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Inside New Zealand’s Most Exclusive Retreat; Huka Lodge

By Alanna Lawson

Little is known of the secluded baronial estate hidden beneath the trees, just up river of New Zealand’s most powerful waterfall, Huka Falls. Despite its 80-year history and star-studded guest list, Huka Lodge remains somewhat of a mystery.

The estate started as little more than a rustic getaway built to accommodate Irishman Alan Pye’s passion for fly-fishing on the banks of the Waikato River. Only a stone’s throw away from the water, the lodge’s appeal was – and remains – its stunning location and indubitable privacy.

Despite its then rudimentary state – the lodge initially comprised just a few rooms and heavy canvas tents for guests – its reputation spread like wildfire throughout the fly-fishing world, and began to attract some of the most eminent figures of the time, including film stars and royalty.

When Dutch entrepreneur Alex van Heeren took over the property in the 80’s and cleverly developed it into a luxury estate, its eminence grew, as did its mystique.

Growing up in New Zealand the lodge was somewhat of an enigma. It was rarely mentioned in the media and while the name was familiar to most, it was not known what attracted the likes of Bill Gates, Rod Stewart, Michael Douglas, and Her Royal Highness; the Queen herself, to a riverside lodge on the other side of the world?

I found out this year after a rare invitation to the property.

‘As good as Goldie – The first impression’

Hidden to the outside world, the lodge is surrounded by 17 acres of native New Zealand bush and situated on pristine green lawns in a clearing by the river.

Arriving at the door of the main house we were greeted by Kerry Molloy; the General Manager at Huka Lodge. There was no hotel ‘check-in’ or reception desk, it felt like we were arriving home to a family estate or the house of an old friend (albeit a very grand one).

Invited into the main lodge room we were offered champagne and a place by the fire. We introduced ourselves to Rusty, an affectionate and rather nonchalant ginger cat, who proceeded to snuggle up to me.

With 180 degree views of the river below and a grand fireplace at its center, the room still had the bucolic spirit of a fishing lodge, with a touch of Imperial English sophistication. But the interiors were distinctively Kiwi too.

A smiling Maori gentleman wearing a bowler hat and a moko on his chin studied us from the wall. It was only after closer inspection that I realized it was an original portrait by the renowned New Zealand artist C. F. Goldie.

‘La Tour Royale’   

Later Molloy gave us the grand tour of the estate pointing out the tennis courts, the heated swimming pool and the lawn that serves as a helipad. ‘Left the chopper at home,’ we informed him.

But you don’t need a helicopter to appreciate the way the main lodge and 18 junior lodge suites have been built along the curve of the riverbank, through the native bush.

Legend has it that American author James A. Mitchener penned part of his epic novel Return to Paradise in the grounds of Huka Lodge, and it isn’t hard to see where he found his inspiration.

‘Room with a (river) view’

To access our suite – one of just 25 rooms on the property – we followed a narrow path framed by thick trees leading off to our front door. After dark the path is subtly lit to reveal silver ferns and other indigenous flora.

During our stay we rarely saw another guest, adding to the feeling of luxurious seclusion.

Further down the track another lodge suite and the two exclusive Huka Cottages are nestled among the trees. The larger Owner’s Cottage and the Alan Pye Cottage are both lavishly appointed with dining room and kitchen, as well as the option of a personal chef.

Our elegant Junior Lodge Suite featured a romantic fireplace, armchairs strewn with cashmere throws and a sumptuously large bed, complete with a decorative mosquito net. The spacious walk-in closet led to an atrium-like bathroom from which I could hear the birds singing in the morning.

A front window that spanned the length of the suite revealed our very own view of the Waikato River – its gentle murmur being the perfect soundtrack to ultimate relaxation. In essence it felt as though we had discovered a luxury hideaway, part cabin part manor, with every detail meticulously appointed.

‘Our own private dining experience’

At dusk we returned to the main lodge and our own private dining room. We’d selected the South African-themed trophy room for its interesting tribal artifacts, but there were over 20 spots available, including a candle-lit wine cellar, the gazebo by the river (complete with Burberry blankets) and the Queen’s favorite; the library room.

Third wheel to our intimate dinner was the head of a giant buffalo that loomed above the fireplace. He had long since tasted his last supper but I could have sworn I saw him twitch.

Our inventive 5-course meal created by British chef Paul Froggatt included a mouth-watering seared tuna and black radish dish, chocolate pasta and a hot chocolate inspired dessert. We were incredibly well looked after with at least three wait staff catering to our every whim.

Later we were invited for drinks and petite-fours in the room where we’d met Rusty the cat. It was an eyebrow-raising spread, with handmade macaroons, luxury cakes and decadent cheese platters. We were almost too full to head to the outdoor spa afterwards, almost.

The next morning we bid farewell to the friendly staff at Huka Lodge after a coffee and full cooked breakfast. Leaving the grounds was like coming back down to reality, a harsh reality without Egyptian sheets, regal interiors and 5-course meals. But despite this I had the distinct feeling that one-day we would return.

‘The secret’

What sets Huka Lodge apart is the manner in which everything is designed around the guest. If you want to try fly-fishing, the team will arrange a personal guide and Froggatt will serve your ‘catch’ for dinner. If you want to explore a volcano nearby, the staff will prepare a delicious hamper for your journey. You are left alone at the right moments but served like royalty when you have a need.

Now I understand why Huka Lodge attracts the rich and famous, or those just needing a break. It embodies the perfect union of privacy, luxury and world-class service, in an inimitable setting. And quite frankly, that’s a secret worth being in on.

Huka Lodge Fast Facts:

  • Location: Huka Lodge is located a ten-minute drive from the township of Taupo, on the banks of the Waikato River. Its position on the central plateau of the North Island makes it easily accessible by Auckland or Wellington.
  • Get there: From Auckland, Huka Lodge is a 3.5-hour drive or a scenic 45-minute flight direct to Taupo Airport. From Wellington, the Lodge is a 4.5-hour drive or a 1-hour flight.
  • Tariffs 2015/2016: A Junior Lodge Suite (double/twin) is:

$795 pp, per night in Autumn/Winter season (01 May ‒ 30 September 2015)

$990 pp, per night in Spring season (01 October ‒ 14 December 2015)

$1435 pp, per night in High Summer season (15 December 2015 – 31 March 2016).

  • Tariff includes: Pre-dinner drinks and canapés, a five-course dinner, accommodation and full country breakfast

Three Highly Recommended Activities:

1. Fly-fishing: Enjoy a private session with one of the country’s fly-fishing experts. Your catch will be prepared for you the same day in a delicious meal at Huka Lodge. Enquire with Huka Lodge.

2. The Squeeze: Get up close and personal with New Zealand’s remarkable landscape with a scenic jet boat ride through Tutukau Gorge, then maneuver through narrow crevasses and jump over boulders, before relaxing in a natural hot spring. Enquire with Huka Lodge or Riverjet. (www.riverjet.co.nz/jet-boating/the-squeeze).

3. A heli-tour of Taupo and surrounding volcanoes: Experience Mount Ruapehu and Mount Tongariro with a helicopter ride that takes you close to the smoking craters of these natural wonders. The ride includes a landing atop a snowy plateau for a once in a lifetime photo opportunity. Enquire with Huka Lodge or Heli Adventure Flights. (www.helicoptertours.co.nz).

  • Huka Retreats: Huka Lodge is a sister property to Dolphin Island, Fiji and Grande Provence Estate, South Africa. All three properties comprise The Huka Retreats.