Up in the Statusphere

Report by Roderick Eime || Images from Huka Lodge || Originally Published in HM Magazine

Beyond mere five-star, there exists a level of property that transcends any rating system. A rarefied stratosphere where the experience is valued and remembered long after the account is settled. Rod Eime rose briefly above his station for a glimpse of life at the very top.

When it comes to the ultra-elite, New Zealand has it over Australia hands down. Their “super lodges” attract, and retain, the favour of royalty, statesmen, magnates and the glitterati. Although Australia has properties to match, on paper at least, we can’t quite manage the star-studded guest lists and incredible tariffs. Perhaps our indelible convict upbringing will forever cap our status, or maybe it was that underarm delivery?

Amongst that bare handful of properties, one must stand out and, if only for the long list of famous guests that reads like the executive summary of Debrett's Peerage, Huka Lodge would have to be the benchmark.

HM readers will doubtlessly be aware of, if not intimate with, this property. Their repeat (and repeat) mentions and accolades in Travel + Leisure, Andrew Harper’s Hideaway Report, Condé Naste and the Robb Report serve as an almost unassailable reinforcement of their much envied cachet.

Our arrival, in a borrowed and battered Japanese runabout, was not the most elegant entrance, but Lodge Manager, Willem Pentermann discreetly looked past our humble mount and welcomed us inside to a warm fire and crisp chardonnay while our offending transport was whisked away out of sight.

Assistant manager, Nicolette, gives us a whirlwind tour of the main building. It’s much smaller than you might think; its convivial allure not expressed in grandeur or opulence, rather scrupulously chosen and arranged ornaments and artefacts that express grace and charm with understatement. Even common areas are intimate and very cosy and share an outlook to the expansive lawns, where the helicopter lands, framed by serene ponds and lively pastel gardens and still clinging to their autumn hues.

The dining room is carefully crafted highland rustic complete with tartan chairs, rugs and throw cushions, adorned simply by classic British paintings of the Gainsborough or Holman Hunt style. A spray of flowers bursts from what looks like a dairy bucket. The complete and wholly successful impression is one of a welcoming, congenial … hunting lodge!

“Your room is ready Mr Eime,” announces receptionist Nina with a delightful Bavarian lilt, and I’m presented key #1 in a millisecond ceremony that speaks volumes in its brevity. Key #1 unlocks the door on the Owner’s Cottage, the signature accommodation of Huka Lodge. To think my modest derriere is about to occupy the same mattress as … (cue “Land of Hope and Glory”) her Royalness.

Nina is almost as excited as I am as she proceeds to show me around the freestanding and secluded bungalow about 200 metres walk, but completely invisible from the main lodge. The outdoor spa tub, the self contained kitchen and study, guest rooms and view are all exclusive to the cottage. HRH could stroll around nonchalantly in her regal smalls knowing she was completely obscured from prying eyes. Nina relishes her moment; clearly guests staying at the cottage command a certain deference and respect reserved for the uppermost echelon. And I am not about to spoil her moment.

After a refreshing shower in the atrium-like bathroom complete with symmetrical, his-and-hers fittings, Willem arrives early to escort us to our evening meal, but pauses a moment to pour two goblets of chilled sauvignon blanc while Mrs News Editor completes her ablutions.

“It’s a careful mix of antiques and reproductions,“ ventures Willem, noticing my fascination with the décor of the living area which excites the space without clutter or excess. He doesn’t, however, identify which is which. But there’s no disguising the immense buffalo horn that curls toward the ceiling from a character-laden dark rough wood cabinet. A huge set of very old Chinese apothecary drawers is the centrepiece of the kitchen. Yes, the drawers are empty.

Our dinner, overseen by New Zealand “Chef of the Nation” John Allred, is served in the upstairs Trophy Room and presided over by a committee of formerly wild animals. Chaired by an immense water buffalo with an executive of two quite handsome antelopes, I inquire as to their origin.

“Ah, noo,” confesses Stewart, our authentic highland waiter, “these were all purchased from a private collection. Mr van Heeren did nee shoot them.”

The Mr van Heeran to whom Stewart refers is lodge owner, Alex van Heeren, a Dutch multi-millionaire banker, investor and diplomat who also owns the similarly world class properties Dolphin Island, Fiji, and Grande Provence Estate in South Africa. Van Heeren bought Huka in 1984 and has nurtured it ever since.

In the morning, the mist still enshrouding the Waikato, Willem and I tour the balance of the property. There are tennis and croquet courts, a BBQ, pool and outdoor spa on site and a list of indulgent off-site activities longer than your best fly pole. All within easy each there is golf, fishing, horse riding, helicopter sightseeing, kayaking, lake cruises and adrenalin sports like jet skiing, para-sailing and yachting.

But now it’s time to go and as I hurl our well-travelled luggage into the rear of the little Nissan, Rusty the lodge cat ambles past.

“Oh, how cute,” we observe, but Rusty is no fool. He inspects our tired cases and the imperfect paint-matching on the rear tailgate then meets my gaze square on. With palpable disdain and an air of complete indifference, Rusty trots purposefully back to the lodge. There’s just no fooling some.

Huka Lodge is located 12km from Taupo airport and 210kms from Auckland by road. It comprises just twenty guest suites, plus four bedroom in the Owners Cottage and is a member of SLH, Select and The Leading Small Hotels of the World.

Tariffs range from NZ$650 per person per night (low season) to NZ$9850.00 per night (for 8 guests) in the Owners Cottage (high season).

All tariffs include pre-dinner drinks, a five-course dinner, lodging, breakfast, all lodge facilities and airport transfers.

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