When Denise Ryan Costello first stood on the patch of Central Otago land that would one day become her home, she says it "just felt right".
Her husband, Paul Costello – founding chief executive of the NZ Super Fund – grew up on a farm north of Christchurch with a mountain view, and Denise says when he saw the outlook from this paddock of a former sheep station, he instantly fell in love.
The couple had been living in Melbourne, but the plan was to downsize and spend more time in New Zealand "in a place where extended family and friends could stay," Denise says. Together with Australian-based architect James Stockwell and local builder Nick Mizzi of Spearhead Developments, plans came together for their dream house and in 2017, the build got under way.
"I had met James through my work as a journalist and I knew he would create something unique with an environmental ethos," Denise says. "But we never imagined he would come up with something quite so dramatic..."
After navigating the relentless switchbacks of the Crown Range, with the obligatory photo stop at the Cardrona Hotel, we arrive in Wānaka early afternoon. The lake is gleaming brilliantly in the afternoon sun, the wind whipping its surface into frothy peaks. We stock up on supplies at the supermarket then continue another 20 minutes out of town, past Puzzling World and the Warbirds museum, through Luggate past its historic hotel, then up another winding road to the parched Queensberry hills.
Pulling into the driveway, it's instantly clear why Denise and Paul fell in love with the site. The view is astonishing – a 360-degree panorama of Central Otago at its very best. In the foothills of Mt Pisa, the house faces the Grandview and St Bathans ranges, still topped with snow for our spring visit. Down below, the Clutha River is a curving slash of turquoise through the valley. All around, straw-coloured tussock grass sweeps this way and that against the spring winds.
From the road, there's only the slightest glimpse of the Hawk House, its clever design nestling it into the land it's built on. All you can really see is the dark steel roof, shaped like a piece of origami. Stockwell was inspired by a technique called the Miura fold, created by Japanese astrophysicist Koryo Miura.
Also known as Rangi Kahu (te reo Māori for sky of hawks), the roof design mimics the wings of the impressive harrier hawks that swoop and soar on the thermal winds, as well as the peaks of the nearby mountains.
"James, as an environmental architect, knew immediately that the house had to hunker down into the foothill of the Pisa Range," Denise says. "It was a difficult build but Nick did an amazing job interpreting tricky drawings into curved ceilings and roofs. The rock walls and tussocks, which bury the house at the rear, are a nod to Lord of the Rings.
"Raised in Wellington, I had never lived in the country but the sight of hawks riding the thermal waves in front of the house was magical."
It's a modest home in terms of space (176sqm) and affordability – sleeping six to eight people, the Hawk House can be hired on Airbnb for around $800 a night. Get a group of friends together and it's a cheaper proposition than many motels in the area. Three double bedrooms in the main house, with two ensuites and one shared bathroom, are accompanied by a studio outside that can be rented as an extra bedroom.
The fully equipped high spec kitchen gives you the option to cook your own meals – and you really should spend at least one night here, pretending this is your home and this is your view.
We do just this on our first evening, cooking up a hearty roast dinner with plentiful wine. Nathan takes great pride in lighting a fire in the German-designed fireplace, although we don't really need it; the house is so cleverly designed it generates its own heat thanks to triple glazed windows and its positioning to make the most of all-day sun.
While he potters in the kitchen and "supervises" the fire, I sit at the dining table with a glass of pinot gris from Wānaka's Maude Wines, and watch the hawks dancing on the wind.
I'd hoped for a sky full of stars for our first night, but the full moon is so bright most are obscured by its light. Instead, as we go to sleep in the master bedroom, we can still see the Clutha River lit up like a brilliant white ribbon in the valley below.
It's tempting to spend the entire weekend curled up in front of that view, basking in the house's sun-warmed interior, but instead we opt for a day of active adventures.
