Queenstown on a clear day is a world washed clean. The sun glittering across the lake; the air still summer-warm but now smelling of autumn. Our flight in is smooth and, as we walk across one of the world's most scenic tarmacs, two days in a luxury retreat stretch ahead of us. It is a perfect start to a weekend.
"Right," I say to my husband. "No lazing around. I'm working. We need a car."
This is news to him. He has been promised two days of R&R at Matakauri Lodge, rated by Tatler as one of the top 101 hotels in the world and sister to the award-winning Kauri Cliffs and Cape Kidnappers.
But he's no slacker. So while he heaves our luggage, I go in search of a rental, only to collide with a man with a sign. "Tracey Strange and Stu Watts," it says. Five minutes down and I've forgotten our ride.
"Welcome to Queenstown," says the man sent by the lodge, looking a bit dejected when I explain our plans. "Oh? So I'm surplus to requirements?" Lodges like Matakauri tend to treat you like family. We haven't even got "home" yet and already I feel like I've forgotten my manners and offended someone.
"Don't be silly," Stu says reasonably, when he catches up with the luggage. "What are you talking about? No-one will mind. Did you find a rental?"
The answer to that question is no - every company is currently out of rentals, and it takes about an hour (and some pleading) to sort something out. When we finally drive across a pebbled driveway and into the carpark at Matakauri, I'm wired.
"Wow," says Stu. "That driveway makes some noise. I wonder if the stones are there so they know you've arrived?"
As if on cue, Shaun Cawood, the maitre du maison, steps out to greet us. "Your room is all ready," he says. "But come and have a look around first. Perhaps you'd like a drink? Something from the bar?"
Down the steps, across a paved walkway, we're shepherded into a reception room. It's lovely, decorated by interior designer Virginia Fisher, whose stylish signature can be found all over the country's best lodges - Huka, Millbrook, Wharekauhau and Kauri Cliffs among them.
But nothing could compete with the view. Ranging out across Lake Wakatipu, stretching up towards Cecil and Walter peaks and over to the Remarkables, it is mesmerising.
With a haste that could once again be considered borderline impolite, we've ditched the tour and headed outside. Sitting on the deck, staring at the mountains, watching the Earnslaw puff past, we are - to quote Wordsworth - as "still and calmed as lakes that sleep". It's a view that clears the mind.
Through lunch and into the early afternoon we sit and chat and gaze into the distance. "We should go for a walk," I say, and Shaun points us towards a small jetty at the base of the lodge where we could fish for trout. Jonathon Rogers, Matakauri's head chef, would happily cook it for our dinner, he offers.
We stay put. "We could go bungy jumping," I say idly. Stu's response is mild (he knows it would never happen). "Why don't we just go for a drive?" he says. "We have a rental."
So into the car and out towards Paradise we go. It's mid-afternoon, and the sun is painting everything golden. We drive north, along one of New Zealand's most beautiful roads, straddling the lake towards Glenorchy (and the super-scenic Paradise Valley beyond), each curve unwinding into a better view. After about 30-odd minutes we get to Glenorchy, a pretty place currently full of lean-looking backpackers, and stop at the general store.
"This is about as exciting as it gets," says the guy behind the counter as he hands over bottles of water. We don't believe him, but it's nearly wine time, and that deck with a view is waiting. After a quick look around, we return "home".
Back at the lodge, I'm able to soak everything in from a bath that also looks out over the mountains. Our split-level deluxe suite is glamorous but oddly comforting, with curtained alcoves and little recesses and lots of texture, a place in which you can hunker down. It's as if Fisher somehow figured guests might need a little "protection" from all that visual stimulation going on beyond the room's floor-to- ceiling windows.
By now it's after 7pm, and we head up the hill for dinner, passing a pristine lawn and the tidiest vege garden you've ever seen. We aim straight for the deck. Dinner, breakfast and most beverages are included in Matakauri's room rate and, while we watch the sun go down out, in the hands of the lodge's young staff come drinks and a plate of canapes, which are delicious.
Time goes by. We watch the sun sink and the shadows on the mountain go from acute to soft and seemingly tactile, suede-like even. "If I were a giant with giant hands I would reach over and stroke Cecil Peak," I say. Stu grins.
