Luxury at Large

Dec 18, 2000

IT'S 8AM IN QUEENSTOWN, the popular ski centre on New Zealand's South Island, and the mist is lifting to reveal a glorious new day. Perfect conditions for our drive up the northern side of Lake Wakatipu to the elegant lodge at Blanket Bay, an alpine and fishing retreat just outside the sleepy village of Glenorchy.

There are glimpses of what is to come all along the 40-minute drive, but nothing prepares you for the full impact of this unspoiled and untamed place. The scenery is breathtaking -- a glassy-smooth lake surrounded on all sides by ranges of snow-capped mountains. Blanket Bay takes its name from the local mid 19th century practice of shearing sheep under the flimsy protection of shelters made from blankets. As we wander down to the lodge past flocks of contented sheep, it appears little has changed since pastoralists loaded their fleeces onto whaleboats bound for Queenstown.

Situated on a low rise just above the shoreline, the lodge takes full advantage of the scenery. Completed just over a year ago by the owners, ex-Levi's president Torn Tusher and his wife Pauline, the facade and interior are a mixture of stately Oregon mountain lodge and French country house. While equipped with every modern convenience, the great gabled structure is built from aged timber beams and layered schist (the local granite) and so blends gently into the environment. T

he resort is centred around the Great Room, whose oversized couches and clusters of armchairs invite you to curl up by the huge fireplace. Filled with French provincial armoires, rustic American antiques and occasional tables with piles of fishing magazines and 138 books about the region, the softly lit room is a grand yet warm and comforting environment in which to relax and unwind. The 12 vast rooms (including three suites in the main building and four chalet suites) are similarly equipped with large reading chairs and other soft furnishings in subtle tones of taupe, butter and stone, along with well-designed marble bathrooms and private terraces.

Views from each are expansive. After packing some cold drinks from the open bar, we set out to walk off a hearty three-course breakfast on the famous Routeturn track, which begins just outside Glenorchy and culminates at spectacular falls high up in the Mount Aspiring National Park. Backpacks are available from the lodge, as are picnic lunches. In the warmer months (Nov-Apr), the days can be spent cycling, lounging by the pool or enjoying any number of water sports on the lake including canoeing, windsurfing and fishing in fully equipped boats. Horse-riding on the Tusher's neighbouring property, Wyuna, is a great way to explore the landscape.

In winter (Jul-Oct), heli-skiing is popular on the glaciers of the nearby Humboldt Mountains. But if direct participation in the sport is not your speed, simply sit out on the terrace by the outdoor fireplace and watch the adrenaline junkies at a distance. Milford Sound is only minutes away by helicopter, or you can visit the aptly named Paradise Valley, ancient home of the Paradise duck whose motif has been adopted by Blanket Bay in its decor. Whatever your daytime activities, dinner back at the lodge in front of the main dining room's crackling fire offers warm, relaxed hospitality with a stylish and contemporary edge.

Local ingredients are the dominant theme throughout the small and ever-changing menu of chef Stuart Penn. Working Asian influences into his European-based repertoire, English-born Penn is creating a food style that bears the hallmarks of his classical training but which is also characteristic of the region. Rich, earthy and wine-friendly, the food is neither over-worked nor over-garnished. A perfect example of this is his cumin-crusted tuna fillet, served rare over wilted greens with a sweet but tangy saffron and lemon jus. Classically prepared, it has a fresh and fragrant edge. Local venison is popular with the international clientele, as are the myriad seafood dishes such as an entree of New Zealand crayfish on potato gnocchi, garnished with caramelised onions, which was a deliciously diverse combination of flavours and textures. Vegetarian options are included on the eveniing a la carte menu and special requests arc happily accommodated.The wine list is, of course, locally biased.

All important New Zealand regions are represented, as are many Australian wines and a smattering, from California and Oregon. Across from the ground floor the wine cellar is an atmospheric little dining room that seats up to six guests. Dinner for two at the waxed oak table, conveyed by Blanket Bay's sommelier, Eric Contrucci, via a discreetly placed lift, is about as private and romantic as you can get. We take the last of our wine upstairs to the Great Room, and install ourselves by the fire in the large armchairs which, after just a few days stay, have begun to feel like our own.