We drive for about 40 minutes – through Wānaka township and out the other side along the Wānaka-Mount Aspiring Rd, past Glendhu Bay with its scenic lakeside campsite, and the Roy's Peak carpark. To our right, the deep blue of the lake; to our left rolling pastures with spring lambs mindfully munching on the vivid green grass, shadowed by the mountains rising steeply up above.
We pull into the Diamond Lake Conservation Area for a relatively taxing hour's hike, one of a series of walks at the lake.
The landscape here was carved by Ice Age glaciers, with native forest nestling into the bluff systems left behind. From the lookout point we can see the misshapen circumference of Diamond Lake, the mountains opposite giving even more drama and majesty to the view.
We walk on a little further to look back to Lake Wānaka, and rue the fact we don't have longer. Now our legs are warmed up we'd love to continue further up to Rocky Mountain summit. Another good reason to return – not that we need many more, we've already fallen in love with this epic landscape and spend much of our weekend discussing how we can move down here for good.
That desire is further cemented as we whizz around the newly launched Bike and Taste Wānaka Trail, a 26km loop that takes you from the centre of town, round the lake, along the Clutha River, and through to some of the best food and drink spots around.
It's a decent distance, and takes in some reasonably rugged terrain, but the e-bikes we hire from the I-Site are more than capable of the job. Plus, the battery-powered acceleration means even the steepest of hills are a doddle.
The route is usually self-guided, but we're pedalling with Lizzie Hills, the I-Site manager and self-styled ambassador for the Wānaka region. She's endlessly enthusiastic about the area and the ride. "Isn't this beautiful!" she calls regularly over her shoulder as she leads us around the lake and along the curves of the Clutha. We have no hesitation in agreeing.
"The thing I love most about living in Wānaka," says Lizzie, who moved here from Auckland with her husband a few years back, "is that your quality of life is measured not on your work, but how much time you have outside of work to enjoy the great outdoors." I can't guarantee she didn't plant them there, but we pass many smiling locals on the track - all glowing skin and relaxed vibes - who seem to prove her point.
Our first stop is at Pembroke Patisserie in Albert Town, an outpost of Wānaka, but we could easily be convinced we were in France thanks to the quality of the almond croissants. It's a busy little spot, with families and cyclists and locals all queuing up for pies and pastries and strong, hot coffees. We take a break from our saddles and scoff our buttery croissants before making our way to Hook, a "lake to plate salmon fishing and restaurant attraction". Set in a tranquil spot with beautifully tended lawns surrounding a man-made lake, families are enjoying the spring sunshine, lazing around on bean bags and picnic tables with wines, beers and seafood platters.
Hook was the brainchild of Wānaka locals Graham and Hayley Lee, who bought the land in 2004 with the vision of transforming it into a unique family-friendly space. It's taken more than a decade to achieve, but now it is fast becoming a favourite spot in the local community. As well as great Central Otago wines and hearty food, you can hire a fishing rod and try your luck at catching a Chinook Salmon from the lake. Whatever you catch, you pay for by weight and give to the Hook team who will prepare it for you. Take it home, or enjoy then and there while you bask in the glory of your fishing prowess.
This is just the start of the Lees' big dreams – eventually they'll have an architecturally-designed restaurant, children's adventure areas, and walking tracks joining up to local trails. For now, it's a delightful spot to while away an afternoon.
Our ride takes us back towards town, where we call in at Maude Wines for a tasting. It's a smaller, more rustic operation than Rippon Wines, just up the road but personally, I prefer it. Rippon's views can't be beaten – and, as number 13 on the prestigious World's Best Vineyards top 50 list, it is a must visit. But there's a lot of heart and soul at Maude, and as we taste our selection of chardonnay and pinot noirs, winemaker Sarah-Kate Dineen darts between tables with a vibrance and energy that's instantly endearing. We love it here so much, we pop back the next day to buy two bottles to take home. That's the only problem with the e-bikes – no baskets or saddle bags to collect any purchases along the way. My top tip? Bring a backpack.
