Apr 23, 2002
When Tom Tusher, former president and COO of Levi Strauss, was just starting out with the company, he made a frontier bet. As the twentynine year old head of the Australia/New Zealand region for Levi Strauss, he was charged with introducing America's famous blue jeans to the area.
On one of his trips to Queenstown, Tusher was shown a piece of property for sale. "This is one of the most spectacular places on the planet," he recalls saying when he laid eyes on fifty-five acres at the foot of the Southern Alps and overlooking; the country's third largest freshwater lake. "It was paradise." His wife, Pauline, admitted that he had found one of the last great frontiers, but she wasn't certain that they should buy it.
"We were young, and I knew we would eventually go back to America," she recalls twenty-eight years later, sitting in a club chair in the bar of Blanket Bay Lodge, the spectacular hotel that opened on the couple's property eighteen months ago. "It took us five years to pay off the loan," she says. "And at the time, we just imagined that one day we would build a little hut, so we could come here to fly-fish"
Tom rose to become the head of Levi Strauss worldwide. The hut they dreamed of grew to a thirteen-room hotel, and the property expanded to include a 65,000 acre sheep station on crown (government-protected) land. The dirt road from Queenstown that once took more than three hours to cover has been paved over, shortening the journey to forty-five minutes.
The 6,500 sheep that dot the hillsides - just as they did years ago, when the area was given its name, Blanket Bay, for the blanketed sheds under which sheep were shorn -graze in view of guests like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, who honeymooned at this hideaway last year. But the frontier feeling; that Tom experienced when he first set foot here remains. As he said. it's paradise; only now there are amenities like a spa and a wine cellar.
"When we started thinking about building a house," explains Pauline, "we felt that the place was too special not to share." First, they considered a small fishing lodge, but the area offers so many great opportunities for kayaking;, hiking, riding; and heli-skiing that they didn't want to limit guests- or themselves. In fact, an entire map room is devoted to planning outdoor activities. "We had stayed in great hotels all over the world," says Tom, "so we knew what we wanted: something; that felt as if it had been here for a hundred years, but with modern facilities."
They envisioned a cross between a family-run Alpine lodge in Switzerland and their friends' lodgepole-pine houses in Wyoming
The great room, where mammoth picture windows frame views of tile Humboldt Mountains, has a fireplace made of local schist, an enormous antler chandelier and deep leather couches. The wide-plank floors were salvaged from a century-old wool-storage shed, and many of the exposed ceiling beams are 120 year old timbers from brides and railroads.
Antique maps, tables and armoires mix with oversize upholstered furniture - one fabric is printed with fly?fishing ties, another with duck decoys. The guest rooms are beautiful, with stone fireplaces, wide wooden balconies, linens as fine as the views and enormous bathrooms with such charming touches as soap dishes with frog gondoliers. The result: exceedingly comfortable interiors that pay homage to the spectacular scenery, with a nod to history and a bit of wit.
"We figured if it doesn't work, we've got a big house," says Pauline. But it did work.
Blanket Bay has already hit the lists of best new hotels in many international magazines, and it's been anointed one of the resorts of the year by Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report. So, like the Robertsons, the Tushers had to build another house on the property, where they stay four months of the year and where their children make occasional visits. Pauline rides horses almost daily. Tom grabs his reel and heads out on foot or by helicopter to fly-fish. "Today I caught nothing," lie says, as the sun casts a glow on the mountains above us. "But I still love being out there." And from the grins of the guests heading into the bar, he's not alone in loving his frontier.