Artful Lodgers

Jun 21, 2004

New Zealand's luxury lodges have an enviable reputation, made more so by their inclusion in high-end travel bible Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report. Ginny Anderson meets the elusive Mr Harper-and visits renowned Blanket Bay to see what all the fuss is about.

"They really couldn't have thought of anything else" bellows my photographer excitedly from the other end of the swimming pool. He's right. The background music is loud enough to appreciate, but not so loud that it interferes with relaxation. The water is cool enough to be refreshing, yet warm enough to dip into on a late November evening. I look through the glass wall at the end of the pool out onto views of Lake Wakatipu and the dusky mountains beyond.

After a while, we slip into our robes and amble back to the main lodge at Blanket Bay, Glenorchy. We find the spa pool next. It also looks out over the lake to the sheer mountains, which jut up majestically. We sip at our wines and laugh at our luck. An hour later we make our way to a dining table set with white linen tablecloths on the outdoor terrace. The five-course meal is exquisite, but made even more divine because we are in one of the most beautiful settings in the county.

My two days at Blanket Bay gave me a fairly good idea as to why our luxury lodges are finding international favour with well-heeled visitors. Location, location, location. That was my first thought upon arrival at this 13-suite getaway set on the lakefront at Glenorchy. You know everything else will be spot on, but when you find yourself in nature like this, it's humbling. This place begs you to explore beyond the lodge door, and that according to the guests I spoke to, is what makes this destination so outstanding.

New York couple Hugh W Levy and Claire Gruppo, out here for the week, spent a couple of days fishing at Poronui Ranch, just out of Taupo, before flying to Queenstown. I catch up with them at pre-dinner cocktails. They say they've been to many luxury lodges in America, but what makes Blanket Bay unique is the setting.
"The landscape changes every 45 minutes" declares Levy.

The number of activities on offer is another reason to fall in love with the place. They've just returned from a day
trip walking the Routeburn Track. Yesterday, they flew over to the Milford Sound by helicopter to see a baby seal colony. Tomorrow they will kayak down the Dart River. We were also lucky enough to take an exhilarating chopper flight, landing on a glacier for a glass of champagne; earlier in the day we jet-boated up the Dart River.

But this type of luxury doesn't come cheap. The suites at Blanket Bay are $1800 a night and the most expensive
option, a chalet with living room will set you back $2300. Of course, all room rates include a five-course meal,
breakfast and cocktails. Is it really worth it? Andrew Harper thinks so. Harper and his colleagues, Richard Harper and Iain Harper, travel the world reviewing luxury hotels incognito. Rather than hiring correspondents, they do all the legwork themselves and pay like normal guests, which accounts for their 25 years of consistent ratings and critiques. Harper is a pseudonym, thus allowing them to travel under their real names without hotels being any the wiser.

Harper says New Zealand has always possessed a certain mystique with travellers (especially Americans) and is
now very much the hot spot for well-heeled outdoor lovers, particularly due to private, unspoiled, scenic settings.

"In our latest reader survey, four small New Zealand properties placed in the top 20 list of favourite international resorts, specifically, Blanket Bay, The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, Huka Lodge and Wharekauhau, he tells me. "That is an extraordinary achievement, when you consider that Italy is the only other country in the world that has placed four resort hotels in the top 20 in our 22 years of polling, and none of those hotels had less than 50 rooms!"

Philip Jenkins, Blanket Bay's on-site manager, previously ran Rotorua's Solitaire Lodge for 17 years and maintains that Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report is the most credible in the world, especially with American
customers. "Appearing in the top 20 in this guide can make your reputation, but if you fall out of favour, it can really affect your business," he says.

New Zealand is relatively new to the lodge business. It all started during the 1980s, when Rotorua's Solitaire Lodge pioneered the concept of upscale getaways. According to Harper, they had no competition for 10 years until Huka Lodge opened and established even higher standards. In the past five years, a number of other lodges have opened. "Grasmere Lodge, Solitaire Lodge and The Lodge at Paratiho Farms are also popular with our sophisticated readers, as well as the recently opened Treetops near Rotorua. The dramatic settings and remarkable geographic spread of these eight lodges [from the Bay of Islands to Queenstown] makes for a natural and fascinating north to south tour of the country."

Sam Porter of Seasonz Travel has been in the luxury travel business for 10 years and frequently sends customers to these upper-end getaways. His client list includes Tom Cruise and Penelope Cruz, and the English banking family the Rothschilds. According to him, our incredible-looking properties and stunning settings are what sets New Zealand apart, more so than our standard of service.

"New Zealand is safe, clean and private,” he says. “The public don't pester high-profile guests so much here. New Zealand is also really hot right now. You can't deny the power of The Lord of the Rings as a marketing tool. I think another thing is that our transfer times, once you're in the country, are so small. And New Zealand is such an uncrowded Destination.”

These factors supersede other hurdles that travellers face, such as the long-haul flight to get here and the increased value of the New Zealand dollar. (Levy informs me that staying in a luxury lodge in New Zealand used to be about half the price of staying at one in America, but nowadays it's really only 20 per cent less.) For
Porter, this means the country must be marketed as an entire destination, "including the luxury lodge trail which runs from Northland to Glenorchy".

Harper agrees. "Each lodge offers a different experience, from Kauri Cliffs for heavenly golf, to Treetops and Solitaire for memorable fishing, Wharekauhau for those seeking to capture the pastoral essence, and Blanket Bay and Grasmere for the ultimate alpine adventure. And yes, all are supremely comfortable and outfitted with every conceivable amenity."

Lodges are not the only option for celebrity guests. There's now a huge market for private homes. Porter took band Duran Duran out to Great Mercury Island while they were in New Zealand recently and "they loved it". The property, and the island, is owned by Sir Michael Pay and is one of many exclusive homes for rent on Porter's books. “This type of customer is after complete privacy, so this is often the best option for them”. Porter has other private properties on his books but is reluctant to divulge locations on the mainland for privacy reasons. "In many cases, families especially want a mixture of lodges and private homes where children usually feel more comfortable.”

Does Harper think New Zealand will be able to stay top of the pops? "Based on consistently favourable feedback from Hideaway Report readers, these lodges are obviously staying on top of their game” he confirms. "Their picturesque settings will never change, but it is important they maintain high service levels. The weakened US dollar makes these hideaways very pricey and so they must be near perfect from the standpoint of guest expectations and satisfaction”

At the beginning of a lodge's business life, says Porter, it's not a viable concern. It takes some time, considering the initial outlay, for lodges to turn a profit. “The people who own these lodges are generally smart businessmen with a lot of capital, so the intention is that they will eventually make money. Huka Lodge probably has the highest occupancy rate compared to the others because it's been in the business for so long at a top level.
"You know that when you can still find a room in a top New Zealand lodge one month away from Christmas that we're still not operating at high occupancy. On the other hand, this is one of the things that make our destinations so appealing" he says.

BLANKET BAY: A must do list

Take a helicopter flight with 'Choppy', aka Louisa Patterson. Not only will you learn loads about the history of the region, you just can't beat the exhilaration of skimming over mountain peaks. Take a jet-boat safari up the Dart with Geoff Baker and Wilderness Jet Boat
Safaris. You'll get a running commentary of the area along with jaw-dropping
surroundings. The 360-degree turns aren't bad, either. Have an in-house massage. They are the best we've had anywhere and will get
you in a relaxed frame of mind for the rest of your break.