Our afternoon continues in delicious fashion – we visit craft brewery Rhyme and Reason, which feels like it's ramping up for a busy Saturday night, with DJs on the decks and tables of punters settling in with tasting paddles and frosty pints. Then after dropping off the bikes back in town, we drive along the Cardrona Valley Rd for a decadent meaty dinner at Lipsky and Sons.
It's been a big day, and we're delighted to get back to the Hawk House for a rest, where the only thing puncturing the peace is the moon, shining as bright as a lighthouse beacon.
Back in early 2017, as the Hawk House build continued, Paul and Denise received some devastating news. Paul was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and would undergo aggressive treatments over the following two years. Despite this, the couple never once considered abandoning their plans.
"We never thought of giving up," Denise says. "Paul was on many drug trials, which did work for a while, so he was determined to see the project finished."
Those involved in the build, as well as many in the local community, worked tirelessly to get the house completed and Paul was able to join the builders and tradespeople for drinks to celebrate the project's end.
"It was very moving," Denise says. "The builder, tiler and many locals had become close friends during the build. There were tears - some of joy - when we toasted the project."
The Hawk House went on to be named the 2019 Master Builders Supreme House of the Year, as well as winning seven other awards in the competition. Tragically, Paul wasn't there to see it – he passed away in late 2018.
Denise later told NZ House and Garden magazine that her worst day in Rangi Kahu was "when I stood in the empty, just-completed house after my beloved husband had passed away, wondering what to do." But her love for the land remained strong, and she says spending time there "revives the spirit."
Deciding to keep the house so she could enjoy it with friends and family, Denise made the decision to list it as a holiday home on Airbnb. Now she can use it when she likes, and the rest of the time it is there to be hired by visitors to the area.
"Paul was such a generous man," she says. "He would be so proud to see how much others are enjoying it."
Book ebikes and receive discounts for local businesses on the Bike and Taste Wānaka Trail at the iSite, 99 Ardmore St, or phone 03 443 1233 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
The Hawk House is in Queensberry, half-way between Wānaka and Cromwell. For more information, go to hawkhouse.co.nz, and book at airbnb.co.nz.
Where to eat and drink in Wānaka
Lipsky and Sons
A raw bar and grill from Botswana born chef/owner Leungo Lippe, who has lived in Wānaka for 12 years. Leungo was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America and worked under Marco Pierre White in London. He began his NZ career at Queenstown's Botswana Butchery, before moving to Wānaka to start take out restaurant Boaboa. The menu here is great for those with a big appetite – choose from New York-style steaks ranging from 250g to 650g, as well as pork ribs, jerk chicken, chateaubriand or lamb shoulder. lipskyandsons.co.nz
At the other end of the scale, Big Fig is a great option for vegans and vegetarians with its focus on slow food, served fast. Pick the size of your plate and then load up from a range of hot meals, salads and sides, including tagines, gratins, pilafs, stuffed veggies, stews, and braises. Meat options are available, but why bother when the vege offering is this good? Cabinet food is also available, and the drinks list includes a range of locally brewed kombuchas. bigfig.co.nz
If you're flying in or out of Queenstown, make sure you drive over the Crown Range on your way to Wānaka and stop in at the Cardrona Distillery for a tour and a taste. The business is the realisation of a long-held dream for Kiwi Desiree Whitaker, a former farmer who dreamed of making a New Zealand malt whisky that would be as good as those made internationally. After spending years travelling to Scotland and the US, Whitaker's first cask was laid in November 2015 and the distillery opened to the public shortly after. Tours will take you around the inner workings of the site, which is set among the stunning scenery of the Cardrona Valley, where you'll hear all about Whitaker's passion, vision, and craft. Then enjoy tastings of the Cardrona range – whiskies, gins, and vodkas. Just make sure someone else is driving you home. cardronadistillery.com
This story was first published in the New Zealand Herald Travel on 20 October, 2020