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December 2, 2011 10:07 pm
Some top-end hotels take you to your lodgings in limousines. Others use customised golf carts, lead you through candlelit walkways, or whisk you upstairs in elevators lined with marble and gold. But Minaret Station trumps all the above: you check in via helicopter.
This isn’t pure ostentation; rather it’s the only practical way of getting here. Tucked up in the high country of New Zealand’s South Island, Mount Aspiring teetering to the rear, Lake Wanaka far down below, Minaret is not so much the middle of nowhere as the furthermost edge of it – 3,000 ft up, miles from any road, impossible to reach even on intrepid foot.
By rights it should be a godforsaken place of cold wind, brutal privation and lost hope. Like many things in the southern hemisphere, it’s the other way round. Understated opulence is the order of the day, the elements kept at bay or harnessed to cosset and comfort, the welcome warm and the views almost laughably epic.
If there’s a poetic charm about the name – Mount Awful and Mount Horrible both lurk nearby, but the shape of the peaks directly above reminded early settlers of a minaret’s domed roof – the setting completes the seduction. The camp, which opened earlier this year, consists of four tented suites and one central stone lodge, carefully positioned in an immense hanging valley with sheer cliff faces on either side and a greeny-blue glacial river slaloming through the open plain in between.
Waterfalls dive through the beech trees. Snow sparkles on the tops and ridges. The silence is absolute. If it feels as if you’re in your own private kingdom, in some ways you are. “No one else can get here,” points out owner Matt Wallis. “Who are you going to bump into?”
There is a strong temptation to just sit on your terrace and stare. Some guests do, day after day. Matt, the third of four brothers brought up locally by a father so adventurous he used to get his teenage sons to grab his helicopter’s controls while he enjoyed a mid-flight snooze, would much rather take you out into the thick of it.
There is a New Zealand archetype known as Southern Man, the sort of rugged, uncomplaining outdoorsman who can carry two sheep under each arm, fell trees with his bare hands and fashion them into furniture while simultaneously fathering a family of eight and sinking hundreds of pints with no obvious ill effect. In that he is almost completely different to a British southern man (such as myself), the sort of pale indoorsman whose last encounter with a lamb involved a bhuna and the local curry house. At Minaret, Matt and his staff offer the opportunity to bridge that gaping divide.
Lodgings that combine luxury with extreme isolation
We kick off with some hiking, or tramping as it’s known here. Our guide is Jerry, retired sheep farmer and cheery embodiment of high country manhood. Jerry looks a bit like David Gower would if he played cricket on top of mountains, using a bat the size of a railway sleeper: curly blond hair turned grey, weather-scoured cheeks, forearms like normal men’s thighs.
Jerry doesn’t just carry women across rivers. He carries men across rivers, or at least he would if pride didn’t make me turn down his kind offer and instead stride solo into the torrent with a breezy wave of an uncalloused urban palm.
To complain of wet feet in these parts would be to bring eternal shame on the family name. The wiser man ignores his squelching socks and concentrates on the paradise ducks flapping by in neat formation, the wild chamois clattering over rockfalls across Estuary Burn and the views unfurling back down the curved valley.
So dry is the air, and so distant from pollution, that your eyesight appears to have been improved by several notches. Everything seems clearer, closer and crisper round the edges, even after your second glass of local Pinot Gris with the sun still to sink behind the ridges up above.
This is tramping with the tramp taken out of it. On our return, canapés are served on the lodge’s wooden veranda, Jerry ensuring the bottle is kept tipping, a fire inside burning under a vast mantelpiece designed for leaning casually on with one elbow while exchanging tales of outdoor derring-do.
Built from trees and stone harvested from the property’s 65,000 acres, warmed and lit by hydro-electric power drawn from a waterfall out back, the lodge maintains the feel of a Southern Man’s homestead while also ramping up the shepherd chic. The floors are polished hardwood, the rugs thick sheepskin from Minaret’s own flocks. The complimentary bar is encyclopaedic in its range. A large hatch behind the long dining table offers a close-up view of live-in chef Leungo creating dinner from the venison, blue cod and abalone that guests have captured during the day.
