Stephanie Holmes enjoys a taste of the luxury life at Huka Lodge
After extensive personal research I believe the calibre of a top hotel can be measured by the amount of time it takes for a glass of champagne to be placed in your hands on arrival.
At Huka Lodge, the front door to bubbles delivery ratio is about 60 seconds — possibly the fastest I've ever experienced in New Zealand.
It's the perfect bookend to signal the end of the morning's long drive and the start of a long weekend of luxury.
General Manager Kerry Molloy has worked at Huka Lodge for eight years so he's the perfect person to give us a quick tour of the property to help us settle in. As an expat Brit, I feel instantly comforted by the main lodge interiors — tartan in rich tones of red, blue and green, Burberry check cushions, open fireplaces (albeit gas, these days), snug armchairs and artfully draped blankets. It feels cosy and exclusive, somewhere a visiting member of the Royal Family might feel at home.
And in fact, they would — Queen Elizabeth has stayed at Huka three times over the years, although on her visits she has the means to book out the entire property, not just a single suite.
Founded in 1924 as a fisherman's camp by Irishman Alan Pye, the lodge took more of a turn towards luxury in the 1980s after being purchased by Dutch entrepreneur Alex van Heeran. In February, it changed hands again, this time to Baillie Lodges - also owners of Australia's Longitude 131°, Capella Lodge, Silky Oaks Lodge and Southern Ocean Lodge - but repeat guests and purists will be comforted to know that aside from ownership, not much has changed.
The lodge's location is the real star, perched on the banks of the Waikato river, with Huka Falls, one of New Zealand's most photographed tourist attractions, just around the bend.
On the expansive, well-manicured lawn, however, guests are hidden from view of the visitors marvelling at the powerful falls just metres away. It's a private, secluded paradise — the only disturbance the regular buzz of scenic tour helicopters passing overhead.
Our Junior Suite is an absolute beauty. It's one of 20 on the property, as well as two exclusive owner's cottages, named after Pye and van Heeren. Interiors are by Virginia Fisher, who, connoisseurs will note, is also the designer behind New Zealand's other luxury properties — Kauri Cliffs, The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, and Matakauri Lodge.
The colours of our suite's decor complement the multiple shades of green outside — floor to ceiling, wall to wall windows look out beyond the deck to the grass, huge pine trees, the rushing blue/green river and across to native bush full of nīkau, punga, mānuka, and more.
"People ask if I get bored of the view after being here so long," Kerry admits. "I say no, because it's constantly changing." A riff on the old Heraclitus proverb, perhaps: "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man."
The outlook is hypnotic and there would be no shame in spending the majority of your stay in your suite, curled up inside by the fire while you watch the river flow by, contemplating how you too are changing.
But there is much more to do, if you so wish. Take a walk around the grounds and you'll find many surprising treasures. A secluded courtyard is home to an unheated lap pool and two steaming spa pools, with all the accessories you'll need (sunscreen, sunloungers, fluffy pool towels, a phone to call reception and request a cocktail delivery).
Follow a pathway off the main track and you'll arrive at a croquet lawn and tennis court surrounded by perfectly tended spruce hedges. Neither of us are tennis players, but Nathan and I can't resist a quick game although we soon agree with Kerry's comment that hedges don't make the best backdrop for amateurs — when we miss each other's shots, the balls disappear into the foliage and we have to dig deep to find them again.
It's a beautiful day and we feel like a longer walk, so one of the lodge team drops us off at nearby Spa Park and we follow the excellent walking track back, meandering alongside the river until we arrive at the falls, then looping back to the lodge.
Guests can also enjoy some of the excellent local tours and experiences on offer. We spend a day with the team from Chris Jolly Outdoors, a family-run business that has been in operation for more than 40 years.
Taupō has long been a mecca for trout fishing so it would be remiss of us not to give it a try. Our guide, Paul, drives us to Hinemaiaia River near Hatepe, kits us out with waders and boots, and helps us find the perfect spot for our first-time attempt at fly-fishing. He patiently gives us the basics then lets us try for ourselves.
The sun is beaming, and aside from a little bit of road noise, it's mostly just peace and tranquillity. Although we're not very good at the fishing I find it a wonderfully mindful way to spend a sunny morning, and start to understand its appeal.
We're joined by Simon Jolly, who took over the business in 2019 from father Chris, but despite his and Paul's best efforts to help us, the fish aren't biting and we have a boat to catch. We call it a day and Paul drops us off at Taupō's marina where we hop on board Chris Jolly Outdoors' sleek Riviera launch Levante, for a private lake cruise and an afternoon of living our fantasies of being rich and famous.
As well as cruising out to see the impressive Mine Bay Māori carvings, the main purpose of our trip is more fishing — this time lure fishing from the back of the boat. While we bob gently on the calm, flat lake under bluebird skies, we tuck into sparkling wine and a delicious home-cooked meal of Mediterranean couscous salad, rich and cheesy eggplant and tomato bake, fresh bread slathered with butter, followed by sweet cake slices and a fruit platter.
We catch a few trout and admire their beautiful silvery and bottle green skin — they would perfectly match the colour scheme back at our Huka suite. Three are too small and we have to set them free; a fourth is big enough to keep. We could take him back to the lodge for the kitchen to prepare and cook for us, but we're confident there will be enough good food waiting for us, so we decide to let him go.
Executive chef Paul Froggatt and his team do everything they can to ensure guests don't go hungry. From breakfast right through to after-dinner petit fours, so much care and attention has been paid to every dish and every single ingredient, you can't fail to be impressed.
There are 21 different places guests can take their meals in and around the main lodge, so even if it were at full guest capacity you could still find a secluded spot to yourself.
On our first night, we get the much-coveted table on the sheltered deck by a huge outdoor fireplace. There's a winter chill in the air but the dancing flames from the gas fire and the snug woollen blankets draped on the back of our chairs ensure we don't need to worry about the cold.
Night two, we sit upstairs in the Trophy Room, where there are no other guests but plenty of eyes watching us — the walls and shelves are bursting with taxidermied African animals, the piece de resistance a huge buffalo head mounted on the wall above the fireplace. Possibly not the dining room of choice for vegans.
Over the weekend my pescatarian meals variously consist of Leigh snapper, New Zealand scallops, Te Makatu oysters, Nelson crayfish, Mt Cook alpine salmon, an abundance of organic vegetables and decadent desserts, with attentive service and relaxed surroundings.
After dinner on our last night, we linger by the fire - under the watchful eyes of the buffalo - putting off the walk back to our suite as temperatures have dropped well into single digits.
When we finally peel ourselves away we realise we needn't have worried: the turndown service has included individual hot water bottles, tucked under the covers on either side of the bed. Their warmth lasts until morning.
It's these little details that exemplify the Huka Lodge experience. And they make leaving to go home even harder when check-out time rolls around far too soon.
For more information and rates for stays at Huka Lodge, see hukalodge.com
Check alert levels and Ministry of Health advice before travel. covid19.govt.nz