A few minutes from Wanaka township heading towards the Mt Aspiring National Park, on the southwest side of the lake, before Glendhu Bay and built on former farmland on the edge of Lake Wanaka. The owners and their architect aimed for a sensation of a building which appears, from certain angles at least, to float above the lake edge; adding to the spectacle, the place is built for maximum views of Wanaka's No 1 asset, the surrounding mountains. The Minaret Range makes for a more-than-adequate backdrop to, or distraction from, whatever of the lodge's activities you might care to puddle about with, even if the early-winter snow cover is a bit desultory.
Surprisingly, at least for we luxury-lodge neophytes, the lodge isn't exactly ostentatious. Excellent, yes; tastefully-appointed, definitely, but it's mostly what the brochure writers like to call "understated". The owners, members of Melbourne's retail royalty the Myer family (who originally built the place as their bach) apparently don't get off on ultra-luxe showing off. It's warm and casual, and the creature comforts are plentiful without being ladled on. The main space - the living room, perhaps - heavily references alpine lodges of the mountain hut variety, which happens to echo one of the owners' passions: fleeing to the hills and finding sanctuary in a spectacular place. The furnishings are simple in the Scandinavian manner, the bookshelves and walls lined with nods to the mountain life, the light fittings mimic mountain-hut lanterns, the central fireplace and hearth beckon as a place to gather around to swap tall stories. Best of all, the bar and numerous couches and chairs promise far softer experiences for those of us who prefer to admire mighty peaks from afar. There's also a games room, massage room, spa and various other amusements, if you insist on doing something other than lying around marvelling at your luck in being here.
Well up to scratch, even for the hefty tariff. As a business hotel regular, I now fully respect the $500-$1000 per night difference in tariff between there and here. Subtlety continues to be the theme. It should be said that the bedrooms, elegant and comfy as they are (and equipped with huge wardrobe, Nespresso machine, phone and television) couldn't pretend to deliver a knockout dose of wow factor. The en suite could have done with a bit more space. But then, who hangs out in the bathroom or bedroom at home when they're not abluting or doing bedroom things? Whare Kea is about getting out and about, at least into the main lodge with its bar, sofas, fireplace, views, dining table . . .
As above - excellent, frequently better than excellent. The beds deliver previously unknown depths of softness and warmth; the lodge is scattered with numerous comfy chairs and sofas, strategically located for both socialising and/or cocooning. Remember, too, that alpine theme - the constant sense is of a place which is rewarding you after a hard day's mountaineering or similar such foolishness, even if you're faking it.
Really, this is Whare Kea's point of difference, maybe even its reason for demanding your attention to start with - executive chef James Stapley's exquisite, superlative-draining cooking. Stapley, an Englishman, once cooked at Canterbury's Pegasus Bay Winery, helping cement its rights to acclaim; at Whare Kea, his presence alone could be worth the price of admission. And sadly, for the more straitened foodie, that's what it will take to sample his five-course degustation dinners: they're included in the tariff, but staying here is the only way to sample them. Stapley takes all those droning old cliches about "seasonal" and "local" ingredients, adds disciplined style, vision and palette, and delivers sensational meals. Each course is a revelation - highlights include 40° Salmon with miso caramel, 72 hour Beef Shortrib, and Manuka and Tea Smoked Duck with persimmon, feta and pomegranate molasses. The wine matches, meanwhile, become events in themselves. In between, Stapley's whipping up clever canapes or planning hearty alpine breakfasts, and hosting guests to cooking classes, where he reveals a few of the tricks of his perfected trade. An honourable mention is required for the bar, where a member of staff is on hand to whip up best-ever cocktails.
WORTH STEPPING OUT FOR
Mountains, if you're one of those distressingly highly evolved Mountain Men or Women. A chilly glacial lake, if you're into sailing boats or tormenting fish, or visiting small islands. Whare Kea's own alpine chalet, hidden high in the surrounding ranges and accessible only by helicopter, if you're after the ultimate wilderness retreat. Francesca's restaurant in town, if you're hankering for a bit more of a fix of James Stapley's food but can't wait till dinner - he's a co-owner of the Italian restaurant and while he doesn't cook here, he helped design the menu and his Mensa-level smarts clearly inform the place. Book first though - everybody in Wanaka apparently loves the place, especially for dinner, and days-long waiting lists are said to be common.
On the whole, impeccable. Oh, and "understated". But in a good way.
Drive to Wanaka - an hour from Queenstown, further from everywhere else, but it's always a spectacular arrival. Seek out the Mt Aspring Rd. Drive for 3-4 minutes, taking care not to be terminally distracted by the view. Watch out for the Whare Kea sign on the lake-side of the road. Drive up the long, tree-lined access road, stopping for private aircraft if they happen to be landing on the airstrip. Park up, kick back, count your blessings.
Tariffs match the market segment, from $500 per person per night for the cottage, $791.50 for a deluxe room or $935 for the master suite (based on double occupancy). There's a nice caravan park back up the road if that doesn't suit.
The writer was a guest of Whare Kea Lodge; wharekealodge.com.
- Sunday Star Times