In 1998, lodges offering a new level of luxury began to emerge across the lush, pristine New Zealand landscape. For those planning to use these "superlodges" as bases for adventures in the great Kiwi outdoors, here's a scorecard on four of the top five. (We told you about the fifth, The Lodge at Kauri Cliffs, in November/December 2001.)
HUKA LODGE The good news: its location. Tucked away on 17 manicured acres on the banks of the Waikato River, just above Huka Falls, it is both gently scenic and a fishing nirvana: Nearby are 40 or so other rivers and Lake Taupo, teeming with brown and rainbow trout. The bad news, despite international press raves and a guest list ranging from Barbra Streisand to Queen Elizabeth II, was that standards had begun to slide at what was the first of the superlodges (it was upgraded in 1985 from a modest 1930 fishing lodge) and is still the best known. In response, Nicholas Watt, former chef de cuisine at London's Rib Room and Oyster Bar, was brought in, and a room enhancement began last June. Several of the 20 rooms have already been transformed (and soundproofed) from their previous white-wicker incarnations into sleek settings with blond-wood walls and contemporary furnishings in deep brown. Top choice is the secluded three-bedroom owner's cottage, available when he's not in residence. Rooms, $530-$880 (including breakfast, dinner, and cocktails); cottage, $1,815-$2,355. Huka Falls Rd., Taupo, North Island; 800-525-4800, 64-7-378-5791; fax 64-7-378-0427; www.hukalodge.co.nz.
BLANKET BAY If you have time for only one lodge, this is it. The setting—bordering Lake Wakatipu, with views to the rugged Southern Alps—is so spectacular that it could be the promotional poster for New Zealand. Activities in the area abound: heli-fishing for trout in isolated rivers, hiking, skiing, or riding one of the horses stabled on the 65,000-acre sheep station next door. Purists may argue that the lodge built by Tom Tusher (former CEO of Levi Strauss) and his wife, Pauline, an ode to the American West designed by Idaho architect Jim McLaughlin, is out of place. It's so beautiful, though, with its 30-foot-high Great Room, floor-to-ceiling windows that take full advantage of the views, and characterful materials like aged floorboards from wool sheds, that it's hard to agree. The best of the 13 rooms are the four chalet suites, separate from the main lodge; two can be joined with a living room to make a 1,400-square-foot suite. Rooms, $430-$1,000. Glenorchy, Otago (near Queenstown), South Island; 800-525-4800, 64-3-442-9442; fax 64-3-442-9441; www.blanketbay.com.
THE LODGE AT PARATIHO FARMS Staying at Paratiho is like being a guest in a rich rancher's home. Owners Sally and Robert Hunt, who brought their contemporary art collection, Persian carpets, and antiques along when they relocated from Sun Valley, Idaho, host nightly dinner parties; since there are just six guestrooms, everyone fits nicely around the table. The food may be the best and most ambitious of all the lodges: four-course menus with dishes like chicken-and-coconut salad with peanuts, papaya, and bean sprouts, and venison medallions with roast pumpkin and pine nuts in red-currant jus—each matched with a local wine and explained with a flourish. Other pluses: The Hunts and manager Debbie Armatage are charming hosts; the suites are spacious and decorated with a relaxed elegance (antique armoires and fourposters, sheepskin rugs); and with 2,000 acres, there is certainly space to wander (and 4,000 sheep to keep you company). However, the scenery surrounding the lodge and the attractions of the Nelson area—mainly hikers' mecca Abel Tasman National Park and a collection of artisans and wineries—pale in comparison with those of the other lodges. Rooms, $350 (including all meals and wine). At 545 Waiwhero Rd., Upper Moutere, Nelson, South Island; 800-525-4800, 64-3-528-2100; fax 64-3-528-2101; www.paratiho.co.nz.
WHAREKAUHAU Although it's just ten minutes by helicopter or an hour-and-a-half drive from Wellington, this 5,000-acre working sheep farm nestled between wind-tossed Palliser Bay and the Rimutaka Mountains feels especially rugged and remote—the most authentic country experience overall. The lodge was built in 1998 on the model of an Edwardian mansion. The decor by Virginia Fisher, New Zealand's premier haute lodge designer (she also did Huka Lodge and collaborated on Kauri Cliffs), smacks more of a gentleman farmer's estate, with Arts and Crafts furnishings and flashes of chintz. The 12 rooms in whitewashed cottages have fabric-swathed fourposters, fireplaces, cushy armchairs, a warm gold-and-beige color scheme, and deep bathtubs with views of the bay. Though some complain that there's nothing to do here, it isn't true: By day, there are rough-and-tumble four-wheel-drive tours of the farm (with perhaps a little sheepherding thrown in), gallops on the beach, and visits to a seal colony or the vineyards of the Martinborough region, about 40 minutes away. By night, general manager Bruce Garrett presides over the cocktail hour preceding exceptional four-course communal dinners that are served at long, firelit tables. All in all, quite a special place. Rooms, $600 (including breakfast and dinner). Western Lake Rd., Palliser Bay, Featherston, North Island; 800-525-4800, 64-6-307-7581; fax 64-6-307-7799; www.wharekauhau.co.nz.
Your Own Private New Zealand
Gorgeously set in a vineyard on North Island's Hawkes Bay, surrounded by almond, fig, and orange trees, Black Barn is a two-bedroom cottage built to resemble a traditional New Zealand barn. The decor is low-key designer rustic, with distressed-wood beams, deer-antler chandeliers, and tables created from an old walnut tree. The open kitchen is stocked with topnotch equipment (for ingredients, there's a farmer's market down the way on Saturday mornings), or neighbor and Italian cooking teacher Rafaella Turner can drop off a prepared meal—an impromptu request brought forth a sensational herbed pork loin; pasta with pesto, baby romaine leaves, and tomatoes; and macerated peaches from her garden. Cottage, $165. Te Mata Rd., Havelock North, North Island; 64-6-877-7985; fax 64-6-877-7816; www.lombardi.co.nz.
Quarters may be a bit roomier at the lodges, but can they offer a new view every day? Luxury Charters of New Zealand are a lovely way to appreciate the landscape and visit the islands (some with vineyards) that dot Auckland's Hauraki Gulf or the Bay of Islands, farther north. A favorite: Pacific Jemm, an 80-foot, Italian-built Falcon 80S with four staterooms and an able and entertaining crew. Seven-night cruise (for example), $18,950 for up to six people. $ Contact Liz Smith, 64-21-531-238; fax 64-9-360-8006; www.nzluxurycharters.co.nz.
Hotel prices show high-season rates from the least expensive double to the most expensive suite.
Member of Fine Hotels, Resorts & Spas.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.