Matt and Jerry spin yarns of backwoods legend over the communal dinner. Seeking to match a tale about 14 maverick sheep who escaped captivity to become herbivorous feral outlaws, I offer a rather racy personal favourite involving a drunken wedding guest in Dubai doing something unspeakable to a three-tiered cake. It is hardly the quintessential suppertime story for such luxurious surroundings, but the atmosphere here is earthy rather than prim, convivial rather than sycophantic.
There is not much rush to do anything. Jerry fires up the hot tub on your private veranda (almost certainly without matches or electrical assistance) and leaves you to the moonlit views and star-strewn skies. While you sleep under canvas, there is nothing remotely Boy Scouts about the tents, unless Baden-Powell’s heirs have made king-size beds, underfloor heating and shower-rooms the size of swimming pools a standard feature.
Awaiting outside in the morning is your helicopter, an airborne escape primed to take you wherever whim directs. Within a 20-minute radius lie wholly contrasting landscapes – the rainforests of Fjordland, the Mackenzie Basin’s high-altitude desert, mighty glaciers and the Southern Lakes.
In the average stay of three nights you could see the lot, or simply let Matt and Jerry direct you to some of their personal favourites, hidden spots known only to the family and accessible only in that chopper. These might include tiny islands off the west coast where you can dive for crayfish and scallops, or glacial cirques where you can land for lunch and bake those shellfish while your Sauvignon cools in the snow. For those used to city life, it’s a giddy choice.
With eldest brother Toby on the controls, we head back up over Rough Burn and into Mount Aspiring’s backyard. The sights and sensation are a joy – zipping right up to the dripping nose of glaciers, banking and dipping over meltwater lakes of turquoise water and huge ice boulders, clattering high over the Matakituki River’s grassy floodplain and wide gravel washes.
There is a strong temptation to whoop and shout random call-signs – “TANGO! FOXTROT!” A true Southern Man, of course, would show no such dizzy emotion.
Tom Fordyce was a guest of Tourism New Zealand (www.newzealand.com) and Minaret Station (www.minaretstation.com). A tent for two costs from NZ$3,500 (£1,675) per night, fullboard and including helicopter transfer from Wanaka. Scott Dunn (www.scottdunn.com) can arrange packages
Accessible only by air
Ultima Thule Lodge, US This is the very definition of remote: the lodge is 100 miles from the nearest road, surrounded by 13m acres of Alaska’s Wrangell-St Elias national park. Built from scratch by John Claus in the 1960s, the lodge is now home to three generations of his family and accommodates up to eight guests in comfortable cabins. Visitors fly in on one of the family’s four planes, which have large “bush wheels” or skis for wilderness landings. Days are spent on flying safaris in the park, hiking, skiing or kayaking. Five nights from $8,000 per person. www.ultimathulelodge.com
Serra Cafema Lodge, Namibia Guests must take a three-hour light-aircraft flight from Windhoek to reach Serra Cafema, by the banks of the Kunene River in northwest Namibia. The river nourishes dense vegetation along its banks but just beyond the greenery gives way to the dunes and dry mountains of the Namib desert. Guests can spend days exploring the desert by quad bike or 4x4, then return to camp to relax by the waterside. There are eight canvas and thatch villas. From R6,270 (£483) per person per night. www.wilderness-safaris.com
Faraway Bay, Australia The eight cabins of the Faraway Bay are scattered among the bush on a rocky hilltop in northwest Australia, overlooking the Timor Sea. Guests fly in from Kununurra, 175 miles away, and spend their time on boat trips, fishing, swimming or walking to see ancient rock art. Three nights from A$3,460 (£2,219) per person. www.farawaybay.com.au
King Pacific Lodge, Canada This grand floating hotel, accessible only by seaplane, is anchored during the summer months beside the temperate rainforest of Princess Royal Island, about 380 miles north of Vancouver. Built of pine, fir, cedar and stone, the hotel has 17 bedrooms, a large deck, a spa, Jacuzzi and plunge pool. Activities include whale and bear watching, hiking, kayaking and fishing. Three nights from C$4,900 (£3,058) per person. www.kingpacificlodge.com
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