LAYING back in the Jacuzzi looking out over Lake Wakatipu and pondering the ancient wonder of the New Zealand alps directly in front of me, I mused over the five course degustation menu for tonight and wondered if I’d try the bluff oysters, the lobster cannelloni or, perhaps, both?
Another burning issue came to mind as I reached back to adjust the direction of the warm bubbles to a perfect spot just between my shoulders – should I do an afternoon horse ride tomorrow?
Would I be too tired from my morning helicopter tour over Milford Sound, especially given that we’d be landing on a glacier and going for a stroll on ice – amazing thing to do in the warm rays of early summer?
Yes, better to rest up in my suite, perhaps give myself a steam bath (I have a personalised steam room in my ensuite) and relax on my massive balcony, which overlooks this very scene I’m now enjoying, with a good book.
Ah, silly me! I’d forgotten all about the jet boat ride that had been organised – my foray into a bit of adrenaline seeking up the Dart River, through glacial waters and waterfalls, into a world of rich, moss covered forests, seemingly as old as the earth herself.
I can now die happy – I’ve always wanted to start a story along these lines and know it was actually the truth! Welcome to Blanket Bay, the most spectacular lodge accommodation in New Zealand and one of the best in the world.
According to this year’s prestigious US Conde Naste Traveller awards, Blanket Bay at Glenorchy (about 45 minutes’ scenic drive south of Queenstown) has been named the Number Three accommodation property in the world and the best hotel in Oceania.
Blanket Bay owners Tom and Pauline Tusher said they were overwhelmed by the announcement: “We are so small and so out of the way, and are just amazed at the regard our guests have for our property,” said Tom, an American who had the good sense to buy this little patch of paradise back in the early 70s when it was an almost inaccessible 59 acres of lakeside bliss for the keen fly fisherman, who had great ideas of plonking a fishing hut there for private escapes.
Nearly 30 years later, Tom built his hut – a massive stone and recycled wood lodge with vaulted beams, majestic fireplaces, five lakeside rooms, three huge suites with private terraces, four chalets with open stone fireplaces and lake view patios, and common areas such as a library with full size pool table, gym and spa, intimate cellar space for private dining, the wonderful, intimate dining room, a bar where guests gather for pre-prandial drinks and a huge sitting area, complete with blazing fire, perfect for an after-dinner port and coffee.
“We thought about expanding our rooms, because everyone tells us that it makes more economic sense, but we decided against it in the end,” says Pauline, who still remembers her horror when Tom came home with the ‘good news’ that he’d bought the 59 acre lot in the middle of nowhere.
“We love what we have here – we want our guests to feel they’re being welcomed into our home. I think if we got any bigger, that lovely intimacy would be lost.”
Certainly, the sense of loyalty and ownership from all of Blanket Bay’s staff, from the managers through to the service staff, is apparent from the time you arrive.
One of the gang, chef Mark Sycamore, has been at Blanket Bay for the past six years.
A highly awarded master in the culinary arts, Mark has no intention of seeking pastures further afield, a relief for anyone who has tasted his cuisine and intends coming back for more.
“I have total freedom here to work with the best produce and cook food that is simple, elegant and tailored to the needs and wants of our guests,” says Mark. “And at the same time, Tom and Pauline are very supportive about myself and the other chefs entering competitions, which is great.
Some of those ‘competitions’ include winning the NZ Gordon Ramsay scholarship, then going on to run third in the world, and being crowned Chef of the Nation in 2006.
Pulling that information out of Mark is like pulling teeth.
Mark’s food is tailored each day to reflect preferences that guests have listed, along with the best of seasonal and local produce.
“I try to get as much locally as I can, but the problem is most of the locals are too busy bungy jumping or skiing off mountains to grow stuff,” he says, only half joking.
Highlight of a trip to Blanket Bay, apart from luxuriating in the Montana-inspired, architecturally splendid lodge, has to be soaring above the alps in a chopper.
Mark Hayes, our pilot for the day from Heliworks, was born and raised in this part of the world and I swear he knows every bit of ice and snow that has ever landed on the soaring peaks of the Mount Aspiring National Park.
We ducked and weaved through valleys, skimmed along the top of glacial lakes, had thrilling ‘reveals’ one after the other, and experienced landing in the middle of the high country on a glacier.
Then it was off to the mouth of Milford Sound, where the fiordland topography afforded yet more heart-stopping moments, including the sight of mother and calf Southern right whales playing.
Another great way to see this part of the world is on a Dart River Jetboat – the heart-pumping speedboats that can skim across as little as three inches of water.
We made our way up the Dart River, stopping to admire cascading waterfalls and craggy outcrops, before getting to a short walk to take us through ancient forests (you can feel the dinosaurs here) to hidden glacial rock pools deep in the heart of Mount Aspiring national park.
Next morning, it was time for something a little less adrenaline charged, but just as perfect.
Wyuna Stables Horse Trek is situated on the Tusher’s 10,000 acre sheep and cattle property, just across the road from the Lodge. Run independently by Ruth-Ann Anderson and her husband Dave, it’s a stunning way to spend a morning.
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