A generosity of spirit and an abundance of luxury are ingredients that make for perfect getaway
I don't think there's anywhere I'd rather be in the middle of winter than holed up in a luxury retreat surrounded by native bush while the rain pelts down. Aotearoa in the wet and cold and pressing damp is the most beautiful Aotearoa I know; the green foliage becomes luminous, the grey skies feel close and moody. Perched on a private peninsula above Lake Tarawera, Solitaire Lodge is a welcome escape from the grind of the bleak mid-winter. Nestled among dense native bush, the tūī dripping from the branches alongside the rain, the lodge — built in 1980 and one of the country's first luxury stays — oozes an old-world kind of charm, and an old-fashioned sensibility that brings comfort and a sense of wellbeing.
The owner and operator, Wayne Tomlinson, comes out to greet us when we arrive, and introduces us to our surroundings, taking our bags and helping us settle in with a generous warmth that typifies the service at Solitaire Lodge. Usually the playground of international guests keen on trout fishing and luxury escapes, the lodge, like much of the tourism industry, has been hit hard by Covid-19's closed borders. Tomlinson says it's heartening to see more Kiwis coming to stay and making the most of our special locations. Although not the most modern of establishments — the decor at times feels like it hasn't been touched since the 80s — Solitaire Lodge makes up for it in comfort, and the best personal service I have ever experienced in this country. The small staff address us by name with a friendliness and lack of pretension that is welcome — they're helpful and caring without being overbearing, and nothing is too much trouble. The gentleness of approach is calming, and the lodge instantly feels like a luxury wing of your own home.
We stay in one of the signature Executive suites, which looks across a canopy of trees shimmering in the pouring rain, to the deep lake beyond. It rains for the entire time we stay at the lodge, but rather than feel oppressive, it gives us a chance to truly unwind, to curl up in our generous room with books and movies, and watch the weather move. Tucked into an alcove on our balcony, a deep bath awaits, with candles, bath products and huge soft towels ready. For this heavily-expectant mother-to-be, soaking weightless in a deep tub while spying on the karearea and tūī that brave the weather is a kind of heaven you can only dream of. The room is stocked with a complimentary mini-bar with local wine, and an assortment of tea, coffee, biscuits and snacks, all refreshed daily. There are plush robes and an even plusher bed; in short, everything you need to spend a weekend in supreme comfort.
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Solitaire Lodge's tariff comes inclusive of meals, and we spend much of the weekend in a well-fed stupor. At seven in the evening we are invited to the lounge in the main lodge for pre-dinner drinks and canapes, the former washing down the latter, which come in tiny bites of deep-fried goats cheese with honey, or baked olives, or tiny spoonfuls of artichoke soup. The lounge is warmed by a glorious fire, tucked in beside the bar, and there are deep couches to curl up on, as well as tables and soft chairs, and a library corner with books, chess, and backgammon to hand. In daylight, the lounge boasts wraparound views of the lake and the mountains. In fact, there are stunning views from every single room in the lodge.
In the dining room, the five-course dinner begins as every good dinner should, with baskets of warm bread, and local olive oil and dukkah and butter. The bespoke menu changes daily, each guest's name printed at the top, and includes the most outrageously fresh and remarkable beetroot soup I've ever laid eyes on, grilled winter salads with truffled cheese, delicately treated vegetables with light butter sauces, and zingy sorbets to cleanse the palate. The menu lends towards traditional French fare, and like the decor, feels like a nod to another era. Each course is small but perfectly formed, and by the end of the evening we are full and nurtured and ready to collapse into bed.
In good weather, there are many outdoor opportunities to engage in, from private excursions in the lodge's boat to visit the Tarawera thermal springs on the lake, to being dropped with a picnic lunch to a spot for a nature hike, where you can take in the Tarawera Falls and native birdlife, to the trout fishing the lodge is famous for. If you're lucky enough to come home with a catch, the kitchen will cook it for you that very evening. The lodge staff can even rustle up a helicopter trip for you with a private guide, delivering you to the summit of Mount Tarawera, and taking in the crater lakes and geothermal areas as you fly. There are dinghies and kayaks to take out on the lake, too, something we wished the rain would ease for, but if you're stuck indoors you can also indulge in spa treatments provided by an experienced spa therapist. Solitaire Lodge is close to the Buried Village of Te Wairoa if you want to engage with the fascinating history of the region, and a stone's throw to Rotorua for more sightseeing if you fancy it.
But if you chance upon a rainy weekend, as we did, I'd really encourage you to take the opportunity to unwind in style, and let the weather set the agenda for you. Falling asleep to the rain pattering on heavy foliage is nothing short of a dream, and when you wake to a deluge, there is a fortifying breakfast waiting for you in a dining room that is still warm from last night's fire. I've never eaten so much warm bread and butter in my life, and I was happier for it. The fresh pastries and delicate omelettes made to order rounded out a tremendous morning, the coffee hot and strong, the newspapers crisply folded, and, as we came to recognise, all provided with the lodge's signature warmth and generosity.
We had considered trying our luck in the Cook Islands for a "babymoon" ahead of the new addition to our family, but didn't want to find ourselves stuck in MIQ unexpectedly, should the dynamics of Covid-19 change. My husband and I wanted to mark one of the last weekends we would ever share as a two in a meaningful way, and I'm very glad we chose to spend our time in a beautiful little corner of Aotearoa, feeling pampered and truly cared for. Rather than being the most flash and modern of accommodation, Solitaire Lodge has something truly unique to offer its guests: an elegant, thoughtfully-curated stay where gentle, old-fashioned sensibilities combine with an unhurried decadence, allowing you to feel both deeply comfortable, and deeply pampered. If you're not on the slopes this winter, or stuck in travel limbo, take the time to explore the bespoke experiences of our luxury lodges. Solitaire Lodge, with its sincere offer of true peace and quiet, should be top of your list.
Rates from $1600 per night, including complimentary mini-bar, all meals and use of Lodge dinghies and kayaks. solitairelodge.co.nz