Christchurch: A little paradise in big country

By Diana Plater

Get your eyeballs around this," says Heather Harrington, from Grasmere Lodge, as she looks up at the towering peaks of Arthur's Pass. It's big country around here.

To prove the point she indicates down to the fence of their neighbour's property, saying there's 26km of dirt road from the gate to the house. He's away on a 10-day cattle muster, that's how long it takes to round them up.

Nearby Cass, the midway point between the east and west coasts of the South Island and station for the Tranz Alpine train, once boasted a population of 150.

Now it's down to one who, perhaps to get over his loneliness, organises a party for all the locals each November.

But not everything is closing down. Since 1858, Grasmere, 120 winding kilometres west of Christchurch, has been a working sheep station complete with red corrugated-iron shearing sheds and its paddocks are still producing extra-fine Merino wool.

Much of the lodge's land is now part of Arthur's Pass National Park but it still retains 607ha, with five lakes and three rivers.

That afternoon Harrington takes us for a horse ride across the paddocks to Lake Pearson. She practises natural horsemanship, not using bridles or bits, and the horses are beautiful to handle, which makes it easier to gape at the scenery.

At the end of the ride owner Tom Butler comes to pick us up as Harrington is taking the horses to another farm. He tells me he started working at Grasmere in 1994 when he was fresh out of school and on his way to a European backpacking holiday.

It was obviously a good experience because, a few years and a degree in hotel management later, he returned to become co-owner with Auckland businessman Jamie Peters.

Since then, he says, they've invested money into keeping the property at a five-star level.

The property has been dependent heavily on the United States market but that is gradually changing, with more Australian and English bookings and a growing number of Kiwis.

The lodge is an all-round destination, with five ski fields close by and horse riding on offer, but fishing and hiking are the most popular activities. It can also be used as a base to explore the West Coast, around two hours' drive away depending on the weather.

Butler says foreigners particularly appreciate the experience of staying on a farm while still enjoying luxury service.

"Most people only have one trip to New Zealand in their life, especially if they are from the Northern Hemisphere. But people are tending to come back."

We meet for a pre-dinner drink in front of the fire in the lounge of the original homestead built in 1872. Extended over the years, it still retains the original walls of local limestone. We retire to the dining room with two other couples for a sumptuous five-course dinner using fresh local produce, aided by local wine from the large cellar.

Our River View Cottage is a bit of a misnomer. It's bigger than the average suburban house. The floor-to-ceiling windows take advantage of the view straight down to the Cass River and into Arthur's Pass National Park. As well as a large lounge and kitchen and two bedrooms, there's a cosy den with a double-sided fireplace.

There are 12 guestrooms: six Lake View deluxe rooms in a separate lodge, four Mountain View junior suites and the Grasmere and Cottage suites. The facilities include a swimming pool, billiard table and broadband internet access, while Joanna Scowen provides beauty treatments and wonderfully relaxing massages at her Mountain Spa.

Grasmere Lodge is a member of the Australian-run Select Hotels and Resorts International, as is Huntley House in Christchurch, which is a great starting point for a visit to the South Island.

At Huntley House, I was regaled at dinner with stories by English manager Alan Hibbert and his New Zealand wife, Robyn, who were previously based in Cyprus.

Accommodation and catering services for remote sites took him to parts of Kazakhstan, Russia and Kuwait, when it was the holding ground for US military entering and exiting Iraq. Unsurprisingly, he says he's happy to return to hotels and resorts and true hospitality.

The dining room overlooks a pretty garden full of old trees and contains a carved-oak high-backed dining suite made for the visit of the future King George V and Queen Mary in 1901.

The house was believed to have been built in 1876 as a family home by wholesale ironmonger and saddler John H Twentyman, one of Christchurch's early settlers. Many years later, the present owners, the Reid family, turned their home into a boutique hotel.

A collection of classic cars, including a Rolls Royce once owned by Lord Mountbatten, are available for rental.

Breakfast was equally traditional - delicious porridge with brown sugar and fresh cream in the library, surrounded by books on New Zealand, with a view of the heated swimming pool.

A family reunion group gathered in the neighbouring room and the children played chess in another room.

The house also has a cosy but functional conference room, and is close to the airport and the centre of Christchurch.

GRASMERE LODGE, ARTHUR'S PASS: Call 0800 7755 3311, email resselecthotels.com or visit www.selecthotels.com/grasmere.

HUNTLEY HOUSE, CHRISTCHURCH: Call 0800 7755 3311, email grasmeresselecthotels.com or visit www.selecthotels.com/huntley.

Diana Plater was a guest of Select Hotels and Resorts International and Escape Travel, flying Qantas to Christchurch.

- AAP

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 29 Nov 2014 02:58:02 Processing Time: 1338ms