Forbes Life

Sep 15, 2004

TOM W. TUSHER WAS IN NEW ZEALAND FOR LEVI STRAUSS, scouting retail space, when he stumbled on a spot ideal for hauling in 10 pound brown trout. The 55 acre South Island parcel sat on the shores of Lake Wakatipu, whose waters come from glacial-melt rivers originating in Fiordland National Park. For a fly fisherman like Tusher there could be no finer place on earth. When he and his wife Pauline bought the land, it was with their own retirement in mind. They'd erect a modest shack and use the property a month each year to fish, ride horses and read.

"But then," says Tusher, "we decided we weren't hut people." The couples vision for the place grew, and today they own a small but impeccable luxury resort, set amid scenery so captivating that director Peter Jackson shot most of his Lord of the Rings trilogy within a 20 mile radius. Named Blanket Bay (after the blankets used by sheep shearers here in the 19th century to keep wool dry), the resort is the type of luxe but rough hewn lodge one might expect to find in the Adirondacks or at Lake Tahoe. Not yet five years old it's already a favorite with such celebs as Ian McKellen. Ford, Toyota and Honda rent the lodge off-season as a perk for people who move a lot of cars.

A 35-minute drive from the bustling tour bus and backpacker hub of Queenstown, Blanket Bay is nearly the last point of habitation one passes before entering the Fiordland wilderness, known for its glacier-carved valleys and rugged sounds. The inn is set on Lake Wakatipu's northeastern shore, looking out across the water to the 6,000-foot Humboldt Mountains. That view is framed in the lodge's main lounge, which is decorated with antler chandeliers and beams salvaged from old commercial wharfs.

The same view dominates the bar, where guests congregate each evening to trade stories of the day's adventures before tucking into a six-course meal prepared by Jason Dell, onetime New Zealand Chef of the Year. Even the sauna enjoys a view of the lake and mountains, through bifold French doors.

Privacy is perfect-save for skydivers who occasionally drop in. A recent guest was so charmed by the sight of a diver alighting on the inn's front lawn that within ten minutes, with the concierge's help, he had summoned a helicopter and was off to make a dive of his own.

For less extreme entertainment, stroll down the inn's jetty and hop into a jet boat for a tour up the Dart River: The boats zip along at 55mph through water as shallow as four inches. They can turn on a wet dime. Remember how James Garner, in TV’s Rockford Files, used to spin his car 360 degrees? It's like that, only in a boat.

In 1972, when the Tushers acquired their land, none of this was planned. Trading up from the contemplated hut, they first planned to build a house. But who would care for it when they were in the U.S.? So they next thought of starting a bed-and- breakfast, to be overseen by a hired host. From there it wasn't, huge leap to building a tourist lodge.

Tusher, who retired as president of Levi Strauss in 1997, knew from demographics he’d seen while at the company that adventure travelers expect something different from exotic destinations than, say, golf. So he and Pauline created activities at Blanket Bay predicated on their own interests, which included horseback riding and fly-fishing.

It's illegal to sell trout in New Zealand. It's illegal even to use bait. That means recreational fly fishermen have the nation's lakes and rivers to themselves. For sportsmen wanting to get into the backcountry, Blanket Bay arranges hell-fishing excursions to areas inaccessible to all but the most determined hikers.

Blanket Bay ChaletTusher lucked out three ways at the outset of his project. First, he was able to buy the land for a song-just $21,000. New Zealand then was less chic, and few buyers were interested. Second, because the land was owned by the government and not by native Maori, he had fewer regulatory hurdles to clear. Maori claims have flummoxed plans of more than one developer, including Forbes 400 member Julian Robertson (see box), who had to contend with them when building his North Island luxury complexes at Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers.

Third, Tusher's bid to build a luxe lodge coincided with the blossoming of what had been, until then, an isolated, highly protectionist economy. Says Bridget Hackshaw, president of Inzone Travel in Auckland, "The recent development of lodges represents a coming of age of our tourism industry. There's been a huge growth in upper-end tourists coming to N.Z."

That same liberalization presented Tusher with a dilemma: The government's friendlier posture toward development meant that someone might someday build condos on the 65,000 acre sheep ranch surrounding his resort. So a few years ago, to protect his views, Tusher bought a perpetual lease. "About the last thing I ever thought I'd make an investment in is a sheep station," he says. Though Tusher's acreage entitled him to build a resort twice the size of Blanket Bay, he stopped at 13 rooms to keep the inn personal enough so he and Pauline (who live in an adjacent chalet) could meet all the guests at cocktails every night. Family photos dot tables throughout the common areas. Were it not for the price tag of $800 to $1,600 a night, guests might think they were visiting the home of a wealthy friend.