"Those clouds haven't moved for ages," he says. And then: "I feel like we're in a painting."
When the air chills and the staff bring us blankets, we figure it's time to eat. Matakauri has two main headlining acts; the first is the environment, the second is the food. Each night, there's a choice of three different entrees, mains and desserts. I can't tell you exactly what we ate, only that it was incredible. But it wouldn't matter. If you were lucky enough to stay there for two, three, even four weeks, you wouldn't see the same dish repeated.
By the time we're finished, it's late and the dining room has emptied. But someone has lit the outdoor fire for us and so, again, we sit on the deck in front of the fireplace and talk. In our room, we fall asleep as soon as our heads hit the pillows, and wake up to another delphinium-blue-sky day.
"How was your meal last night?" asks Shaun at breakfast. "Would you like to meet the chef?" And so we are introduced to Jonathon. As unpretentious as his food, he talks about where he gets his produce (locally, mainly), the lodge's fine-dining philosophy, and whether he's ever had to invent nine different dishes every night for a bunch of vegans (yes, for a week).
"Does anyone ever ask you to cook them comfort food - like baked beans?" I ask. He smiles. No, but if you're well-heeled and well-travelled, you might ask for a pizza or burger in the middle of the night. (Bear in mind though that if you do, it's Jonathan who's likely getting up to grind the beef or make the dough.)
"What are you going to do today?" he asks amiably. Perhaps he's thinking we might drive out to Arrowtown, or visit a vineyard, go jet-boating even? But no. "We'd like to visit Kingston," I say. Jonathon looks a bit worried. "Kingston," he says, with a little question mark. But Stu and I have our hearts set; Kingston feels like an adventure. "There is a nice old hotel out that way," Jonathan says helpfully. And we set out to discover it.
The road from Queenstown to Kingston is every bit as scenic as the one to Glenorchy. I feel like I've held my breath the whole 30-odd minutes it takes to get there. Kingston itself, nestled at the southern top of Lake Wakatipu, is sweet and sleepy and almost deserted. But Kingston Flyer aside, it isn't big on adventure. So we head down the road to the Garston pub. "No eftpos," says the sign outside. No cash, we remember. So we drive back to the Kingston cafe for an icecream and, as we unwrap our Magnums, there's a bit of argy-bargy between two groups of bikies out front.
I think of the lodge, of the lovely staff with their French accents, of the bath with the view, and the sink-into-me pillows. And I am spoiled. "Do you think we could go back?" I ask Stu.
After a lazy lunch and a quick walk around Queenstown, we spend the rest of the day back at the lodge reading and talking and snoozing, completely ignoring the compact gym, the infinity pool and the small spa. Very soon it's time to eat again.
From our room, we walk slowly back up to the main lodge. It's only a short trip but it's uphill and by now I'm so relaxed winding up enough to climb the small slope takes effort. I wonder how Virginia Fisher might tastefully conceal a hillside travelator.
The food is every bit as good as last night; the service as charming; the environment no less magical. We eat in a small, private, book-lined room just above the main dining room, play favourites with each course ("Mine is the venison. No, mine is the chocolate") and wonder how the polite, well-dressed couple currently bedding down in the new $12,000-night owners' cottage made their money. Despite having done bugger-all all day, we're asleep again as soon as our heads touch down.
Maybe if we did spend our time travelling from luxury lodge to luxury lodge, if we had enough money to fork out thousands a night on accommodation, if we constantly ate at the world's best restaurants, we might feel that Matakauri wasn't so special. But I doubt it. The lodge's biggest appeal is in the beauty of its location, the quality of its food and the warmth of its staff.
We started out searching for adventures outside its walls and were totally seduced into staying put.
Tracey Strange was hosted in Queenstown by Matakauri Lodge.
Address: 569 Glenorchy-Queenstown Rd, Queenstown 9371; Phone 03 441 1008; matakaurilodge.com. Jetstar and Air New Zealand fly into Queenstown regularly. For flights see jetstar.com and airnewzealand.co.nz.
- Sunday Star Times