NZ goes glam

Oct 10, 2005

Well worth the jetlag: New Zealand puts on the style

Well worth the jetlag: New Zealand puts on the style In the land of The Lord of the Rings a revolution is under way, attracting a new breed of tourist. Jill Hartley investigates its stylish new hotels, while on page 3, it's action stations for Will Hide, who ventures beyond Queenstown to try the more civilised side to adrenalin activities

“NEW ZEALAND. I don’t get it,” said my cool Australian cousin who works in TV in Sydney. “It’s just a load of old geezers, looking at old geysers.”

I feebly mentioned The Lord of the Rings, the stupendous scenery, the All Blacks and lamb chops, but he just sneered. To be honest, I feared he could be right. At 49, I feel too old for adrenalin sports, too young for those wrinklies’ tours, shopping for interesting jams and knitted tea cosies. Isn’t New Zealand just too safe, predictable and boring? Then, idly flipping through some glossy magazines, I discovered, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, that Joan Collins spent her last honeymoon in New Zealand. It was also the honeymoon destination of choice for the former travel editor of Condé Nast’s super-Sloaney Brides magazine, a gel who could have chosen anywhere from Bali to Barbados, as long as it had a spa and was drop-dead gorgeous.

Since then, it has become movie-star central, with Gwyneth Paltrow and Tom Cruise staying on after filming Sylvia and The Last Samurai respectively to wallow in its stupendous scenery. And Tolkien’s trilogy really put New Zealand on the tourist map — some 39,000 visitors in January 2004, 80 per cent more than in January 1999.

It also led the way for other film producers: Jack Black and Jamie Bell are filming the remake of King Kong directed by the New Zealander Peter Jackson (of The Lord of the Rings fame); Kiefer Sutherland and Samantha Morton are making The River Queen on the North Island; and Anthony Hopkins flew to the South Island to star in The World’s Fastest Indian.

The crucial factor in elevating New Zealand to A-list status is its new wave of “superlodges”; opulent properties that combine New Zealand’s breathtaking natural scenery with seriously luxurious accommodation, fabulous wines and gourmet dinners. Some, like the famed Huka Lodge, offer shooting and fishing. Or you can opt for a decadent James Bond-style whirl of the North and South Islands as we did, flitting about in helicopters and whooshing around in jet boats.
Apart from Huka, which has been around since 1920, the superlodges have been going only about five years. To qualify they must be in remote locations, have some unique features, no more than 20 rooms and offer dinner, hence the sophisticated house party atmosphere that has become their trademark.

Our first stop was Kimberley Lodge at the northern tip of the North Island in a sweet little seaside town called Russell, accessible only by ferry, in the Bay of Islands. It was so quintessentially English, with cricket on the beach and fish and chips with vinegar at the Duke of Marlborough pub, that we questioned why we’d crossed the world when we could have gone to Padstow, or Scarborough — but that was before we sampled Virginia Holloway’s cooking.

Virginia runs Kimberley with her husband Craig and mother Heather; they keep a maximum of ten guests pampered with fluffy towels, whirlpool baths for two and cool drinks round the small pool with a bay view. Her food, using the best local shellfish, including Orongo Bay oysters and meltingly tender local lamb, is ambrosial. Her seven-course degustation menu is worth the jet lag alone, as is her rosewater panna cotta with toffeed cherries.

Our four fellow guests were all middle-aged Americans, including second-marriage honeymooners Charlene and Gary, and regular global travellers Evelyn and Eileen, who said they were sick of being hassled in countries with an “unpleasant baksheesh culture”. They chose NZ because it was both “safe and exciting”.

Our next stop was Huka Lodge, near Lake Taupo, also in the North Island, said to be one of the world’s best small hotels. Allegedly, all our royals adore it. Prince Andrew comes to play golf, the Queen Mother apparently fished out of her bedroom window and the Queen has been several times. Bill Gates is also a fan, bringing his family to go sightseeing by helicopter — nothing to him at £1,500 per trip. The lodge aims to cultivate a house party atmosphere, with 20 rooms in semi-detached log cabins, all with private terraces and lawns curving down to the edge of the minty green Waikato River.

