Otahuna Lodge is a well-hidden treasure
Even the scrunch of the freshly raked gravel beneath the tyres sounds a cut above the rest at Otahuna Lodge, near Christchurch.
The daffodils in full bloom catch the eye and lead it across to the pond, the lawn - once used for polo - and up to the dazzling white 1895 mansion, snuggled in a valley of the now-extinct Lyttelton volcano.
Owner and managing director Hall Cannon and our hostess, Donna, are waiting on the steps to welcome us and introduce us to the refurbished homestead. As you enter the former home of Sir Heaton Rhodes, the weight of history, the smell of old wood, leather, fabrics, bric-a-brac and the art on the walls don't just take your breath away, they sock you in the face.
Otahuna is a Queen Anne-style homestead with Category 1 listing and protection from the Historic Places Trust. It has been fully strengthened since the 2010, 2011 Canterbury earthquakes.
It exudes a romantic, Victorian air and sits within 14 hectares of landscaped gardens, planned originally by Kew Gardens-trained designer A E Lowe.
In spring the grounds, which are recognised as of national significance by the New Zealand Gardens Trust, feature countless swaying daffodils. The orchard has peach, pear, plum, quince and hazelnut tees, and the large potager garden provides fresh vegetables for the lodge's menu.
Warm, inviting spaces on the ground floor include the rimu-panelled lobby, the drawing room (featuring the grand piano from the ship that in 1927 carried the later King George VI and the Queen Mother around New Zealand), the cosy library and the dark-wood formal dining room with gilded wallpaper, inglenooks and shining candlesticks. A sunny kitchen looking out on to the herb garden hosts breakfasts on a table laden with blue-and-white Cornishware and vases of daffodils.
Upstairs are two master suites - the Verandah Suite and the Rhodes Suite - and five others with distinct themes, original fireplaces and stained-glass windows.
It's not often you share a room with royalty. Donna showed us to the Verandah Suite, dominated by the 14m-long verandah that runs much of the width of the front of the house. We sat there sipping Earl Grey and munching biscotti, looking across the polo lawn and the daffodils to the Southern Alps, surrounded by subtropical pot plants and drinking in the mellifluous chirps and drips of bellbirds and tui.
Inside, our suite was as comfortable as one could ever imagine, and we discovered this was where King George VI slept in 1927.
Our bathroom next door was truly breathtaking with its open fireplace. It also opened directly to the verandah - slightly alarming, until you realised no other guests would be walking along it. After dinner, Donna asked if we wanted the fire lit in the bathroom. A bath by firelight is an experience not to be missed.
"Just dial 0 if you'd like anything," Donna said. It worked a treat at Otahuna, but not, unfortunately, at home. As well as the tea on the verandah, morning and afternoon, the 5pm G&T - a pre-pre-dinner drink - arrived promptly.
For guests wishing to help themselves, a large self-service cabinet sits on the landing at the top of the curving kauri staircase, overflowing with jars of snacks - gourmet jelly beans, chocolate coffee beans, roasted cashews - tea and coffee-making gear, juices and mixers.
It took a few hours to realise there was something "missing" from our suite. Otahuna's owners want guests to have an authentic Victorian experience and a television in the room would ruin that. They are, of course, available on request. But who'd want one? Suite doors can be left unlocked, although overseas visitors tend to still lock them, out of habit, and to use safes in the rooms.
Just wow! The five-course degustation menu is designed and cooked by Otahuna's executive chef Jimmy McIntyre, accompanied by amazing New Zealand wines. First we had pre-dinner drinks, conversation and canapes in the lobby and the drawing room from 6.30pm.
As well as the dining room, Otahuna offers the chance to eat privately in the library, the turret or the sunken wine cellar. Donna had kindly steered us in the direction of the library.
As we were surrounded by hand-carved bookshelves, leather armchairs and just metres from the crackling open fire, Jimmy introduced each course and Donna explained the choice of wines. Lucie's gluten-free request was happily accommodated with slight tweakings of the menu.
The plates and glasses came and went over the next two hours. The first course's salmon ceviche was paired with a 2012 Central Otago Amisfield Dry Riesling, while a 2011 Hawke's Bay Unison Pinot Gris accompanied the Otahuna salumi with buffalo mozzarella, pear and rocket, the pear a refreshing counterpoint to the creamy cheese and salty meat.
Third course was Banks Peninsula beef fillet, cooked rare, with an oxtail-filled Yorkshire pudding, gratin potato and spring vegetables.
A 2011 Mills Reef Elspeth Syrah from Gimblett Gravels, Hawke's Bay, came with this and was heavenly, smooth and rich but not overpoweringly so. Lindis Pass brie and braised quince followed with a glass of port.
Dessert was possibly the highlight - a chocolate almond torte with a raspberry and boysenberry sorbet and a chocolate espresso cognac mousse, nicely paired with a Hawke's Bay Clearview Sea Red dessert wine.
Afterwards, while the fire was being lit in our bathroom, we disappeared into the leather chairs and stoked the library fire, while shadows danced around the walls and the books.
If dinner was a formal, serious affair, breakfast was the more frivolous cousin. The sun streamed into the kitchen, lighting up the Cornishware. Our fellow guests were from Australia, Auckland and Sumner. We enjoyed the chat and the homemade offerings - carrot, orange and ginger juice, baguettes, sourdough, banana bread and mueslis - ate bacon and eggs from the lodge's own free-range chooks, and drank coffee. It was hard to prise ourselves away.
WORTH STEPPING OUT FOR
The lodge's setting within gently contoured grounds encourages exploration. Behind the house, paths wind through semi-wild woodlands.
The windmill-shaped Dutch Garden features formal beds contained by box hedging, while the large potager garden is well worth a wander. Meals are tailored daily to include what is fresh in the garden.
Bikes are available and after breakfast we enjoyed a sunny hour cycling around the area. There are a few ups and downs on the roads but none of the ups required too much exertion.
There can be only one verdict - outstanding. For us, it was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but there are regular guests, from here and overseas, for whom the average length of stay is two nights. The luxury, comfort, atmosphere, history, hospitality, food and drink were simply superb.
There are no signs pointing to Otahuna, a deliberate ploy to retain seclusion. But most people in the Tai Tapu neighbourhood will know how to find it if you get lost. It's about 25 minutes from central Christchurch and from the airport heading south on the highway to Akaroa.
Tellingly, the Otahuna info concentrates more on how long it takes to fly to Christchurch from around the country and Australia. Oh, and there's a helipad too.
Fair to say that for many of the people who stay at Otahuna, money will be no object. Tariffs are seasonal. This month and next, the lodge is offering standard suites at $1350 per night single ($1600 per night double) and master suites at $2150 a night single ($2400 double).
That includes the five-course degustation dinner, New Zealand wines, plus breakfast daily and laundry service.
Paul Gorman and wife Lucie were guests of Otahuna owners Hall Cannon and Miles Refo.