, as I spread more butter on a freshly baked croissant and top up my orange juice. I could get used to this luxury adventure lark.

Michelle Rowe was a guest of Blanket Bay.

Blanket Bay is about a 50-minute drive north of Queenstown airport or 35 minutes from the centre of Queenstown. Flights from Sydney to Queenstown are just over three hours. More: www.airnewzealand.com.au.

Blanket Bay has five lodge rooms, from $NZ950 ($845); three lodge suites and four chalet suites (from $NZ1450) and four chalet staterooms (from $NZ2050). Nightly rates are for two people with full use of sports equipment and facilities as well as breakfast, dinner and pre-dinner cocktails. A help-yourself beer and soft drinks bar in the games room is open all hours at no extra charge.

More: www.blanketbay.com