New Zealand High

May 17, 2006

Sooner or later during a stay at Blanket Bay, New Zealand's newest luxury lodge, someone is bound to mention Arnold. You will be warming your back by the massive schist fireplace in the Great Room, watching the clouds cape the nearby Humboldt Mountains as if the floor-to- ceiling windows were a wide-screen TV, and somebody-- maybe an options trader from London, maybe the Saudi royal family's jeweler--will say the name and everyone in the room will nod knowingly, and with an unlikely surfeit of respect. Arnold, as in Arnold Schwarzenegger. As in the patron saint of architecture at Blanket Bay, the man whose palatial cabin in Idaho was the inspiration for this nine-room, high-rustic sanctuary near Glenorchy, on the banks of the South Island's Lake Wakatipu, half a world away from Sun Valley.

Actually, what Blanket Bay shares with Arnold's house is the architect, Jim McLaughlin. He was hired by Tom and Pauline Tusher, the Americans who have owned the land--a 65,000-acre sheep station--for nearly thirty years. Their mandate: Build an intimate idyll, a place more home than hotel - particularly if that home were to feature hand-hewn furniture, an eat-in wine cellar, Tasmanian oak doors expertly distressed by a team of specially imported Mexican woodworkers, and an unobstructed panorama of snowcapped peaks dotted by grazing ungulates. And especially if that home boasts an exquisitely solicitous staff who remember that you prefer peppermint tea with breakfast and Glenkinchie, not Oban, at night.

Pauline and Tom Tusher in the DenAnd what a night it is--not a blessed thing going on. All the entertainments are elemental: the stars hanging brightly in the sky, and the lake, New Zealand's longest, lapping at the shore. Under the antler chandelier in the Great Room, guests talk easily among themselves, comparing notes on the day's adventures: a horseback ride through the hills behind Glenorchy; a shopping expedition and lunch in Queenstown, forty-five minutes downshore; a sybaritic soak in one of the lodge's standard-issue Olympic-size bathtubs after a hike in the Humboldts.

"What day is it?" the options trader asks of no one in particular. "I've lost track." No one seems to know - or, for that matter, to care. "I think I'm supposed to go heli-fishing tomorrow," he says laconically. "If tomorrow is Saturday."

Tomorrow, in fact, is Friday. Sitting at the bar, I learn that three of the guests have arranged to fly to Milford Sound in the morning, the most spectacular fjord in all of New Zealand, and two are contemplating a bike ride to an abandoned gold mine, a nod to the region's nineteenth-century prospecting past. Two more are thinking of going upstream to the head of the Dart River on a jet boat, but maybe they'll go whitewater rafting instead.

THE FOLDED MOUNTAINS, THE GLINTING LAKE all greens and blues by day--beckon like the most artfully rendered landscapes. And then, like a parlor trick, you step over the frame and into the picture itself, smell the wild anise and the stinkweed, pull up rainbow trout after landlocked salmon, hear the plash of water as it spangles the rocks.

The New Zealand sun is strong, and when your skin parches and your mind can no longer inventory the prolific assortment of ferns or marvel at the yellow-crowned parakeets, the lodge pulls you back. Jacuzzi, game room, open bar, sushi hors d'oeuvres, and a long, slow swallow of the local vintage, a 1999 Central Otago Chardonnay, all lend themselves to the happy illusion that everything--from the rugged mountains, which rise in every direction, and their leafy alpine forests to the deep, otherworldly turquoise of the lake and its unpeopled, untrammeled shoreline--has been put here for your personal sensory delight.

And then it is Friday, an irrelevant detail except that Richard Bryant is waiting for me in the parking lot. I've had my peppermint tea and kippers and homemade granola. I've passed up the black pudding, the freshly baked croissants, the organic eggs, the pancakes. I want to be light on my feet. At the suggestion of Philip Jenkins, the Blanket Bay manager, I have hired Bryant, a sixtyish man in green shorts, a bush shirt, and thick soled boots, to take me into the heart of New Zealand.

Bryant, a fourth-generation native of the area, guides hikers through the woods he has been tramping all his life. Today we are planning a ten-mile loop along a section of the Route- burn Track, a twenty-four-mile trail that crosses the Southern Alps, passing through both Fiordland and Mount Aspiring national parks, two of the most breathtaking pieces of real estate in the world. Although I don't really need a guide--the trail is well marked and well traveled - I am pleased to be in the company of someone who knows what he's looking at.

"This is a temperate rain forest," he tells me. "There are three kinds of beech trees here. This red beech is about eight hundred years old. There's a bush wren, New Zealand's smallest bird. It doesn't have a discernible tail. See the orchids? Very little has changed here in the last ten thousand years. The walk is not strenuous.

We go slowly, stopping every few yards to look up or over or in, to smell leaves and flowers, to admire Mount Earnslaw towering above us, or to step on the trampoline of moss that covers the forest floor. "This vine is called a bush lawyer," Bryant says surely. "This is a prickly shield, the most common fern in this forest. That old foundation over there is the remains of a forge my great-grandfather used to operate for the people who went up the track on horses."

We cross a swayback bridge that spans a deep chasm and follow the gorge through the woods. An umbrella of beech, high overhead, discourages the sun, and we are cool despite the warm ambient temperature and the gentle gain in altitude. Bryant has brought a bountiful lunch: sandwiches, cold chicken, hard cheese, grapes, and chocolate. We sit in a clearing under Mount Somnus and listen to the tomtits in the nearby trees.

Hikers, bent with backpacks, pass by on their way to Lake Harris, another hour or two along the track, where they'll spend the night in the Department of Conservation's Route- burn Falls Hut. Although I know that I have the softer bed, the finer wine, the better dinner ahead of me, my eyes follow them wistfully, the way one follows for a moment the flight of migrating birds.

"People come here, to New Zealand, and if they stay more than three days, they either never leave or they come back," Richard Bryant says in his pulled-taffy South Island drawl. I think, briefly, that he is reading my mind, but then I realize that I am just like everyone else who has come this way.

Sue Halpern - Writer