Conde Nast Traveler Hot List 2000

Jan 10, 2007

I've been "roughin'-it" on shearing shed floors and under beams of old bridges for the past couple of days on a lakeside in a remote part of the South Island of New Zealand.

A saving grace might have been the spectacular view each morning of the sun appearing from behind one mountain range and colouring pink the snow-capped peaks of another on the other side of the lake. Or in the evenings it could have been the flickering glow of the fire distracting me from the white smudge of the Milky Way intermingling with stars in the night sky. It was mid-winter and at times bleak outside, but whatever the impression, I was relaxed, sated, and a million miles from anywhere.

I've also been jet boating on the Dart River and walking in the wilderness with possum wool to keep my head warm, drinking water from glacial pools deep in the Alps, and photographing seals on driftwood on a rocky windswept shore on the remote West Coast - all in the space of two days.

It's perfectly understandable to see why many years ago an American businessman might have bought fifty acres of remote farming land on a beautiful lake, and near some of the best fishing waters in the world to build a house to bring his family to fish each year. The lakeside location, between two stunning mountain ranges at the edge of the pristine wilderness of a million-acre World Heritage Fjord land National Park, was just a bonus.

As luck would have it, or maybe the exponential expansion of skiing and eco-tourism in New Zealand in recent times, the Government sealed the road around the lake from Queenstown right past his property. This new road became the catalyst for the American "fisherman" to build a Lodge, and also to purchase tens of thousands of acres of other farming lands up the mountain-side to preserve the solitude for future friends and visitors.

I travelled with old Amex friend Juanita on a direct Air New Zealand flight into Queenstown - just two and a half-hours from Sydney with the wind behind us - and then by rental car around the shores of Lake Wakatipu for forty minutes to the Blanket Bay Lodge. Time for a spot of tea in front of the roaring fire blazing away in the huge stone fireplace at one end of the 30 foot high Great Room - before gaping at the natural splendour of the snow capped peaks of the Humboldt mountains across the lake at the other.

The polished floors in the public areas and bedrooms have been retrieved from old shearing sheds, and the beams from old railway bridges in the South Island and steamer wharves along the Brisbane River. Artisans were brought in from Mexico to teach the locals how to 'age' the remaining timbers used throughout the construction. The schist stone for much of the walls was quarried locally, and the landscape is preserved with artistic use of local grasses.

Blanket Bay is one of those few places that you can travel and still enjoy the luxury of privacy - the sprawling main Lodge has but nine guestrooms. The owner will never make a return on his investment in money terms, but he owns a spectacular piece of property and a home in a setting that is almost second to none in the entire world.

Come summer, swimming in the heated outdoor lap pool, trout fishing in the lake or in one of the nearby rivers, kayaking, horseback riding, or just walking the trails in the nearby National Parks would more than fill a week. In the winter, what's wrong with staying indoors - curling-up with a book in a comfy armchair in front of a log fire as we did, or a game of pool or darts in the Games room, a massage or a soak in the Spa overlooking the lake? Of course, there's a bounty of virgin powder snow nearby for the ski enthusiast.

Threatening skies didn't deter us from taking the Jetboat safari up the Dart River into the wild and scenic landscape of the Mount Aspiring National Park. Thank God we arrived for the boat early enough to learn that we needed more undergarments than the Marks and Spencer thermal singlet, and the silk long-johns I'd bought on a chilly visit to Peking fifteen years ago. A possum and wool beanie to cover the head and ears was quickly purchased at the depot, before scooting back to the Lodge to add my pyjama pants, another pair of socks and an extra sweater. A raincoat and life jacket completed my 'ensemble'. Heated handrails on the Jetboat were also a welcome comfort.

At the outset of this safari, the river was not much more than a trickle of streams, only inches deep, across the rocky bed of a gorge nearly a kilometre wide. The faster we went, the less likely we were to scrape the bottom. The closer we were to the edge, the smoother the ride. As the stream widened, a short signal and the 'driver' was doing a water-drenching three sixty degree "wheely" on the spot. This was starting to take on the chilling proportions of my luge experience down the tubes of ice in St Moritz. So when the weather finally closed in and the rain and sleet came, I was somewhat conditioned.

Sheep grazing along the banks of the lower reaches gave way to protected wood pigeons and harrier eagles as we ventured further into the wilderness of the Greenstone Valley. A hot cup of soup and a short hike into the ancient forest (negotiating the lacework of exposed slippery tree roots) hardly prepared us for the quickened pace on the return downstream to Lake Wakatipu (and a few more drenching 'wheelies'). I could keep my eyes open by this time, and enjoy the thrill.

Removing our possum beanies and a few layers of outerwear (looking for all the world like wild woodsmen), we settled into a carrot cake and coffee at the local café and listened to Fifties music playing on 33 1/3 vinyl records spinning on an old turntable in the corner. A snooze on my bed in front of the fire before dinner won my vote, but Juanita opted for burning some calories before dinner, while gazing out on the lake from a treadmill in the gym.

I don't know what happened to the famed New Zealand lamb on the dinner menus. But I was not complaining after enjoying the local seafood, wines and cheeses each evening - the fresh scallops were delicious, and I have never tasted salmon like the pan seared fillet I was served on the first night. The Food and Beverage Manager personally selected wines by the glass - each one better than the last. I was totally satisfied with my eating (and drinking) experiences even without the legendary lamb - until the chopper pilot told us of the live crayfish that he had been ferrying the previous day from Invercargill to Christchurch for transhipment to Japan. I suppose I'll have to return for that treat.

As luck would have it, the sun shone brightly on our last morning - on our side of the Alps anyway. The planned helicopter flight to Milford Sound was changed to take in clearer areas to the East. We lifted off from the grass in front of the Lodge in a small Hughes chopper and headed off up the river covering ground we'd traversed in the Jetboat the previous day. Traversing one of the famous walking paths, and hugging the mountainside to avoid the air currents, we skimmed the tops of the beech forests, and slowly ascended to the snowline. Then up and along snow-covered granite peaks spewed up out of the earth thousands of years ago and over glacial valleys. We circled and landed by a lake in the cradle of the glacier before rising again with Alfie the pilot heading not east into the clear weather, but west among the swirling clouds looking for a break to descend into Milford Sound.

And there it was! A dramatic drop over the rim of the crater and we could see Mitre Peak and the Sound way below us - a sight I've seen only on the glossy pages of tourist brochures and have always wanted to experience first-hand. We descended and skimmed the water for the complete length of the Sound until we arrived at the ocean with waves rolling and frothing onto the remote West Coast. Another stop, this time on the driftwood-strewn shore of stones and flax plants, brought us the sight of an old-man seal raising his head to see what all the noise was about before slipping into the surf. Time now to head back across the wilderness of the National Park to the Airport with a hope of spotting deer in the forests below. The deer were not co-operating though. A quick flight up the Canterbury Plain with the Alps out the window got us to Christchurch for the flight back home.

The population of all of New Zealand equates roughly to that of Sydney. But that doesn't stop the "Kiwis" from being fiercely proud of their country and it's natural attractions. Next time you see the tourism advertising "100% Pure New Zealand", take a closer look. And believe it! The oft'-jaded view that New Zealand is Australia's country cuzzin is totally misplaced. I think they've got it made. New Zealand's scenery (not to mention the produce) is "100% Pure". (Some of the people fit that category too!). Let Singapore Airlines increase their stake in the national carrier. Such a partnership could really ignite the tourism potential.