Ours had fishy prints on the walls, pigskin cushions and suede-fronted drawers, all reminiscent of a colonial gentleman’s travelling case. By contrast, the newly designed bathrooms are pure Hollywood, camp and glossy with shiny gunmetal tiles, an oversized, extra-deep tub and lots of Art Deco-style chrome, including carriage lamps and clenched-fist towel rails.

Apart from the low ceiling, the main lodge could be a Scottish baronial hall, with stags’ antlers above the fireplaces, and tartan sofas. Nearly all our fellow guests were back-slappingly friendly Americans, wearing the rosy glow of wealth — razor-creased chinos with monogrammed button-downs for the men, designer cashmere and diamonds for the women.

Next day, we could have set out to kill almost anything, from a trout to a stag, but we preferred Huka’s more decadent pleasures, like the hot pool, best at night with digestifs under the stars, and dinner in the wine cellar, while drooling over the nebuchadnezzars of Mouton Rothschild and Chateau d’Yquem. That said, the food wasn’t a patch on Virginia’s, apart from a memorable brunch, watching a kingfisher diving as we feasted on smoked blue cod hash, topped with poached eggs and salmon caviar.

We loved our riverside room, but the sun and cobalt sky beckoned us to move on to the promised scenic splendours of the South Island and our final stop at Blanket Bay, Glenorchy (population 215), described as “a luxury alpine lodge” on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. We flew into Queenstown, renowned as the country’s adrenalin sports capital. Within minutes we were airborne in a shiny black helicopter, piloted by Louisa “Choppy” Patterson, who started the aptly-named Over the Top Company in 1976.
It was the most exhilarating thing I’ve ever done. Nothing can come close to the thrill of landing by helicopter on a deserted beach for a champagne picnic, or the excitement of swooping on to a glacier for an impromptu snowball flight. With Choppy in charge, we flew along the 12km (7½ miles) of Milford Sound, NZ’s best known visitor attraction.

Milford is deluged with 5.5 metres (18ft) of rain a year and has only 50 fine days. This was one of them and we marvelled at the privilege of seeing the world’s finest glacial scenery with its icy blue fiords and mirrored mountains in such perfect conditions.

Blanket Bay, Glenorchy was one of the luxury lodges that Jill Hartley stayed in. I was still on a high as she lowered us down on to the lawn at Blanket Bay, surely the coolest way to arrive. Not many hotels knock your breath away, but this cathedral-height, eight-room lodge, built from local flinty stone and recycled marmalade-coloured wood on the shore of Lake Wakatipu, is a stunner.

Our suite, the Mt Earnslaw, named after the snow-topped peak we could see from our terrace, was bigger than my friend’s London flat. Indulgent extras included a shower converted into a steam room and a stone fireplace, ready laid with crackly logs.

Owned by two Americans, Tom (former president of Levi Strauss) and Pauline Tusher, who live next door, the lodge blends chameleon-like into its rocky backdrop. Completely hidden from the road, it can be seen only from the lake, or the air. The ten-metre-high Great Room is a magnificent blend of wood — the rafters once supported a wharf on the Brisbane River — and glass with an oversized fireplace and squishy sofas, placed to make the most of those lake and mountain views.

This time, as well as Americans, our fellow guests included both British and Asian honeymooners. Hardly surprising, as Blanket Bay is almost too romantic to leave. There’s excellent walking down the Routeburn Track, or jet boating on the Dart River, but long breakfasts in front of the fire, gazing at the mountains while soaking in the spa, are what I remember most.

On our last night we met Tom Tusher in the bar and toasted his success at Blanket Bay. He told us he also had homes in San Francisco, Lake Tahoe and Mexico, but preferred to spend most of his time in New Zealand. He could live almost anywhere, so why? After some reflection, he said: “I guess because it’s so beautiful, safe, yet exciting.” I’ll drink to that.